‘We need not claim that in quantity and quality of achievement he was great as a writer; but we surely can say that he did write well, that he did help others to write greatly – that he did help Irish letters, in all its branches, to be native, continuous, rooted, branching and fruitful.’
Robert Farren, ‘Douglas Hyde the Writer’, in Irish Press (14 July 1949) [obituary notice on the day following his death]
A boy, transplanted to Roscommon soil – in an alien garden; he not only put down firm roots, but proceeded to flourish and bloom like no other before him, to cross pollinate thoughts and ideas that would wake and revive the native life, all the while respecting, caring for and nurturing the fields and gardens which surrounded him – Douglas Hyde.
Born by accident in County Roscommon, on 17th January 1860; while his mother, Elizabeth, was on a short visit to Longford House, in Castlerea. Raised in his father’s Church of Ireland rectory in County Sligo, Hyde didn’t return to Roscommon until he was 7 years old. His father, Arthur, was appointed Rector and Prebendary (a type of Canon) of Tibohine, and the family moved to the village of Frenchpark in 1867.
There were 4 brothers, but the youngest, Douglas, was educated at home due to illness, by his father and his aunt. At the time, Irish people were still suffering the after effects of the extreme poverty and denigration of the Big Famine. An Gorta Mór, ‘the Great Hunger’, took about a million people in death, and approximately another million in emigration. That was about 25% of our population. And the anger that remained! The loss and grief were terrible, but the anger and frustration felt by the Irish people equaled, and even surpassed it – to know that there was plenty of food all along, grown on our land, with our labour, and leaving our country to grace the tables of Landlords and their class, while our children starved to death.
The Irish ‘peasantry’ were suffering and struggling still by the time Hyde was born, to a county that was among the worst affected. His family were well off, of a higher class, and it would have been unseemly for their child to mingle with the peasantry.
But mingle he did. In particular, he was fascinated by listening to the older people in the community speaking the Roscommon Gaeilge dialect. He became friends with an old Gilly on his father’s estate, a gamekeeper by the name of Seamus Hart. The job title ‘Gilly’, by the way, comes from the old Irish term Giolla, meaning servant or slave. The Irish language was deemed coarse, backward, savage – old-fashioned, at best. It had been made shameful to speak it, to teach it to your children. Parents were convinced that their children would never, ever, get anywhere, progress at all in life unless they could speak with a proper English tongue. But to the young Douglas Hyde, the language was lyrical, eternally pleasant to listen to, witty and wise and unendingly beautiful. He fell in love with the Irish language, and began to study it of his own accord.
The boy would roam the estates, and the countryside, listening to the stories, exploring the ancient places, talking to the older people in their own tongue. Learning. He loved the legends of Rathcroghan, home of Queen Meadbh (Maeve) and Gaelic royalty for over 2000 years. He carved his name in Uaimh na gCait, the Cave of the Cats – fabled entrance to the Irish Otherworld. He was devastated when Seamus Hart died, 7 years later, when Hyde was just 14. He flagged a bit, stopping his studies of the language and the culture, but his interest and passion began to rally when over the course of a few visits to Dublin he discovered there were others like him; groups of people who wanted to preserve and speak the Irish language, to whom it was just as important and wonderful as he found it to be.
Hyde rejected family pressure to follow their traditional career in the Church, and instead went to Trinity College, Dublin, where his flair for languages continued into fluency in French, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek.
At the age of 20 (1880), he joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and published over a hundred pieces of Irish language poetry under his pen name An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, ‘the Pleasant Little Branch’. The Irish Language movement was viewed as eccentric at first, the province of bored academics looking for novel ways to spend their time.
But it gained respect, and a huge following, steadily in the years to follow. Hyde was a huge influence on this, helping to establish the Gaelic Journal in 1892, and speaking publicly on topics such as “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”, where he said:
But the Irish language is worth knowing, or why would the greatest philologists of Germany, France, and Italy be emulously studying it, and it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have made the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extant, would fill a thousand octavo volumes…
We must arouse some spark of patriotic inspiration among the peasantry who still use the language, and put an end to the shameful state of feeling — a thousand-tongued reproach to our leaders and statesmen — which makes young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language…
To a person taking a bird’s eye view of the situation a hundred or five hundred years hence, believe me, it will also appear of greater importance than any mere temporary wrangle, but, unhappily, our countrymen cannot be brought to see this…
We must teach ourselves to be less sensitive, we must teach ourselves not to be ashamed of ourselves, because the Gaelic people can never produce its best before the world as long as it remains tied to the apron-strings of another race and another island, waiting for it to move before it will venture to take any step itself…
I appeal to everyone whatever his politics — for this is no political matter — to do his best to help the Irish race to develop in future upon Irish lines, even at the risk of encouraging national aspirations, because upon Irish lines alone can the Irish race once more become what it was of yore — one of the most original, artistic, literary, and charming peoples of Europe.
