Michael Collins & the Irish Language

Michael Collins & The Irish Language

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- (Michael Collins 1922)

The above passage was written by Michael Collins at some point after the conclusion of the treaty debates in January 1922 and before his death in August of the same year. It is taken from an essay entitled Distinctive Culture which appeared in a collection of Collins’s essays first published in 1922 under the title, The Path to Freedom. The essays were originally written for American newspapers and serialised in some Irish titles.[1] They are obviously written during a divisive period and from Collins’s perspective. Much of their content would doubtlessly have been disputed by anti-treaty republicans. But their brief commentary on the Irish language represented a common perspective which all of those, on either side of the treaty debate, shared. Although most of the revolutionaries did not speak Irish fluently, and came from English speaking districts, they considered the language to be their ‘native’ tongue. They had a sentimental attachment to it and considered it an essential part of the Irish national identity to which they subscribed. But their attachment to the language did not generally extend as far as their learning it, speaking it, or writing in it. This abundant praise of a language which they felt was ‘native’ using a tongue which they considered ‘foreign’ seemed strangely contradictory. Yet it could be considered part of an Irish political tradition that endures to this day.

Michael Collins did not speak fluent Irish because his parents had deemed his use of the language to be unnecessary, undesirable, or impractical. Like many other Irish households of the late nineteenth century, the Collins’s of Woodfield did not use the language in their day to day lives. Collins’s sister Mary later recalled: ‘My mother was bi-lingual. She had learned Irish from her grandmother … who wrote Irish well. She never would teach us even the meaning of an Irish word.’[2] Collins’s brother could recall his father speaking Irish to labourers on the farm, but never using the language around his children.[3] Another of his sisters, Helena, remembered observing that her parents only spoke Irish when they wanted to ensure that their children couldn’t understand them.[4] Collins’s parents lack of enthusiasm for the Irish language is probably best explained by reference to the economic conditions of the time. Emigration seems to have been a very common necessity for the youth of Woodfield and the surrounding townlands. The population of Woodfield fell from 139 to 103 in the first ten years of Collins’s life.[5] At least five of his mother’s siblings emigrated to English speaking destinations, and Collins and three of his siblings also ended up spending some time in Britain. It was clear that the Irish language would not help Irish people put food on the table and so if Collins’s parents had had any sentimental or nationalistic attachment to it, the practicality of providing for their children overcame such emotional considerations.

Collins departed west Cork for London with very little, if any, understanding of the Irish language. It is possible that he had gained an appreciation of the language as a symbol of national identity, through some of the west Cork republicans with whom he was known to have associated (James Santry and Denis Lyons). However it is more likely that he gained that appreciation in London as he began to move in Irish circles there. At first he appears to have shied away from close association with organisations like the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League. Perhaps he was influenced by his sister Hannie who had not involved herself with such vaguely nationalist assemblies. Indeed their sister Mary later recalled that Hannie acted as his mother, sister and friend, and had discouraged his interest in some of these Irish societies.[6] Hannie herself was involved in the Irish Literary Society which sat at the top of a social hierarchy of Irish societies in early twentieth century London. Although Hannie and Michael appear to have shared a household which was frequently immersed in political debate, the elder sister gravitated more towards those organisations that didn’t verge on political activism.[7] Collins himself was a little different.

Arriving in London in the summer of 1906, at only sixteen years of age, it is likely that he still had some growing up to do and his keen sense of nationalism had not yet been honed. Hannie’s distaste for some of the more political organisations may also have limited his activity, but it certainly didn’t stifle it and it appears that he had some connection with the Gaelic league. He attended many of the social entertainments of the Kennsington branch but did not immediately subscribe to their funds or attend their classes. At that time Collins had become heavily involved in the GAA, making his debut as a Milesian player before he even began work at the Post Office. He later joined the Geraldine club and became an active administrator at County Board level from 1907. In that capacity he was centrally involved in a dispute regarding the association’s rule 13 which prohibited its members from playing ‘foreign’ sports. Collins was a big supporter of the rule and defended it vigorously at club and county level. This resulted in a split in the London GAA and left a hardcore republican group in control of the organisation. Collins was at the heart of that group and had become a republican through his association with some of the others among its number. It is generally agreed that Collins was sworn into the IRB in 1909. Stories about who administered the oath and where it happened vary, but GAA men like Patrick Belton and Sam Maguire seem to have had something to do with Collins’s admittance. Once admitted, the young republican became an enthusiastic operative and that may well have been part of the reason for his embracing a more active membership of the Gaelic League.   

