Léachtaí ⁊ Cainteanna Material in English

Samuel Beckett and Máirtín Ó Cadhain: The Vehemence of the Dead

Leis an Ollamh Robert Welch.

Tugadh an léacht seo ag ócáid chomórtha chéid Mháirtín Uí Chadhain i gColáiste Phádraig i 2006.

Éist leis an léacht

An léacht go hachomair

Sa chaint seo (atá i mBéarla) dhírigh an tOllamh Welch ar chosúlachtaí idir scríbhinní Beckett agus Uí Chadhain, ar an mbonn go gcaithfidh cosúlachtaí a bheith idir na litríochtaí sa dá theanga in Éirinn má tá an cultúr ag feidhmiú. Bhí an tOllamh Welch buartha faoi choincheap na haigne idir dhá chomhairle ag Thomas Kinsella, agus d’fhéach sé le cosúlachtaí a aithint in aidhmeanna na litríochtaí Gaeilge agus Béarla in Éirinn.

Dar leis go ndeachaigh an bheirt údar seo i ngleic le harraingeacha an bháis i gcás dhá chultúr éagsúla: Ó Cadhain le cultúr na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta, agus Beckett le cultúr an iarthair.

D’fhéach an bheirt acu ar anbhroid, agus ar chineál na hanbhroide. Bhreathnaigh Ó Cadhain ar an gcéasadh a bhain le hobair fhisiciúil, go háirithe i measc na mban. Thuig Beckett anbhroid na péine fisiciúla chomh maith óna thaithí féin, agus tugtar samplaí ó scríbhinní na beirte a léiríonn na tuiscintí seo ar phian fhisiciúil.

Díríonn Beckett ar chinnteachtaí agus éiginnteachtaí an tsaoil, agus na féineachta — aithnítear go bhfuil an saol ar fad laistigh den surda nó den neamhréasúnach.

In Cré na Cille, is daingean diongbháilte é fuath Chaitríona Pháidín dá deirfiúr Neil. Labhraíonn Welch faoi dhlúth-thaithíocht an fhuatha agus dar leis go bhfuil muintir na hÉireann fíormhaith aige sin. Measann sé go scaoileann daingne an fhuatha amach díochracht agus racht na cainte.

Faightear an daingne duairce céanna ag Beckett — an t‑aon fhreagairt atá ann ná caint.

Téama eile ag an mbeirt is ea an gaol leis an máthair, leis an mbaineann.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is very grateful to Angela Welch, widow of the late Robert Welch, and to St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, for permission to publish this taped recording of the lecture.

Material in English Saothar Ealaíne

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (a Poem)

A Poem by John Montague. From the collection Patriotic Suite.

The tribes merged into the hills,
The ultimate rocks where seals converse.
There they supped rain-water, ate sparse
Berries and (grouped around pale fires
At evening) comforted themselves
With runics of verse.

The nation forgot them until
There was a revolution. Then soldiers
Clambered the slopes, saluting
In friendliness: Come down!
You are the last pride of our race,
Herdsmen aristocrats, who have kept the faith.

As they strayed through the vertical cities
Everyone admired their blue eyes, open smiles
(Vowels, like flowers, caught in the teeth)
The nervous majesty of their gait:
To the boredom of pavements they brought
The forgotten grace of the beast.

Soon townspeople tired of them,
Begin to deride their smell, their speech.
Some returned. Others stayed behind,
Accommodating themselves to a new language.
In either case, they may be dying out.
A tragedy anticipated in the next government report.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is very grateful to Elizabeth Wassell for permission to publish this poem here.

Ailt ⁊ Aistí Material in English

Máirtín Ó Cadhain — The Man on the Stamp

By Mae Leonard.

In this 2008 piece for RTÉ Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany, Mae recalled Dublin in the late sixties — and a fascinating figure whom she did not identify until forty years later.

Everything in Dublin was new and exciting to me back then — having moved from the confining walls of Limerick to, as we called it, ‘the big smoke’. It was 1968 and I was looking at the world through the rose-tinted spectacles of a newlywed.

Dublin that September was a comfortable city at night. There were girls in daring mini skirts, there were street photographers and there was Cabaret at the Chariot Inn in Ranelagh with Buachaill ón Éirne himself, Breandán Ó Dúill, and the ballad group We 4 with Susanne Murphy. I loved the thrill of a late-night horror film at the cinema on Saturday nights and buying Sunday newspapers on the way back to the flat.

Another treat was a pint in Dawson’s Pub in Rathmines — a place to relax and, as a couple, we would sit and plan or meet friends. There were others of like mind there also and the two men who sat at the counter on tall stools were there for the same purpose. The difference was, they conversed in Irish with the blas of native speakers. I was fascinated listening to them. Fascinated by one of them in particular. The man with the spectacles and the tightly cut iron-grey hair. This man had a peculiar way of enunciating words and delivering them rapidly like the pik-pik-pik of a startled blackbird. I never knew his name but his fluency and command of Irish was spectacular.

My schoolbook Irish hadn’t brought me to this level of expertise. My ear was attuned to the soft, rounded tones of Munster Irish but this was something else — this was harsh — as harsh as the landscape of Connemara.

I leaned forward to catch snatches of the conversation — it was difficult — but I managed to understand a few bits and pieces. One evening the two were discussing the recent invasion of Prague by the Russians and what might happen to Alexander Dubček. Another time, it was about the American presidential election and Nixon came in for a roasting. Soon, I found that I could follow the conversation a little better and heard them discuss the dangers of the Fosbury Flop — the head-first jump introduced at the Mexico Olympics that year. And the discussion became quite heated on the protest by the clenched fist salutes of the American Black Power athletes.

Our own discussion was a lot more mundane — mostly about the house we were about to buy and our move out of Dublin to the country. I never knew who that glorious Irish speaker was. I doubt if anyone in Dawson’s Pub, Rathmines, in 1968 knew either. He was just part of the scene.

I bought some postage stamps the other day and there he was — the gaeilgeoir — looking at me just as I remember him. But I didn’t know him. I didn’t know of his political activities or of his internment in the Curragh military prison during the Second World War. Neither did I know that he is universally acknowledged as a pioneer of Irish-language modernism. There are books — in particular Cré na Cille — a tale of the dead in a graveyard talking to each other, which was translated into several languages — and he wrote short stories too.

We bade goodbye to Rathmines in September 1969 ignorant of the fact that he was a professor of Irish at Trinity College. Neither did we know that he had passed away the following year. I look at his face on my postage stamp and I tell the man in the post office: I remember him; I remember that man — Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is grateful to the author for her kind permission to publish this piece here.

Ailt ⁊ Aistí Material in English

Máirtín Ó Cadhain — No Ordinary Man

Le Declan Kiberd.

Published, under the title No Ordinary Man, in Irish Examiner, Wednesday
15th February, 2006 (p 16).