The following year, the same in which he married a German lady by the name of Lucy Cometina Kurtz (1893), Douglas Hyde helped found the ‘Gaelic League’, Conradh na Gaedhilge, to preserve and promote Irish culture and language. Contrary to other organisations of the time, Conradh na Gaedhilge accepted women as full members right from the start, and did not assign them to subordinate roles. Many notable women, such as Lady Esmonde, Lady Gregory, and Mary Spring Rice, played an active part in establishment of the League, and in leadership roles in their local communities. At the 1906 annual convention, out of 45 executive roles, 7 were filled by women. Hyde resigned in 1915, when the League formally committed to the Nationalist political movement, as he felt that the culture and importance of our language should be above politics. His influence though, was huge, as many of the prominent Irish leaders (such as Earnest Blythe, Pádraig Pearse, Éamon De Valera, and Michael Collins) first became educated and passionate about Irish independence through their involvement with Conradh na Gaedhilge.
It seems he tried his best to stay out of politics, and returned to the life of academia. He did get sucked in briefly, accepting a nomination to Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate, after the creation of the new Irish state. But things got messy in 1925, and a Catholic smear campaign caused the loss of his electoral seat, so he settled in to be Professor of Irish at UCD (University College Dublin), instead. In 1938 though, then Taoiseach (Irish political leader) Éamon de Valera, re-appointed him to the Seanad. From here he was nominated and elected uncontested to the position of An tÚachataráin, first President of the Irish Republic, on 26th June 1938. Although the President could choose either English or Irish in which to recite the Presidential Declaration of Office, Hyde set the precedent by (unsurprisingly) declaring in his chosen native tongue. His speech, the first ever recitation of the Irish Republic’s President, is one of the few remaining recordings of the now lost Roscommon dialect in which he was fluent.
He was a very popular president, cultivating friendship with many world leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and the English King George V, but due to ill health decided not to run for a second term, leaving office on 25th June 1945. He never returned to Roscommon, his wife having died early in his presidential term, but moved to a residence in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, the President’s Residence in the Phoenix Park, Dublin; where he died quietly on 12th July 1949, at the age of 89. Douglas Hyde is buried with his family at Portahard Church, which is now the Douglas Hyde Museum, beside the Main N5 road between Tulsk and Frenchpark, in County Roscommon.
The Irish Poet and Writer W.B. Yeats had this to say on Douglas Hyde:
‘He had much frequented the company of old countrymen, and had so acquired the Irish language, and his taste for snuff, and for moderate quantities of a detestable species of illegal whiskey distilled from the potato by certain of his neighbours’…
‘the cajoler of crowds, and of individual men and women … and for certain years young Irish women were to display his pseudonym Craoibhin Aoibhin in gilt letters upon their hat-bands’.
‘The man most important for the future was certainly Dr Douglas Hyde. I had found a publisher while still in London for his Beside the Fire and his Love Songs of Connacht and it was the first literary use of the English dialect of the Connacht country people that had aroused my imagination for those books. His faculty was by nature narrative and lyrical, and at our committees […] he gave me an impression of timidity or confusion. His perpetual association with peasants, whose songs and stories he took down in their cottages from early childhood when he learned Irish from an old man on a kitchen floor, had given him. Though a strong man, that cunning that is the strength of the weak. He was always diplomatising, evading as far as he could prominent positions and the familiarity of his fellows that he might escape jealousy and detraction. […] He never spoke his real thought […] for his mind moved among pictures, itself indeed a premise but never an argument. In later years the necessities of Gaelic politics destroyed his sense of style and undermined his instinct for himself. He ceased to write in that delicate, emotional dialect of the people, and wrote and spoke, when he spoke in public, from coarse reasoning’.
He said Hyde ‘wrote out of imitative sympathy’; he was to create a popular movement (the Gaelic League) but Yeats nonetheless mourned for ‘the greatest folklorist who ever lived’… ‘his style is perfect – so sincere and simple – so little literary’.