The Awakening of the Nation, 1891-1913

41. Parnell had focussed the attention of the nation on to the Parliament in London. It required his masterly personality to do this. He received from his predecessor, Isaac Butt, a demand for what was known as Home Rule. It was a vague term; it covered a vague thought; its possibility was remote enough, but Parnell made it, not merely practical politics, but the one insistent thought and demand of his day. Nobody in England or Ireland was permitted to think of anything else. Yet in demanding that Ireland should be given political freedom, he made it clear that he expressed no finality in his immediate goal. "No man," he publicly declared, "has the right to fix the boundary of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country: 'Thus far shalt thou go, and no further.' We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland's nationhood, and we never shall." On this ground he was supported by Republicans at home. When, however, he was broken by English ministers, and "Home Rule" was banished with him, the nation turned its thoughts again to affairs within itself.

Two new movements arose. The first was the Gaelic League. It set itself to the revival of the national language, and to the study of the nation's history. The language had been interdicted and broken. The history had been obscured by the conqueror's gloss with a view to belittling the nation's greatness and breaking the force of its inspiration. Each upheaval of the nation through the century had been followed by a revival of the nation's distinct and separate intellectual being; and specially by a revival of the national language, both as a subject of study and as a vehicle of public expression. These things were now organised by the Gaelic League. Definitely the nation reclaimed, with its language, its historic past. It set itself to undo all the meaning of the Statutes of Kilkenny. The intuitions that the nation had carried through bitter centuries now became confirmed as a matter of intellectual perception and knowledge--became once again, as they had been before, the subject of thought and study. The other movement became known by its title of Sinn Fein (Ourselves). It affirmed that to send Irish representatives to an English Parliament was, firstly, an abnegation of the nation's integral right and historic claim, and, secondly, a weakening of the self-reliance essential to the assertion of that right and claim. It called the nation to itself, and completed in economics and politics what the Gaelic League achieved in expression and culture. These were the two new influences in Ireland, both intensive, both neglecting the fact of foreign possession. Beside them grew up another for an economic organisation of the land.

Irishmen were now coming into the possession of their land. They had won, that is to say, that on which the National Polity had been built without the power to re-create the State. Their holdings were small, and in the new world-wide competition they were unable to compete against farming syndicates all over the world. So the Organisation Society grouped them into co-operative societies with a view to giving them a corporate responsibility and power. And a remarkable thing happened. The new societies became in many ways the modern counterparts of the old Stateships. They are, though only in matters of business, legislative and economic units; they have their central townships, where they meet, and about which reside the artisans of those units; they enact their own limited governance of themselves. With Ireland a Sovereign State it would take very little to make of them what the Old Stateships had been, and to rebuild from them the wise and distinctive National Polity that was once so ruthlessly destroyed. So inevitable has proved the nation's instinct of itself, and so inevitable is its historic assertion.