Once when Irish writer Máirtin Ó Cadhain went to Croke Park to watch the Galway team, a wag in the stands shouted: “There goes Cré na Cille!” as he made his way to his seat. It was the kind of recognition of which most writers only dream. Yet the classic book in Irish which gave rise to that wisecrack went out of print some years after Ó Cadhain’s death in 1970 and was reissued only in 1996.

Ó Cadhain was a man of contradictions — born into a poor family in An Cnocán Glas a century ago but ending his days as a resident of Dublin’s southside; a passionate advocate for Irish who nonetheless made savage criticisms of Gaeltacht summer schools in a column called ‘Irish Colleges: Big Business’; an erstwhile IRA man who became a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. He was a socialist who had no compunction about appearing at the Oireachtas in a dinner jacket, because nothing is too good for the revolutionary classes.

As an agitator for the Irish language, he favoured direct methods — going so far as to picket the home of a government minister. Puritanical Gaels derided him as a ‘Joycean smutmonger’ but he had a satirical turn of phrase, referring to one rather tall, thin Fianna Fáiler as síne fada na Gaeilge.

At Trinity, he amused his students, in 1966, by setting them a three-hour exam essay which asked them to construct a dialogue between Admiral Nelson and the republican who blew his likeness off his column in spring of that year. Two years later, when a cult of Chairman Mao of China flourished among student radicals in his department, he mischievously set them another three-hour exam, in which they had to translate into Irish an English version of Mao’s talk on culture at the Yenan Forum. It wasn’t easy to find phrases for such terms as comprador bourgeois lackeys and running dogs of capitalism — and he chuckled at the discomfiture of the students.

Ó Cadhain was pugnacious but also thoughtful. During his internment in the Curragh Camp in the period of World War Two, it was often said that there were three factions among the republican prisoners — the pro-Germans, the pro-British, and Mairtin Ó Cadhain. He taught himself many languages while incarcerated; and he once told me that the hardest day of his life was that of his release from captivity, when he had to face the bleakness of freedom and relearn social skills.

Cré na Cille (1949) is set in a graveyard, where the corpses gossip incessantly about one another and about life in their village above the ground. There are 10 ‘interludes’ or chapters; in each a newly-dead person is buried and arrives bearing news of all that is happening above. Often, the babblers seek to over-ride one another’s voices, traducing neighbours and friends with a furious impartiality. This is not the idealised western peasantry to be found in the texts of Patrick Pearse: rather the book answers a need, first voiced by WB Yeats, for a work in which the people would be shown up in all their naked hideousness. It is realist rather than revivalist.

But the savagery of Cré na Cille is redeemed by an even deeper sense of fun and by a willingness to see the ludicrous side of people’s aspirations. The central character, Caitríona Pháidin, is buried in a 15-shilling plot but yearns for re-burial in a more genteel guinea grave. The talkers boast of the number of priests (or motor cars) attending their funerals, or that their burial was reported in two newspapers. All are in the grip of measúlacht — killed (quite literally) with respectability, a vice which Ó Cadhain abhorred.

Tormented by the slowness of time, these buried folk seek relief in talk and story. When Jeaic na Scolóige, an old love-interest of Caitríona, is buried nearby, her spirits are raised. Others, newly-buried, tell tales of the infidelity of beloved partners above ground who have found new loves when old ones died. A French wartime pilot, who crash-landed in Connemara, adds a new voice (and language) to the babble. The result is one of the very greatest classics of Irish writing, a work fit to be set alongside Joyce’s Ulysses or the writings of Samuel Beckett.

Scholars are still arguing about the possible sources for the central conceit of Cré na Cille. Perhaps the experience of prolonged internment — of being effectively dead to the outside world — was the main inspiration behind the book. Ó Cadhain had read Gogol’s Dead Souls while studying Russian in the Curragh, so that may also be an element in the formula.

One source that hasn’t been considered is Joyce’s own masterpiece, Ulysses. In its sixth chapter, Leopold Bloom visits Glasnevin cemetery for the funeral of Paddy Dignam. Many of the jokes anticipate those voiced in Cré na Cille, not least the question of how each person will gather his bones and guts back together on the Day of Judgement. Bloom ponders whether the dead really know that they are dead at all; and he wonders, does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down? There, in a nutshell, may be the basic formula for Ó Cadhain’s text.

It may be that the talking corpses were Ó Cadhain’s metaphor for the state of the Irish language, considered dead by many but still marvellously truculent. After all, he knew better than most that Ireland’s is a funerary culture, in which death has long been a sound career move. The Irish, he sensed, were uneasy in their treatment of life, but absolutely inspired when it came to dealing with death.

As far back as 1601, the poets or filí (who had once been paid well to lament dead chieftains and fallen warriors) discovered a new theme in asserting the communal death of Gaelic tradition, after the collapse at the Battle of Kinsale. But they did so in lines of such — throbbing vitality as to belie their very message.

Ever since, the Irish language and culture have been repeatedly pronounced dead, only to revive and return from a near-death experience in some newer guise.

Ó Cadhain must have known that his great book of death was really a proof that the Irish language was fully recovering its literary life.

In the same year of its publication, another great Irishman whose centenary we also celebrate this year, Samuel Beckett, was writing the following lines at the climax to Waiting For Godot: “All the dead voices… They make a noise like wings… To have lived is not enough for them… They have to talk about it.”

Some would say that current debates concerning compulsory or voluntary Irish are not really about how we save it but about who owns the corpse.

Ó Cadhain’s example suggests, however, that the corpse, just like that of Finnegan in the famous song about the wake, keeps on rising to make one more speech. And as long as that happens, Irish will remain very much with us as part of what we are.

Declan Kiberd is Professor of Anglo-trish Literature at UCD and author of The Irish Writer and the World (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He was a student of Máirtín Ó Cadhain at Trinity College from 1969–1970.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is very grateful to the author and the publisher, Irish Examiner, for their permission to publish this article here.

Léachtaí ⁊ Cainteanna Material in English

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (Aitheasc Luan na Tríonóide 2002)

Le Cathal Ó Háinle.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s career in Trinity College was relatively brief, spanning just less than fifteen years. He was appointed to a lectureship in the School of Irish in January of 1956 when he was fifty years of age and he remained in that grade until October 1967 when, having applied unsuccessfully for appointment to the vacant Chair of Irish, he was appointed Associate Professor of Irish and Head of Department. In 1969 he was appointed to the Chair and the following year elected to Fellowship. He died in October 1970.

