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Jan 07 2022

Michael McDowell visits Town Hall to view historic 1913 Oireachtas photograph

Barrister and former Attorney General and Justice Minister, Michael McDowell called in today to view an of delegates attending the Gaelic League national convention at the Town Hall Theatre in 1913 which includes his grandfather Eoin MacNeill, the man perhaps best remembered for seriously curtailing the 1916 Rising. The photograph - which is on permanent display at the Town Hall - is tantamount to a who’s who of the ‘coming revolution’ with as many as perhaps half the signatories of the 1916 proclamation (including Pádraig Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada and Éamonn Ceannt) as well three future Presidents of Ireland (Douglas Hyde, Seán T. O’Kelly and Eamon de Valera) being present

Eoin MacNeill was an Irish scholar, Irish language enthusiast, Gaelic revivalist, nationalist, and politician who served as Minister for Education from 1922 to 1925, Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann from 1921 to 1922, Minister for Industries 1919 to 1921 and Minister for Finance January 1919 to April 1919. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1918 to 1927. He was a Member of Parliament (MP) for Londonderry City from 1918 to 1922 and a Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament (MP) for Londonderry from 1921 to 1925. A key figure of the Gaelic revival, MacNeill was a co-founder of the Gaelic League, to preserve Irish language and culture. He has been described as "the father of the modern study of early Irish medieval history". He established the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and served as Chief-of-Staff of the minority faction after its split in 1914 at the start of the World War. He held that position at the outbreak of the Easter Rising in 1916, but had no role in the Rising or its planning, which was carried out by his nominal subordinates, including Patrick Pearse, who were members of the secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. On learning of the plans to launch an uprising on Easter Sunday, and after confronting Pearse about it, MacNeill issued a countermanding order, placing a last-minute newspaper advertisement instructing Volunteers not to take part. In 1918 he was elected to the First Dáil as a member of Sinn Féin.

The photograph of the delegates attending the Ard Fheis (Gaelic League national convention) was taken in front of Galway’s Town Hall (now the Town Hall Theatre) during the course of the weeklong Oireachtas (the annual Gaelic League’s national cultural festival) in late July/early August 1913. It had been the established custom to convene the annual ‘parliament of the Gaels’ concurrently with An tOireachtas, and in the summer of 1913, Galway, the so-called ‘Capital of Irish speaking Ireland’ was chosen to have the honour of hosting the first Oireachtas outside of Dublin. This highlighted the centrality of Galway city and county (which boasted fifty per cent of the country’s surviving native speakers at the turn of the 20th century) to the League’s efforts to preserve Irish as a spoken communal language.

The 1913 Ard Fheis marked an important juncture in the history of the Gaelic League as internal divisions between the apolitical old guard of the movement and a republican/I.R.B. faction had come to the fore in the months preceding the convention. Dr. Douglas Hyde, the co-founder and President of the Gaelic League since its foundation in 1893, had resigned several weeks prior to the proceedings in protest at alleged attempts by the latter radical element to politicise the organisation and undermine his leadership. The time was not yet ripe for an overt republican takeover however, and Hyde, who had received immense popular endorsement throughout the Oireachtas, was re-elected as President to near universal acclaim. This was a hollow victory for the moderates however. The tumultuous political dynamics of the coming years would ultimately render the ascendant republican tide too strong to withstand, for at the Dundalk Oireachtas of 1915 the Gaelic League would revoke its hitherto politically neutral stance and declare its support for separatism.

One of the most remarkable features of the Galway Oireachtas and Ard Fheis was the presence among the delegates of so many of the political and military elite of the subsequent Irish Revolution 1916-1923, and indeed that of the independent Irish state to which it gave birth. This historic group photograph is tantamount to a Who’s who of the ‘coming revolution,’ with as many as perhaps half the signatories of the 1916 proclamation (including Pádraig Pearse, Seán Mac Diarmada and Éamonn Ceannt) as well three future Presidents of Ireland (Douglas Hyde, Seán T. O’Kelly and Eamon de Valera) being present.