Distinctive Culture

Ancient Irish Civilization

Glories of the Past

It was not only by the British armed occupation that Ireland was subdued. It was by means of the destruction, after great effort, of our Gaelic civilization. This destruction brought upon us the loss almost of nationality itself.

For the last 100 years or more Ireland has been a nation in little more than in name. Britain wanted us for her own economic ends, as well as to satisfy her love of conquest. It was found, however, that Ireland was not an easy country to conquer, nor to use for the purposes for which conquests are made.

We had a native culture. We had a social system of our own. We had an economic organisation. We had a code of laws which fitted us. These were such in their beauty, their honesty, their recognition of right and justice, and in their strength, that foreigners coming to our island brought with them nothing of like attractiveness to replace them. These foreigners accepted Irish civilization, forgot their own, and eagerly became absorbed into the Irish race.

Ireland, unlike Britain, had never become a part of the Roman Empire. Even if the Romans had invaded Ireland, and had been able to get a foothold, it is not probable that they would have succeeded in imposing their form of government. At that time our native civilization had become well advanced.

It had advanced far past the primitive social state of the Britons and of other of the North European peoples. And it had, through its democratic basis, which would have been strengthened and adapted as time went on, a health and permanence which would have enabled it to withstand the rivalry of the autocratic government of Rome, which always had in it the seeds of decay.

The Romans invaded Britain and imposed their government till it was destroyed by fresh invaders. And the history of England, unlike the history of Ireland, was one in which each new invasion altered the social polity of the people.

Foreigners were not absorbed as in Ireland. England was affected by every fresh incursion, and English civilization to-day is the reflection of such changes. The Roman armies did not come to Ireland. But Ireland was known to the merchants of the Empire, who brought with them not only commerce but art and culture.

Ireland took from them what was of advantage, and our civilization went on growing in strength and harmony. It grew more and more to fit the Irish people, and became the expression of them. It could never have been destroyed except by deliberate uprooting aided by military violence.

The Irish social and economic system was democratic. It was simple and harmonious. The people had security in their rights, and just law. And, suited to them, their economic life progressed smoothly. Our people had leisure for the things in which they took delight. They had leisure for the cultivation of the mind, by the study of art, literature, and the traditions. They developed character and bodily strength by acquiring skill in military exercise and in the national games.

The pertinacity of Irish civilization was due to the democratic basis of its economic system, and the aristocracy of its culture. It was the reverse of Roman civilization in which the State was held together by a central authority, controlling and defending it, the people being left to themselves in all social and intellectual matters.

Highly organised, Roman civilization was powerful, especially for subduing and dominating other races, for a time. But not being rooted in the interests and respect of the people themselves, it could not survive. Gaelic civilization was quite different. The people of the whole nation were united, not by material forces, but by spiritual ones.

Their unity was not of any military solidarity. It came from sharing the same traditions. It came from honouring the same heroes, from inheriting the same literature, from willing obedience to the same law, the law which was their own law and reverenced by them.

They never exalted a central authority. Economically they were divided up into a number of larger and smaller units. Spiritually and socially they were one people. Each community was independent and complete within its own boundaries.

The land belonged to the people. It was held for the people by the Chief of the Clan. He was their trustee. He secured his position by the will of the people only. His successor was elected by the people. The privileges and duties of the chiefs, doctors, lawyers, bards, were the same throughout the country. The schools were linked together in a national system. The bards and historians travelled from one community to another. The schools for the study of law, medicine, history, military skill, belonged to the whole nation, and were frequented by those who were chosen by each community to be their scholars.

The love of learning and of military skill was the tradition of the whole people. They honoured not kings nor chiefs as kings and chiefs, but their heroes and their great men. Their men of high learning ranked with the kings and sat beside them in equality at the high table. It was customary for all the people to assemble together on fixed occasions to hear the law expounded and the old heroic tales recited.

The people themselves contributed. They competed with each other in the games. These assemblies were the expression of our Irish civilization and one of the means by which it was preserved. Thus Ireland was a country made up of a large number of economically independent units.

But in the things of the mind and spirit the nation was one. This democratic social polity, with the exaltation of the things of the mind and character, are the essence of ancient Irish civilization, and must provide the keynote for the new. It suited our character and genius. While we were able to preserve it no outside enemy had any power against us. While it survived our subjection was impossible. But our invaders learned its strength and set out to destroy it.