That brief narrative conceals what an unlikely, courageous, enlightened and important decision it was for the University of Dublin to appoint Máirtín Ó Cadhain to its academic staff in the first place. There were a number of reasons why it might have declined to do so. Other than his qualification as a primary teacher, Ó Cadhain had no third level academic qualification, not even a primary degree. He had published very little of what might be regarded as academic research. Even though he was fifty years of age when he was being considered for appointment to the TCD lectureship, he had held no third level position before that. And he had been a member of the IRA, had been dismissed from his post as principal of a Galway primary school for his republican activities and had been imprisoned in Arbour Hill and interned in the Curragh in the period 1939–44. On the other hand Ó Cadhain was widely recognised as the foremost prose writer in Irish of the time.

All of this would have been known to the University authorities, and it must be frankly admitted that in the Trinity of the nineteen-fifties, Ó Cadhain’s republicanism would have rendered him a persona non grata, just as earlier in the century ‘a man called Pearse’ was unwelcome here. If Trinity had found Ó Cadhain’s republicanism so unpalatable as to make his appointment unthinkable, it could well have dissembled and given his age and his lack of academic experience and credentials as sufficient reasons for refusing to appoint him. If it had chosen to ignore his republicanism, it might still have felt itself genuinely unable to appoint him because of his age and lack of experience and credentials. That Trinity chose to take neither of those approaches, and instead appointed Ó Cadhain to the lectureship must be to the University’s undying credit; at all events it earned Ó Cadhain’s sincere gratitude, which he frequently expressed, and the admiration of all of those who had an interest in the Irish language and its literature.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain was born at An Cnocán Glas near Spiddal in Conamara on the 4th of January, 1906. His parents were Seán Ó Cadhain and Bríd Ní Chonfhaola and, of the thirteen children born to them, Máirtín was the first who survived; they had lost their first child, Pádraig. Seán Ó Cadhain was a small farmer who, like most of his neighbours, struggled to eke a living from the poor soil of Conamara and from the sea. Manual labour was the norm and Seán would have looked forward to the day when his eldest son would be able to help with the daily toil. Máirtín must, of course, receive his primary schooling and he began attending the boys’ National School in Spiddal in June 1911. In the course of the years that Máirtín spent there, Éamon Ó Gógáin, as assistant teacher and later as principal, came to recognise his ability and urged his father to allow him to continue with his schooling when he had come to the end of the normal years of attendance. Seán refused, but the teacher continued to insist and Máirtín’s father eventually capitulated. The system of ‘monotoring’ or apprentice teaching was a recognised form of preparation for entry into the teacher training colleges. Máirtín became a ‘monitor’ with Ó Gógáin and in 1923 won a King’s Scholarship but was too young to be admitted to a training college; he continued as ‘monitor’ the following year, won a King’s Scholarship again in 1924 and in September of that year he entered St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.

He does not seem to have attracted any attention during his two years in St Patrick’s, but graduated in due course in July 1926. A class-mate remembered him as a quiet, studious young man, who took no part in the sporting activites of the College, but spent most of his spare time reading. In later life Máirtín Ó Cadhain was a shy man who was not particularly socially adroit, and was painfully aware of this. It may well be that it was this shyness that caused him to be withdrawn as a student, and his lack of full confidence in his competence in English may have been a further reason for his feeling unsure of himself. But his interest in literature was no mere substitute for socialising.

Máirtín’s people were materially poor; they also lacked any serious formal education, indeed earlier generations would have been technically illiterate in Irish, their native language, and would have had only a basic literacy in English in which they would have had but a poor oral competence. But they were not illiterate in any real sense: for Irish was rich in oral literature, and Máirtín’s people, particularly his grandfather, his father and his uncle, all three of whom lived in the house in which Máirtín was reared, were important repositories of folklore and were skilled storytellers. Their minds and imaginations were enlivened by folklore and their language was enriched by it. So too were Máirtín’s, when, during his youth, he learned to tell these stories. But more significantly as a boy of eight he set himself to write a long Ossianic story in his school copy-book. Clearly then, from an early age Máirtín had an interest in writing — even if it was only realised at first in transcribing a folktale — and it is likely that by the time he came to Drumcondra this interest would also have whetted his appetite for books, a ready supply of which was then available to him for the first time. By the end of 1926 he had had his first short story published. He also began collecting and publishing folklore: in the 1930s, he published four significant collections of material from his native district in Béaloideas, the Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society.

Having spent short periods teaching in the Islands and in Galway city, he was appointed principal in Camas, Conamara, in 1927 from where he transferred to An Carn Mór east of Galway in 1932. While in Camas he produced a translation into Irish of Charles Kickham’s novel Sally Kavanagh and had it published in 1932 by An Gúm, the Department of Education’s Irish publication office, and he also had some further short stories published. He had also enlisted in the IRA and become captain of the local group, and in 1930 he was elected chairman of the West Connacht branch of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. In Carn Mór he continued to engage in republican activities; he also founded a branch of the Gaelic League there and subsequently was elected to the Central Committee of the League, and he was extremely active in an organisation called Muintir na Gaeltachta, which he helped to found in 1934. Already Ó Cadhain was gaining experience in working in and through organisations and a pattern was being established of action and agitation in the interest of causes and issues with which he was passionately concerned, a pattern which he was to maintain for the rest of his life.

Ó Cadhain’s republicanism was no merely theoretical matter. He did have a philosophy of which he was unashamed and which he expressed frequently enough. He did have an ideal of the kind of Ireland which he believed had been delineated in the Proclamation of Easter Week 1916. But ultimately his republicanism was based on issues which were bound up with the very fabric of his own life, as he explained in 1960 when he wrote: I know what took me into the IRA: there was a need to fight to free my own people, the rural poor. That and the Irish language, the historical language of the Irish nation, the language of his own people in the Gaeltacht of Cois Fharraige, his own first language and the language to the literature of which he was to make such a momentous contribution and through which his imagination would achieve its most satisfactory expression. Ó Cadhain believed that the death of Irish was imminent if action was not taken to avert this tragedy. Imagine how painful it was for him to realise, as he said himself, that he was writing in a language that he believed would be dead before himself!

Ó Cadhain, then, was undoubtedly committed to a certain ideal of the Irish nation, but all his beliefs and actions were rooted in a more local concern for the social well-being of his own people and for the maintenance and enhancement of their language, his own language.

