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The man who spoke Irish in the British parliament

After yesterday’s cúpla focal in the House of Commons, Neil Glackin takes a look back at the first occasion Irish was spoken in the British parliament.

Houses of Parliament - London
Houses of Parliament - London
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

Yesterday, the Irish language was used during an address at the UK House of Commons for the first time in more than 100 years. Here, historian Neil Glackin remembers that day in 1901. 

THE UK’S HOUSE of Commons is traditionally viewed as the epitome of mannered and upper-class politics. Its history can be traced as far back as the 14th century, making it one of the oldest democratic institutions in the world.

To attend the House of Commons as an elected Member of Parliament, there are a number of stuffy and sometimes bizarre rules to comply with, including not calling other members by name, not being allowed to read speeches off paper, and not being allowed to die.

It is certainly not a place where upsetting the status quo is looked upon kindly.

But that is exactly what one Irish Member of Parliament did on 19 February 1901.

Thomas O’Donnell was only 29 years old when he was elected as an MP for West Kerry in the 1900 General Election. O’Donnell grew up in Ballyduff, Castlegregory in County Kerry as part of an Irish-speaking family.

O’Donnell worked as a teacher but became involved in politics through the United Irish League and earned respect locally as an advocate for tenant rights in the West Kerry area. His involvement in the land issue was due in no small part to his own family being evicted from their home in 1880 and being forced to live in a cabin for seven years.

O’Donnell was elected as the Irish Parliamentary Party representative for West Kerry in 1900. The Home Rule movement had faced a period of uncertainty in the previous decade as a result of the Parnellite split, but by 1900 the party had regrouped and restructured under John Redmond’s leadership. O’Donnell was viewed as one of the up-and-coming stars of the movement.

Despite the Irish Parliamentary Party dominating Irish politics, save for Unionist strongholds in the north-east of the island, the issue of Home Rule itself was largely off the parliamentary agenda at Westminster due to the unsympathetic Conservative Party holding a strong majority in the House of Commons.

As he entered the Palace of Westminster Thomas O’Donnell was determined to drum up publicity, not just for himself, but also for one of the causes closest to his heart — the Irish language.

On 19 February 1901, the British House of Commons was discussing a speech made by recently crowned King Edward VII, when they broke for a short interval. O’Donnell was listed to speak after the interval in his first address to the House of Commons. Before re-entering the chamber O’Donnell informed his party colleagues he would be conducting his maiden speech as gaeilge.

This promise ensured an almost full attendance in the House of the 77 Irish Party MPs for a discussion that was of little concern to them.

British parliamentary records have been kept scrupulously since the early 1800s, but O’Donnell’s speech even managed to stump the record keepers. Where O’Donnell addressed the parliament in Irish, the record has been left blank.

But his words were recorded elsewhere, with the West Kerry MP quoted as saying —

“Mar Éireannach ó áit go labhartar Gaedhilge, fear ó náisiún go bhfuil teanga aici agus atá fós ag deonadh chun saoirse d’fhághail, caithfidh mé labhairt ins an Feis Sacsanach seo in mo theanga féin…”

[As an Irishman from an Irish-speaking constituency, a member of a nation which still possesses a language of its own, and is still striving bravely for freedom, I deem it my duty to address this House in my own language…]

At this point O’Donnell was interrupted by the flabbergasted Speaker of the House, William Gully, who cried –

Order, order! The honourable Member is proposing to address the House in a language with which I am not familiar, but which I presume is Irish, and he will not be in order in doing so. It is an unknown practice in this House, and I must ask the honourable Member to address the House in English.

But O’Donnell was unperturbed, continuing —

Nách fíor-Ghaelhilge mo theanga – teanga mo shinsear, teanga mo thír, teanga do labhras ó bhídheas óg agus gur gceart…

[Is it not true that Irish is my native language, the language of my ancestors, the language of my country, the language that I spoke from childhood and that it is right...]

At which point he was interrupted again.

The Speaker reprimanded O’Donnell for disregarding his ruling and said he would not be allowed to address the House “in any other language but English”.

O’Donnell’s party leader John Redmond chimed in, asking if there was “any rule, written or unwritten, to prevent an honourable Member speaking in the language which is most familiar to him”.