English civilization, while it may suit the English people, could only be alien to us. It is English civilization, fashioned out of their history. For us it is a misfit. It is a garment, not something within us. We are mean, clumsy, and ungraceful, wearing it. It exposes all our defects while giving us no scope to display our good qualities.

Our external and internal life has become the expression of its unfitness. The Gaelic soul of the Irish people still lives. In itself it is indestructible. But its qualities are hidden, besmirched, by that which has been imposed upon us, just as the fine, splendid surface of Ireland is besmirched by our towns and villages—hideous medleys of contemptible dwellings and mean shops and squalid public-houses, not as they should be in material fitness, the beautiful human expressions of what our God-given country is.

It is only in the remote corners of Ireland in the South and West and North-West that any trace of the old Irish civilization is met with now. To those places the social side of anglicisation was never able very easily to penetrate. To-day it is only in those places that any native beauty and grace in Irish life survive. And these are the poorest parts of our country! In the island of Achill, impoverished as the people are, hard as their lives are, difficult as the struggle for existence is, the outward aspect is a pageant.

One may see processions of young women riding down on the island ponies to collect sand from the seashore, or gathering in the turf, dressed in their shawls and in their brilliantly-coloured skirts made of material spun, woven, and dyed, by themselves, as it has been spun, woven, and dyed, for over a thousand years. Their cottages also are little changed.

They remain simple and picturesque. It is only in such places that one gets a glimpse of what Ireland may become again, when the beauty may be something more than a pageant, will be the outward sign of a prosperous and happy Gaelic life. Our internal life too has become the expression of the misfit of English civilization.

With all their natural intelligence, the horizon of many of our people has become bounded by the daily newspaper, the public-house, and the racecourse. English civilization made us into the stage Irishman, hardly a caricature. They destroyed our language, all but destroyed it, and in giving us their own they cursed us so that we have become its slaves. Its words seem with us almost an end in themselves, and not as they should be, the medium for expressing our thoughts. We have now won the first victory.

We have secured the departure of the enemy who imposed upon us that by which we were debased, and by means of which he kept us in subjection. We only succeeded after we had begun to get back our Irish ways, after we had made a serious effort to speak our own language, after we had striven again to govern ourselves. We can only keep out the enemy, and all other enemies, by completing that task.

We are now free in name. The extent to which we become free in fact and secure our freedom will be the extent to which we become Gaels again. It is a hard task. The machine of the British armed force, which tried to crush us, we could see with our physical eyes.

We could touch it. We could put our physical strength against it. We could see their agents in uniform and under arms. We could see their tanks and armoured cars. But the spiritual machine which has been mutilating us, destroying our customs, and our independent life, is not so easy to discern. We have to seek it out with the eyes of our mind. We have to put against it the whole weight of our united spiritual strength. And it has become so familiar, how are we to recognise it? We cannot, perhaps. But we can do something else. We can replace it.

We can fill our minds with Gaelic ideas, and our lives with Gaelic customs, until there is no room for any other. It is not any international association of our nation with the British nations which is going to hinder us in that task. It lies in our own hands. Upon us will rest the praise or blame of the real freedom we make for ourselves or the absence of it.

The survival of some connection with our former enemy, since it has no power to chain us, should act as a useful irritant. It should be a continual reminder of how near we came to being, indeed, a British nation. No one now has any power to make us that but ourselves alone.

We have to build up a new civilization on the foundations of the old. And it is not the leaders of the Irish people who can do it for the people. They can but point the way. They can but do their best to establish a reign of justice and of law and order which will enable the people to do it for themselves.

It is not to political leaders our people must look, but to themselves. Leaders are but individuals, and individuals are imperfect, liable to error and weakness. The strength of the nation will be the strength of the spirit of the whole people.

We must have a political, economic, and social system in accordance with our national character. It must be a system in which our material, intellectual, and spiritual needs and tastes will find expression and satisfaction. We shall then grow to be in ourselves and in what we produce, and in the villages, towns, and cities in which we live, and in our homes, an expression of the light which is within us, as now we are in nearly all those things an indication of the darkness which has enveloped us for so long.

Economically we must be democratic, as in the past. The right of all the people must be secure. The people must become again ‘the guardians of their law and of their land’. Each must be free to reap the full reward of his labour. Monopoly must not be allowed to deprive anyone of that right. Neither, through the existence of monopoly, must capital be allowed to be an evil.