So, as I have mentioned, he began to agitate in 1934 for the improvement of social conditions in the Gaeltacht areas through Muintir na Gaeltachta and the efforts of this organisation contributed to the establishment by the Government of the scheme which provided for the migration in 1935 of many Conamara families to Ráth Cairn in County Meath where a new Gaeltacht was established and still strongly survives. In the nineteen fifties a new organisation called Muintir na Gaeltachta was founded and subsequently gave rise to another organisation, Cúl Taca, through which Ó Cadhain marshalled Irish-speakers in Dublin to support efforts to improve the lot of the Gaeltacht communities. In the 1960s he became the guiding spirit of an organisation founded by a group of younger people, called Misneach, which sought to bring pressure on the State to take its duties to the Irish nation seriously and which in 1966 organised a hunger strike in Dublin to protest at what was seen as the hi-jacking by ‘gombeenism’ of the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The 1960s were, of course, the era of the Civil Rights Movement, and not surprisingly saw the establishment of Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement, which had a very strong base in the Conamara Gaeltacht. Here in 1969 as part of its Civil Rights campaign and seeking to embarrass and discomfit the Fianna Fáil party in the heart of its stronghold in the West Galway constituency, the Movement nominated an independent candidate, Peadar Mac an Iomaire, to stand in the election of that year. Ó Cadhain took an active part in the campaign, speaking at public meetings in support of Mac an Iomaire and making direct approaches to voters, while members of Misneach and others in Dublin assisted with the postal campaign. Ó Cadhain’s public speeches had a powerful impact: he was a persuasive public speaker, but then, too, he was speaking to his own people in their own language and swayed them in a way that politicians such as Jack Lynch could never dream of doing when they visited the constituency. The Gaeltacht Civil Rights candidate garnered sufficient votes to embarrass and distress the Fianna Fáil party in West Galway and nationally. In the late sixties Ó Cadhain was also active in campaigns to have the Roman Catholic Church provide proper religious services in Irish for the Gaeltacht people of Ráth Cairn in Co. Meath and for Irish speakers in the Dublin Archdiocese.

In later life Ó Cadhain claimed to be lethal in both Irish and English. One of the strongest suits in his armoury was his ability to use mockery, abuse and vilification in either Irish or English. He had no scruples about deploying these, no matter how viciously, when his conscience told him that the cause was a just one, and he attacked with great vigour those whom he regarded as the enemy, whether on the one hand it was the Government of the day, the political parties, the Churches, academic institutions or individuals that he regarded as being inimical to the nation and to the Irish language, or Irish language organisations which were failing in their duty on the other. As the poet, Seán Ó Ríordáin, wrote with some truth after Ó Cadhain’s death, his method was not to fight for the cause, but to attack its enemies. Over the years he launched verbal assault after assault, most famously on the Fianna Fáil Minister for Education, Pádraig Faulkner, at a conference in Dundalk in 1969, and in the following year, just weeks before his death, in the protest at the closure of Dún Chaoin primary school in the West Kerry Gaeltacht by the same Minister for Education; and he attacked in print too, writing scores of letters to the papers and essays, and in later years a series of pamphlets: Irish above politics (1964), Mr Hill: Mr Tara (1964), An Aisling [The Vision] (1966) and Gluaiseacht na Gaeilge: Gluaiseacht ar Strae [The Irish Language Movement, A Movement Gone Astray] (1970).

The weakness of Ó Cadhain’s approach was that he expended so much energy in attacking what he regarded as betrayal, rather than in advancing a programme for action on the issues with which he was concerned. In this he was reacting rather than positively acting; and inasmuch as he sought to embarrass those whom he attacked, frequently enough he failed to have any effect since they simply refused to be ashamed and ignored his onslaughts. Earlier in his career, however, his republicanism was not to be ignored, and led first of all to his dismissal from his post as principal of Carn Mór school in 1936, and then in 1939 to his imprisonment in Arbour Hill Barracks, and later to his internment in the Curragh Camp from April 1940 to July 1944.

For some of those interned, the grinding boredom of prison life was deeply depressing and led to a certain inertia. Towards the end of his internment Ó Cadhain too seemed to be finding it so, for he wrote to a friend: In places like this one’s mind becomes numb, when indeed one does not go mad. But at the beginning it was otherwise, in spite of the fact that during his period of internment he suffered two cruel blows when his mother died in 1940 and his father in 1943. The internees established a system of education among themselves in which classes in Irish, history etc. were set up. Ó Cadhain was a member of the committee which organised these classes and seems to have thrown himself into the work with great gusto, not only providing excellent tuition in Irish but also giving series of lectures on Irish history. He also edited the prison journal, Barbed Wire, and contributed material in Irish and English to it, including songs which he had translated into Irish, such as The Red Flag and The Internationale and more homely Irish ballads. Eventually, however, he found the history lectures trying and withdrew from them; and he also suffered from the persistent questions put to him about nice points of Irish grammar by overzealous learners. He came to resent, too, the intrusion on the time that he wished to spend on learning languages or improving his command of them, on reading and on writing.

In 1937–38 Ó Cadhain had written the short stories which were published in his first collection in 1939 under the title Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre [Half in Earnest]. The title is interesting in that it points up Ó Cadhain’s inability to take himself entirely seriously, an aspect of his character which reveals itself again and again in his creative writing. The stories are not particularly strong in terms of imaginative engagement and provide no signal that they were the work of a writer who might break out of a kind of mould that had established itself in writing in Irish in the generation or two since the beginning of the revival. During his period of detention in the Curragh Camp Ó Cadhain wrote a series of letters to his friend Tomás Bairéad. These were published in 1973 and provide a fascinating insight into his literary activities while in the Curragh. He refers to the authors and even individual books he has been reading, mentioning, apart from material in Irish, authors such as Auden, T.S. Eliot, Hazlitt, Rob Donn (Robert Mackay), Walter Pater, Pound, Edith Sitwell and Stephen Spender in English; in French, Chateaubriand, Corneille, de Vigny, Maritain, Mérimée, Racine and Villon; and in German and Russian, Bakunin, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Gorky, Koestler, Pushkin and Toller; and works by writers such as Cervantes, Dickens, Charles Reade, Franz von Rintelen, Sholokhov, Lesage, Swedenborg, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Turgenev. He says in one letter that he has read Rabelais from beginning to end, and in another that he is studying Maritain.

His reading was highly eclectic and this was no doubt the result of the vagaries of what was available to him in the branch of Co. Kildare Library which had been established in the prison, and what his friends might send him. It is clear that he read the French authors in the original; and he mentions in one letter that he is now writing French with some ease. On the other hand he read the Russian authors in English and French translations. While he mentions that he is learning Russian and has a good teacher, he still regrets that he cannot read the Russians in the original. He has the greatest respect for all the Russian writers, but is particularly taken by Gorky’s stories which he has read in a French version and believes that he has gained a new literary insight from reading what he describes as Gorky’s long short stories. In this context it is evident that he read some literary criticism too, for he mentions that he has read an essay by Stephen Spender in New Writing which contained similar opinions of Gorky’s work to his own and he refers later to an essay on the short story in the Times Literary Supplement. It is clear that he was consciously working to develop his own individual literary technique. He mentions that he has recently written four stories, and though he believes he has mastered what he calls the English short story technique, he says that he has little fondness for it and is dissatisfied with the stories he has just written. Three months later, however, he has written six or seven long short stories which he believes are better than anything he had previously written; he has several other short stories that he intends to write and then he hopes to turn to a longer work.