The Speaker, clearly taken aback by what was happening, retorted by saying —

There is no precedent one way or the other so far as I know; but during the 600 years Parliament has been in existence, there is no record of any honourable Member having attempted to address the House in any other language but English.

Edmund Leamy, Member of Parliament for North Kildare entered the debate, claiming that Irish chieftains spoke Irish in parliament around the time of the Act of Union of 1800.

Gully gave a stiff response:

I must remind the honourable Member that Irish Members have now sat continuously in this House for 100 years, and they have never before thought it to be a grievance to be prevented from speaking any other language but English.
I have no doubt that the honourable Member for West Kerry, with the usual eloquence of his countrymen, will be able to address the House in English if he pleases, quite as well as in Irish. A claim of this kind, if it is to prevail, must first be established by a Standing Order of the House.

A back and forth ensued between Redmond and Gully, with Redmond pointing out that the Welsh language had been spoken in the House only five years previously.

O’Donnell was quite content to sit back as the debate continued, happy that his scene had been created.

In an interview with the Daily Mail afterwards, O’Donnell explained his actions.

Over a million people, or a fourth of the population of Ireland, speak the Irish language, and do the greater part of their business transactions by means of that tongue. The taunt has been flung across the floor of the House that the Irish members in advocating the cause of the Irish language were urging the claims of a language which they themselves were unable to speak. To refute that charge I thought it my duty, if for no other reason, to address the House in Irish. While I know some English I can speak Irish more fluently and with far less trouble than I could English. I never spoke a word of English until I was twelve years of age… to me English is as foreign a tongue and as strange as French is to English people.”

The actions of O’Donnell marked him out as a hero of the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century. For some years, he had been an active member of the Gaelic League — founded in 1893 to revive Irish culture and its dying language — and his speech was designed to bring much-needed attention to the plight of the Irish tongue.

Though the British Government had little interest in reviving Irish culture, O’Donnell’s actions were part of a wider movement on home soil to advance not only the Irish language, but also traditional Irish music and sports.

Not only did he help manage to further a cause close to his heart — the revival of the Irish language — the incident also helped raise his own profile as a politician, a side-effect O’Donnell would have carefully calculated beforehand.

Thomas O’Donnell continued to serve West Kerry as an MP for another 17 years, actively campaigning for tenants’ rights as well as improvements in the local education and transport systems.

Despite his involvement in the Gaelic League, O’Donnell shunned the fenian tendencies of many of his associates, and when World War I broke out he followed John Redmond’s lead and urged Irish men to sign up for the British Army.

After the war and the rise of the Sinn Féin movement, O’Donnell sensed the changing tide of opinion in Ireland and decided not to contest West Kerry in the 1918 General Election.

He did venture into post-independence Irish politics in the mid-1920s by setting up a political party back-boned by former members and followers of the Home Rule movement. Despite some limited successes, O’Donnell’s National League Party was poorly run and poorly funded, and disappeared rather quickly into the political wilderness.

In the 1930s O’Donnell was taken on board by Éamon de Valera to act as a political advisor for Fianna Fáil. His fraternisation with Fianna Fáil no doubt helped in his appointment as a District Judge in his later years.

Like many members of the Home Rule movement, O’Donnell’s contribution to Irish nationalism has been largely overlooked in favour of the accomplishments of the men and women who fought in the 1916 Rising and during the War of Independence. Of course the people who fought for our independence must be celebrated, but so too must we appreciate the efforts of the constitutional nationalist movement pre-1916.

The name of Thomas O’Donnell is not well-known throughout Ireland. There are no murals or monuments in his name. There are no photographs of him on the world-wide web.

But 117 years ago on a February afternoon, O’Donnell disturbed the work of the United Kingdom House of Commons by addressing it as gaeilge, making the Irish language the big news story of the day.

No one can ever take that away from him. 

Neil Glackin is an amateur blogger with an MA in Modern Irish History from UCD. Credit for the Irish translations of O’Donnell’s words in this piece goes to J. Anthony Gaughan. Gaughan’s biography A political odyssey: Thomas O’Donnell, MP for West Kerry, 1900-1918 is also where he first came across this story. This piece was initially published on his blog, which can be found here. 



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