It must not be allowed to draw away all the fruits of labour to itself. It must fulfil its proper function of being the means by which are brought forth fresh and fuller fruits for the benefit of all. With real democracy in our economic life, country districts would become again living centres.

The people would again be co-operating in industry, and co-operating and competing in pleasure and in culture. Our countrysides would cease to be the torpid deserts they are now, giving the means of existence and nothing more.

Our Government must be democratic in more than in name. It must be the expression of the people’s wishes. It must carry out for them all, and only, what is needed to be done for the people as a whole. It must not interfere with what the people can do for themselves in their own centres.

We must not have State Departments headed by a politician whose only qualification is that he has climbed to a certain rung in the political ladder. The biggest task will be the restoration of the language. How can we express our most subtle thoughts and finest feelings in a foreign tongue?

Irish will scarcely be our language in this generation, not even perhaps in the next. But until we have it again on our tongues and in our minds we are not free, and we will produce no immortal literature. Our music and our art and literature must be in the lives of the people themselves, not as in England, the luxury of the few.

England has produced some historians, many great poets, and a few great artists, but they are the treasures of the cultured minority and have no place in the lives of the main body of the English people. Our poets and artists will be inspired in the stimulating air of freedom to be something more than the mere producers of verse and painters of pictures.

They will teach us, by their vision, the noble race we may become, expressed in their poetry and their pictures. They will inspire us to live as Irish men and Irish women should. They have to show us the way, and the people will then in their turn become the inspiration of the poets and artists of the future Gaelic Ireland.

Our civilization will be glorious or the reverse, according to the character of the people. And the work we produce will be the expression of what we are. Our external life has become the expression of all we have been deprived of—something shapeless, ugly, without native life.

But the spark of native life is still there and can be fanned into flame. What we have before us is the great work of building up our nation. No soft road—a hard road, but inspiring and exalting. Irish art and Irish customs must be revived, and must be carried out by the people themselves, helped by a central Government, not controlled and managed by it; helped by departments of music, art, national painting, etc., with local centres connected with them.

The commercialising of these things—art, literature, music, the drama—as is done in other countries, must be discouraged. Everybody being able to contribute, we would have a skilled audience, criticising and appreciating, and not only, as in England, paying for seats to hear famous performers, but for real appreciative enjoyment and education. Our national education must provide a balance of the competing elements—the real education of the faculties, and storing the mind with the best thoughts of the great men of our own and other nations.

And there must be education by special training for trades and professions for the purpose of scientific eminence in medicine, law, agriculture, and commerce. And, as fit habitations for healthy minds, we must have healthy bodies.

We shall have these by becoming again skilled in military prowess and skilled in our Gaelic games, which develop strength and nerve and muscle. They teach us resource, courage, and co-operation. These games provide for our civil life those qualities of ingenuity and daring which military training teaches for the purposes of war.

Our army, if it exists for honourable purposes only, will draw to it honourable men. It will call to it the best men of our race—men of skill and culture. It will not be recruited as so many modern armies are, from those who are industrially useless.

This will certainly be so, for our army will only exist for the defence of our liberties, and of our people in the exercise of their liberties. An Irish army can never be used for the ignoble purpose of invasion, subjugation, and exploitation.

But it is not only upon our army that our security will depend. It will depend more upon the extent to which we make ourselves invulnerable by having a civilization which is indestructible.

That civilization will only be indestructible by being enthroned in the lives of the people, and having its foundation resting on right, honesty, and justice. Our army will be but secondary in maintaining our security. Its strength will be but the strength of real resistance—the extent to which we build up within ourselves what can never be invaded and what can never be destroyed—the extent to which we make strong the spirit of the Irish Nation.

We are a small nation. Our military strength in proportion to the mighty armaments of modern nations can never be considerable. Our strength as a nation will depend upon our economic freedom, and upon our moral and intellectual force. In these we can become a shining light in the world.

Michael Collins, from The Path To Freedom

Article originally published on: Sunday 11th June 1922

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The project will follow in their footsteps along the path laid down by Hyde, O'Conaire, MacNeill, Cusack and many others through sharing news, ideas, articles of Irish cultural interest and more, as well as helping to support Irish language and cultural initiatives. You can find out more about An Claíomh Solais by clicking on the buttons below, or join our team as we begin the great Gaelic restoration!

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