Ó Cadhain was an inveterate reviser, producing several versions of his stories, making additions, frequently quite substantial ones, even at the proof stage. While in prison he sent some of his work out for safe-keeping, and then subsequently had it sent back to him for re-writing. In 1944 he was working on a short novel and mentions that he had already produced two full drafts of it and was working on a third. He found it difficult in the circumstances of prison life to have the quiet necessary for properly concentrating on serious writing: he could produce first drafts easily enough, but was painfully conscious that he was often unable to finish his work to his own satisfaction. He valued the opinion of his friend, Tomás Bairéad, of his work; yet he was growing in self-confidence as a writer and by 1944 he was able to say to Bairéad that, though he would not like a story he had written, he was himself sure that it was his best piece of writing to date and that he believed that he could write more of the same kind of long piece which was neither short story nor novel. Such is his self-confidence in his creative work now that he clearly takes pleasure in saying that, in spite of Gerard Boland, the Minister for Justice, who had consigned him to detention in the Curragh Camp, the experience had allowed him to develop his mind in unexpected ways. Already in 1941 he had written to Bairéad that the detention camp had done much for his education and that he had gained excellent insights into life, even if he had to pay dearly for them, a belief which he repeated in 1969 when he said that his period of detention had allowed him to get to know more about human nature than if he were to live for a hundred years.

His letters to Bairéad in 1944 show him to be aware of his growing self-confidence; he even allows himself to suggest that his writing now deserves to earn higher than average fees. But Ó Cadhain would not be Ó Cadhain if mocking self-deprecation did not follow hard on the heels of this moment of boastfulness. Immediately he says to Bairéad: This is strange talk. I have become over-confident now — or is this caused by lack of fresh air?

Ó Cadhain was released from the Curragh Camp in July 1944. Four years later he published his second collection of short stories, An Braon Broghach, which contains several of the stories which we know he wrote while in detention. The title is again rather self-deprecating: literally it means ‘the dirty drop’, that is the first drops of distillation of poitín, and so ‘impure spirits’. But there is much here of which he could be justifiably proud. There are examples of his new form, the long short story, and of other signs of a more mature approach to writing. There is also a deeper insight and a surer imagination revealed in a number of the stories. But on the other hand there is a lamentable tendency towards over-writing, to verbosity. Some of the best pieces here have women as their principal characters: in fact Ó Cadhain had intended that this volume would contain only stories about women, but his publisher, an Gúm, rejected at least one story, and the contents of the book had to be reorganised. Then the following year Ó Cadhain’s first novel, Cré na Cille [Graveyard Earth], was published by the independent publishing house, Sáirséal agus Dill, which had been established by Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh and his wife Bríghid. They were to publish a further four collections of Ó Cadhain’s short stories in the following years, but Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh was not just his publisher, he was also his friend and counsellor.

The world of Cré na Cille is in the afterlife; all the characters are dead and exist in and speak from their graves. They are nevertheless in another sense very much alive for their dialogue, of which the work consists virtually entirely, is vibrant and colourful and nowhere more so than in the mouth of the principal character, Caitríona Pháidín. This woman is one of the very few characters in Irish fiction who have achieved a status akin to that of a historical person; she is the Don Quixote, the Robinson Crusoe, the Moll Flanders of Irish writing. In his novel Ó Cadhain presents a rather sardonic view of human nature: we are essentially incapable of being reformed; our weaknesses remain with us through life, and if granted an eternity of after-life we still would not change, just as in after-life the characters in this novel cannot divest themselves of their petty jealousies and enmities. Some reviewers of the time found Ó Cadhain’s picture of a Gaeltacht community unpalatable, even objectionable. A more perceptive critic, writing in 1950, said: With the publication of Cré na Cille Irish literature has come of age. No superlatives can exaggerate its importance, and another wrote: The imaginative beauty of [Cré na Cille] amazes mé.

By 1951 Ó Cadhain had written a further novel, Athnuachan [Renewal], which, however, he decided not to publish — it eventually appeared in print in 1995 — and he also published a series of short stories in various journals. Then in 1953 his third collection of short stories, Cois Caoláire [Beside Galway Bay] was published. The variety of formal treatment of the material and the depth of the characterisation in a number of the stories in this collection is impressive and demonstrate that Ó Cadhain was not a writer who would settle into any rut, however comfortable. Then too there is a strong tendency here to depict troubled people: insanity and lesser psychological ailments have become an important subject for scrutiny. Unsatisfied human needs can cause psychological injury, as in one story is portrayed the frustration of a woman who devotes all her energies to working a farm rather than to any interpersonal relationship, or in another the eventual insanity of a woman who experiences the heartbreak of a long series of still births. In yet another story a man goes berserk from anxiety that he will be driven out of the land-holding which he has worked for years but does not own. As in Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain is here drawing on his knowledge of the rural community with which he was so familiar and the picture he draws is no romantically rosy one but is informed by stark realism.

By the mid-fifties then Máirtín Ó Cadhain had established himself as a most important figure in Irish writing. Since his release from detention, however, he was struggling to support himself in a variety of menial employments and in February of 1945 he had married Máire Ní Rodaigh to whom he had been engaged since 1939. He was, however, busy with his writing, with arranging material for publication and with gathering lexical matter for a new edition of Dinneen’s famous dictionary of Irish which the Government had proposed. Then in March 1947 he was appointed to a junior post in Rannóg an Aistriúcháin, the Translations Section in the Dáil. Initially there was not much enthusiasm in Government for this appointment, but representations were made on his behalf, strangely enough by Ernest Blythe for whom Ó Cadhain had little affection, and apparently also by Canon Pádraig Ó Móráin, the parish priest of Carn Mór who had been instrumental in having him dismissed from his teaching post in 1936. The income was no doubt welcome, but Ó Cadhain found the constraints of the world of civil servants utterly unbearable, and matters did not improve when he began in 1953 to write a weekly column for the Irish Times in which he frequently expressed unacceptably trenchant opinions. By 1952 his health was beginning to suffer. He wrote a withering critique of the civil service in the story ‘An Eochair’ [The Key], which, however, was not published until 1967, by which time he had escaped from the clutches of the civil service.

It appears that Ó Cadhain’s publisher and mentor, Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, recognising how unsuitable the civil service was for one of Ó Cadhain’s temperament, had set up a committee whose object was to canvass for his appointment to a university post. Éamonn Ó Tuathail retired from the Chair of Irish here at TCD in 1955 and the new Professor, David Greene, was appointed in September of that year. Greene was already a senior academic having been an Assistant Professor in the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies from 1948–53, and a full Professor from 1953–55, but the staff of the School of Irish of which he now held the chair consisted only of himself, a lecturer in Irish, Seán Beaumont, and a Reader in Celtic Languages, Gordon Quin, who, however, was really only part-time in the School of Irish, since he also functioned as Lecturer in Phoneticis and Linguistics and Lecturer in Sanskrit and Comparative Philology. In the nineteen-fifties the staff complement was very limited in all the Arts departments, but Greene’s staff in Irish was pitifully small. There was a vacancy at the level of Assistant Lecturer in Irish, and Greene won approval for the filling of this at the level of Lectureship and had Máirtín Ó Cadhain appointed in January 1956.