Shortly after his initiation into the IRB, Collins began taking the Gaelic League seriously and worked hard at his language studies. He passed exams in 1912 and 1913, and although we have no range in which to place it, his 84.5% in 1912, was surely an excellent mark.[8] He also began subscribing to the language fund, managing to convince his GAA club, the Geraldines, to provide the funds. This is an interesting commentary on the value Collins attached to the language. We know that he was heavily involved in the GAA and gave a lot of his free time to it. Yet he was willing to divert funds from his GAA club to the Gaelic League – a clear indication that he did not consider hurling and football to be the only worthwhile cultural manifestations of Irish nationalism. When Collins’s Kennsington Gaelic League branch went defunct, his love of the language brought him as far as Fulham, where his cousin Jack Hurley was a member of the league. There he continued participation in the league’s cultural program and even acted in a play in 1913. Curiously, one reviewer considered his voice to be weak, something which must have changed radically in the years ahead.[9] Although he seldom used the language outside of the confines of the league, Collins began to demonstrate his affection for it by signing his name in Gaelic. He also expected others, even Kitty Kiernan, to address him in that form.[10] Although his practical concerns regarding independence and republicanism were clearly his priorities, Collins’s attachment to the language seemed very genuine. Although Hart cleverly demonstrates that his ascent through the ranks of both the Gaelic League and the GAA in London, was assisted by the dwindling membership of both organisations, he also concedes that his ‘dedication to the cause [the league] can’t be faulted and was never merely tactical.’[11]

Upon his return to Ireland, Collins continued his association with the Irish language through his membership of the Keating branch of the Gaelic League. The Keating branch was stacked with members who would become close allies (and in some cases eventual enemies) of Collins, in the years ahead. Charles Burgess was President of the branch. Burgess was a doctrinaire language activist and had changed his name to Cathal Brugha. Other members included Richard Mulcahy, Gearoid O’Sullivan, Rory O’Connor, Seán MacDiarmada and Tom Clarke. It is hardly surprising that in such company Collins was now more focused on political separatism than language activism. The remainder of his life was to be consumed by politics and revolution. But the fondness that he had for the Irish language did not desert him. Many of his republican comrades shared that fondness, and all of them would at the very least, feign enthusiasm for what they considered the ‘restoration’ of the language. Collins’s first chance came with the drafting of the Free State constitution and he delivered on his stated position.

Article 6 of the new Irish Constitution clearly established Irish as the ‘National Language’ but the document also had to acknowledge that there was a general lack of fluency in the Irish language and thus English would continue to be the major method of communication in all aspects of Irish life. The balance between aspiration and reality was addressed as follows:

The National language of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) is the Irish language, but the English language shall be equally recognised as an official language. Nothing in this Article shall prevent special provisions being made by the Parliament of the Irish Free State (otherwise called and herein generally referred to as the “Oireachtas”) for districts or areas in which only one language is in general use.


Collins was the initial chair of the committee that drafted the constitution. Although he died before its completion, there is little doubt that the Irish language portion quoted above, was as much a reflection of his thinking as it was of every other member of the committee. Irish was established as a ‘National language’ however aspirational its wider use might remain. Equally, Irish governments were given significant flexibility in the implementation of language policy in Gaeltacht regions. It was to be Collins’s final contribution in the advancement of the Irish language and it was unquestionably his most significant achievement in that regard.

From Cosgrave to de Valera, all revolutionary republicans accepted Irish as a ‘National’ language. All of them considered it a key component of Irish identity. All of them wanted to see it used as the major tongue of their new nation. In advancing that agenda, they were perhaps partly successful. They succeeded in establishing the language as an essential part of the national identity to which the majority of Irish people subscribed. They succeeded in establishing it as a legally official language and made it a cornerstone of the Irish educational system. Although they did not live to see the majority of Irish people speaking it as their primary tongue, they had tacitly admitted that such widespread use was never likely to occur in their lifetimes. Thus, in many ways, Collins and his contemporaries did what they set out to do. If there are those who consider the comparative (with English) lack of spoken Irish in Ireland today as a failure, the failure was certainly not Collins’s.

[1] Fermanagh Herald, 4 March 1922.

[2] Michael Collins House, Mary Collins Powell Memoir

[3] West Cork People (Commemorative Edition), 22 August 2002.

[4] Michael Collins House, Sr. Mary Celestine Memoir, 4 September 1970.

[5] P. Harte, Mick: The Real Michael Collins, (London, 2005), p. 12

[6] Michael Collins House, Mary Collins Powell Memoir

[7] Harte, p. 55.

[8] UCD Archives, Papers of Michael Collins (1890-1922), P123/25 (https://digital.ucd.ie/view-media/ivrla:11448/canvas/ivrla:11449) (12 March 2021).

[9] Hart, p. 56.

[10] T.P. Coogan, Michael Collins, (London, 1991), p. 33.

[11] Hart, p.57. Text in brackets is inserted by this author.