As I suggested at the outset, the appointment of Ó Cadhain may not have been particularly palatable to many in Trinity. David Greene, however, would have had no doubts about Ó Cadhain’s status as a creative writer: in later years he was to review one of Ó Cadhain’s books under the bye-line ‘Ireland’s leading writer’. Already in 1950 he had favourably reviewed Cré na Cille, and much later in another context he wrote that Ó Cadhain’s Cois Fharraige takes its place with Joyce’s Dublin, and Cré na Cille is the only book by an Irishman which is worthy of comparison with Ulysses. The latter comment is particularly apt, since Ó Cadhain himself reported that, when Cré na Cille was being serialised in The Irish Press, he heard himself being described by a fellow-passenger in a bus as a Joycean smutmonger. He relished the insult and wrote an echo of it into Cré na Cille when it was published in book form — a typical Ó Cadhain stratagem. Greene would also have had a great deal of sympathy for Ó Cadhain’s battling on behalf of the Irish language and of the Gaeltacht people. He would no doubt have been much in favour of Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh’s idea of finding a more congenial post for Ó Cadhain than the Civil Service one he held. Furthermore Greene would have been aware of the inestimable wealth of Irish that Ó Cadhain in person and through his writings represented; of his command of the language and of the value of his judgements relating to it. He would have understood that this linguistic wealth could be fully realised only in an academic setting. Folklore has it that the College Registrar at the time, Dr Frank Mitchell, strongly supported Greene in his efforts to have Ó Cadhain appointed to the lectureship, and also that the Provost, Dr Albert Mc Connell, was very supportive. And so Trinity College did the magnificent thing and appointed Ó Cadhain.

Ó Cadhain threw himself into the work of lecturing with his usual total commitment. Though some of his students seem to have found him difficult to approach, over the years he had an immense impact on many others who seem to have sensed that their own youthful idealism was shared by him. There was always a number of students who had a certain reverence for him, as if he was their hero. It is said that one student not only sought to imitate Ó Cadhain’s speech patterns, but also tried to ape his gait! Ó Cadhain’s sense of humour was always at the ready to prick the balloon of excessive seriousness, however. In the Maoist years he offered a passage from an English translation of Mao’s Little Red Book as an exercise in translation in his language class. No doubt he was well aware that some of his students were Maoists and that there was a danger that they would be offended by this slight to the Chairman. They were, and let Ó Cadhain know of their extreme displeasure — proving that his humour had struck home! In fact Ó Cadhain worried, too, about the influence his anti-establishment views might have had on his students, and was conscience-stricken when a particularly bright student of his decided to act on her Maoist principles and abandon her university career.

In 1967 Ó Cadhain agreed to travel to Belfast on a weekly basis to provide supplementary lectures on Modern Irish literature and culture in the Department of Celtic in Queen’s. In that year too David Greene returned to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and Ó Cadhain became Head of Department of the School of Irish, a position which he must have found extemely trying. The late Nessa Ní Shéaghdha has described him dashing to lectures and meetings with bundles of papers always in danger of escaping from his grasp. His lack of social aplomb would have made him extremely uncomfortable at such meetings. Nevertheless various College officers of the time have told me of his dedication to his duties and to his responsibilities for his undergraduate and postgraduate students and his serious interest in maintaining high academic standards. In the last three years of his life he was also Extern Examiner in Modern Irish to the four Colleges of the National University, a very burdensome position. I myself was Head of the Department of Modern Irish in Maynooth at the time and can vouch for the fact that Ó Cadhain did not spare himself in fulfulling the demands of the examinership.

Apart from a series of review essays on works of Irish and Scottish Gaelic literary and linguistic scholarship and, in his last years, two essays on literary and linguistic history, and his striking writer’s testament, ‘Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca’ [Blank Pages and Written Pages], which was published in 1969 and which offers a vibrant self assessment, Ó Cadhain published little of academic interest during his years at Trinity College, though he had plans to publish a book on the literary history of Irish and also a highly personal account of the recent history of the language which was published at last in 2002. Perhaps it was never expected of him that he would turn to academic writing, but rather that Trinity would become a tearmann [refuge] for him where he could apply himself seriously to his creative writing. It must have seemed to Irish readers in the late fifties and through the sixties that this hope too was being frustrated and that Ó Cadhain’s energies were being absorbed by the duties of his lectureship. In fact though, from the early sixties, this was not the case. In 1962 he published a long satirical essay, in the journal Comhar, on individuals and institutions who were failing, in his view, in their duty to the Irish language.

The essay created a furore of the kind Ó Cadhain relished, and he set to work on four more essays in the same vein, though with a more humorous bent. Comhar decided not to publish these; whereupon Ó Cadhain began to work them up into what he saw as a single work. By lavish use of intertextuality he established a frame of reference in European and earlier Irish literature; in a number of sections he discussed advances being made in the biological sciences, and problems of time and history. He then submitted this work for an Oireachtas na Gaeilge competition in 1965. He failed to win a prize and was deeply angered by the comments of the adjudicators, who, rather than considering the literary quality of the work, pointed out that it would be so offensive to so many people that it could not be published. Ó Cadhain knew that the work would be hurtful and he gave it the English title Barbed Wire. I edited it for publication and it finally appeared in print in 2002.

In 1965 Máirtín’s wife, Máire, died. This was a cruel blow as he depended greatly on her in many ways. They had no family.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, and with the support of his friend, Seán O hÉigeartaigh, Ó Cadhain continued to write creatively and began to publish again. In 1966 a new short story appeared in print. It is a fine piece called ‘Ciréib’ [A Riot] in which his particular brand of dry humour is in evidence. Based on the gospel narrative, it poses the question: ‘What if Christ had performed his miracles with greater frequency, turning water into wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing and raising from the dead?’ The answer provided by the narrative is, of course, that people would not have needed to buy bread, wine, fish, would not have needed medical care, would not die. Bakers, fishermen, wine pressers, tavern owners, doctors, grave-diggers etc. would be out of work; there would be deep social unrest, disorder, riots… and some crafty politician would emerge to exploit the social misery of others to his own advantage! This story was no single swallow. It is clear that he had already written several other stories, for later that year a new collection was being prepared for publication and, when the Irish American Cultural Institute offered a prize of £2000 for a work in Irish, Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh proposed to Ó Cadhain that his new collection be submitted to the competition. Ó Cadhain, still smarting from the rejection of Barbed Wire, demurred but later agreed to let Ó hÉigeartaigh have his way, and the collection, An tSraith ar Lár [The Fallen Swath], won the prize for Ó Cadhain and was published in 1967. It contained fourteen pieces of great variety in form and content, including ‘Ciréib’, his satirical piece on the civil service, ‘An Eochair’, and a series of five stories, each with its own theme, but all having characters from the same Gaeltacht community. It marked a triumphant return for Ó Cadhain, who apparently was now thinking in terms of producing a trilogy of collections. A short three years later he published another in the series, An tSraith dhá Tógáil [The Swath Being Raised Up]. The hope expressed in the title strikes a strange note for, apart from two further gospel-based stories, the collection contains several bleak and disturbing stories of urban alienation and failure of personal relationships.

Ó Cadhain was appointed to the Chair of Irish in Trinity in 1969 and was elected to Fellowship the following year, as I mentioned earlier. There was now plenty of evidence, too, to support the belief that he had recovered his creative urge. Apart from his writing there was, of course, the on-going College round of lectures, classes, meetings, departmental administration; there was the NUI external examinership; and there was his participation in the Gaeltacht Civil Rights campaign and later in the protest about the closure of Dún Chaoin school. In 1969 he delivered three public lectures: in January one of the Radio Éireann Thomas Davis lectures on the Gaelic League; in February a long lecture to Cumann Merriman on aspects of his own creative writing; in September he travelled to Wales to lecture at the Welsh Academy’s ‘Taliesin’ Congress. But his health was failing: he had already spent a number of periods in hospital during the sixties, and now his energy was being sapped by the demands he was making on his physical and mental resources. Just as the 1970–71 academic year was beginning, he was taken to the Mater hospital on 9 October 1970: he died there nine days later in his 64th year.

In 1977 the third title of Ó Cadhain’s trilogy appeared: An tSraith Tógtha [The Swath Raised Up]. It contains some interesting writing, though ultimately it is only a reminder of what might have been if Ó Cadhain had lived longer. But at all events it allows him the last mocking word about the writer, perhaps about himself. The last story in the book seems to subvert the principles of the classical short story, especially in its long discursive introductory section. Then at its end the narrator, who is a man who has spent his life writing documents, is approached by his lover who is pregnant with his child, but he has been dehumanised, made incapable of feelings of human love, for his heart has, he tells her, been transformed into paper. Then he announces to the reader: I have become paper entirely at last, heart, crotch, everything. Readers of Irish can be grateful that Máirtín Ó Cadhain has become paper, that so much of his personality and creative energy has been transmuted to survive in his stories on the written page.


Details of the sources from which information in this discourse is derived are given in my essay ‘Máirtín Mór Ó Cadhain: Tríonóideach’ in Bliainiris 6 (2006), eds. Ruairí Ó hUiginn and Liam Mac Cóil, 9–42 [and also available online], and in my introduction to Ó Cadhain’s Barbed Wire, Coiscéim, Baile Átha Cliath, 2002, v–xxix.

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is very grateful to the author for his permission to publish this talk here.

Ailt ⁊ Aistí Material in English

The Nation or the ‘local organic community’?: Ó Cadhain versus Ó Droighneáin


While the phrase ‘Ó Cadhain versus Ó Droighneáin’ is admittedly fictive, suggesting, as it does, the title of a putative court case or heavy-weight boxing bout, I hope the intention may be forgiven insofar as Máirtín Ó Cadhain and Muiris Ó Droighneáin were indeed heavy-weights in the discourse of the Irish language in the twentieth century and both were inveterate polemicists, driven by a belief in the justice of their respective positions. Of the two, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, writer and political activist, is by far the most recognised and celebrated today, yet the legacy of the teacher and grammarian, Muiris Ó Droighneáin, while less obvious, is nevertheless very far-reaching. My intention in this paper is to focus on an exchange of articles published in An tUltach magazine in 1962 in which both men expressed trenchant views on the use of Standard Irish1. The importance of these short articles, in my opinion, is to illuminate polarities within the Irish nationalist project, a project to which both men subscribed, physically and intellectually.

Firstly some brief biographical notes2. Máirtín Ó Cadhain was born in 1906, a native of the Cois Fharraige Gaeltacht, in Co. Galway and died in 1970. He was a lifelong Republican Socialist who was one of up to 1,000 IRA men who spent the years of the Second World War in internment camps, the government of ‘Éire’ having deemed the IRA a threat to national security. On his release from the Curragh prison camp Ó Cadhain became first a government translator (1947–56), then lecturer, and finally Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. More importantly, he published some of the finest prose works in Modern Irish, particularly the novel Cré na Cille (‘Churchyard Clay’) in 1949. Ó Cadhain was also a relentless social campaigner for the rights of the people of the Gaeltacht and it is often remarked that the huge amount of time and energy he devoted to various causes stymied his literary output.

Like Ó Cadhain, Muiris Ó Droighneáin appears to have been a member of at least the junior wing of the IRA, Fianna Éireann, in which he says he was active at some point after the 1916 Rising3. Ó Droighneáin was born in rural Co. Cork in 1901. Although not a native speaker of Irish he remembered his grandparents speaking in Irish and the accompanying sense of frustration of not understanding what they were saying. He went on to learn Irish at school and at University College Cork, where he excelled. Ó Droighneáin spent most of his working life (1931–1970) as a teacher of Irish at St Malachy’s College in Belfast, a prestigious Catholic grammar school for boys. An exceptionally zealous advocate of Standard Irish, Ó Droighneáin was renowned for sending a corrected copy of every published book in Irish to its author, paying particular attention to deviations from the Standard. Besides publishing two short dictionaries of terminology and one on personal names, Ó Droighneáin was frequently consulted by the editors of various texts in Modern Irish and is duly credited by Niall Ó Dónaill (1977: vi) in the preface to the latter’s landmark Irish-English dictionary and is given special gratitude by the editors of the Christian Brothers’ highly popular New Irish Grammar (1990: iv). It is clear that, at least from the late 1950s onwards, Ó Droighneáin had a public role as the ‘watchman of the standard’, as the writer of his obituary puts it4.

However his assiduous championing of Standard Irish had a more direct and perhaps more productive outlet in his role as a highly respected teacher of Irish
whose pupils included a number of leading academics among whom were Proinsias Mac Cana, Gearóid Stockman and Micheál Ó Murchú5. Of these, Stockman and Ó Murchú as Professor of Irish at Queen’s University Belfast and Lecturer in Modern Irish at the University of Ulster respectively appear to have applied Ó Droighneáin’s zeal for Standard Irish in their own teaching in the two universities of the North of Ireland.

Series of articles on Standard Irish

Although a certain antagonism towards Ó Droighneáin had been festering within Ó Cadhain for some time, the controversy to be discussed here was sparked off by a mocking reference to a prayer composed by Ó Droighneáin which he used as a signature to his monthly articles on Irish grammar Eternal Father, in the name of Jesus make Ireland united a Gaeltacht again6. Ó Cadhain’s parody of the prayer ran thus: Oh God of standardised languages and editorial English, grant again a Standard to the Gaels of Ireland, a Gaeltacht to all Ireland, but whatever it is makes a Gaeltacht, grant a Standard… Ó Droighneáin’s response was restrained; he gave a brief survey of what he called ‘Ó Cadhain’s Standard’, outlining the main areas where Ó Cadhain’s spelling of Irish was at variance with the Standard but pointing out at the same time the greater consistency of Ó Cadhain’s approach against some of the inconsistencies of the Standard. Nevertheless, he concluded on a note of mild censure, remarking that, while of some dialectal interest, Ó Cadhain’s habit of abbreviating endings which he didn’t himself pronounce was offputting to readers.

True to form, Ó Cadhain’s reply (1962: 6–7) was a mixture of satire and invective, insight and excursus. Besides claiming that Ó Droighneáin was in the habit of continually phoning Rannóg an Aistriúcháin (the ‘Translation Section’ of the Civil Service, in which Ó Cadhain had worked from 1947 to 1956), Ó Cadhain remarked that his adversary would do the Irish language a service by leaving it alone and taking up a standardised past-time like golf. Furthermore, what Ó Droighneáin regarded as the ‘right and wrong’ of the Standard was an illusion; there were three Official Standards prior to which the Standard consisted of aural spelling, manuscript and book spelling. In any case, Ó Cadhain continued, spelling was mere convention and many historically attested and broadly based conventions had been wrongly discarded by the new Standard.

Perhaps the most telling part of Ó Cadhain’s article, however, is where he accuses Ó Droighneáin of preferring his Standard over the people that spoke Irish or over the desire to make Ireland a Gaeltacht, reiterating the sentiment of his parody of Ó Droighneáin’s prayer. Giving an example of what he calls ‘aural spelling’ in the letters written by his emigrant brothers and sisters, he remarks that Ó Droighneáin would have no interest in these people. In Ó Droighneáin’s mind, he claims, the dialects of Irish were arranged like the wax statues of Madame Tussaud. The historical continuity and living actuality of Gaeltacht speech is opposed by Ó Cadhain to the fir bhréige or dummies/scarecrows of Ó Droighneáin’s Standard.

The third article in this series, and the last with which we shall concern ourselves, contained Muiris Ó Droighneáin’s reply to Máirtín Ó Cadhain, subtitled ‘Let bravery and certainty be with us’, in which Ó Droighneáin made the case for uniformity and certainty in Irish spelling and grammar. In this piece Ó Droighneáin countered the notion that he held an abstract interest in the Irish language by challenging what Ó Cadhain had said about his being indifferent to the plight of emigrants. Citing the case of his own pupils from working class districts of Belfast, Ó Droighneáin claimed that these boys could literally be consigned to the emigrant ship if they did not get a high enough mark in state examinations and, where conflicting rules of grammar and spelling existed in Irish, such a possibility was all the more likely. It was for this reason that Ó Droighneáin encouraged his pupils to practise a rigorous standardised written language if they wanted to succeed in life. This sensible point was almost immediately undermined when Ó Droighneáin claimed that proof readers are responsible for the success of creative writers and that Shakespeare would have failed a university entrance examination on account of his poor spelling — experts had been standardising his work for the past three hundred years to make it readable.

Nevertheless, despite such self-defeating (assuming they were not intentionally tongue-in-cheek) arguments, Ó Droighneáin makes a very instructive point at the beginning of his article which reveals the context for much of his outlook on the question of standardised language. Quoting a speech given by the writer and lexicographer, Niall Ó Dónaill, Ó Droighneáin explained how the word ‘republic’ had had a magical resonance for all of those engaged in the struggle for independence, a single word which encompassed all of the objectives of the Gael. Whenever that independence was granted for twenty-six Irish counties, however, the magic began to wane when it became clear that a Gaelic Ireland had not been achieved in spite of independence. For Ó Droighneáin, the pursuit of an ideal republic was to be superseded by the ideal of an Irish-speaking Ireland and it appears that his great contribution to this aim was the somewhat obsessive advocacy of a unified national standardised language.

The Nationalist project and the ‘local organic community’

Ó Cadhain’s contention that Ó Droighneáin was more interested in the abstraction of a standardised language than he was in the real people and communities who spoke Irish reflects one of the perennial contradictions at the heart of the nationalist project, namely, the tendency to elevate the culture of peripheral communities as a national ideal while ignoring the material wellbeing of such communities. In the decades after independence, this Janus-faced approach to the Gaeltacht had become increasingly evident to many and it was an abiding theme in Ó Cadhain’s life as a social campaigner and polemicist. Part of his mission became to oppose the abstraction of the culture of the Gaeltacht as a pious cultural standard and to promote instead the view of that culture as an organic entity which was dependent on material well-being for survival and which, rather than being frozen in time, was in a constant state of change and flux in common with any living organism.

In his final essay, part literary treatise part autobiography, Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca, Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1969: 9) explains that he was a product of what he termed a ‘local organic community’, a phrase coined from his reading of T.S. Eliot7. His greatest inheritance, he tells us, was the speech of his people, and he had endeavoured to fashion the raw material of this speech into the stylised language of his prose and by so doing to have improved it (Ó Cadhain 1969: 15). Although Ó Cadhain tells us that his own dialect was the basis of his literary expression, the very process involved in fashioning a new literary form was necessarily transformative. Indeed, one of Ó Cadhain’s many bugbears was what he regarded as the tendency of folklorists and academics to treat living traditions as things to be embalmed and encased in a mausoleum; death, he remarked, was synonymous with the study of Irish and folklore (Ó Laighin 1990: 151). It was never Ó Cadhain’s intention, therefore, to insist on preserving the local dialect in mummified form or to resist innovations which would lead towards a new consensus on spelling and grammar. Rather, he made many incisive recommendations towards standardisation himself and was enthusiastic about Niall Ó Dónaill’s classic essay on the development of Standard Irish, Forbairt na Gaeilge (1951)8. Indeed, it appears that he fell out with his own brother Joe when the latter felt he had given in to standardisation and the abandonment of Gaelic script9. Nevertheless, when faced with such a strident advocate of Standard Irish such as Ó Droighneáin who, it seemed to Ó Cadhain, evinced a view of Irish as an abstract construct, Ó Cadhain baulked at this guiltless decoupling of language and community.

The issues outlined here will be familiar to many as part of the movement from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, which is part of the wider history of European civilization10. However, the insights specifically afforded by theorists of nationalism seem to be of the greatest relevance to the contention between Ó Cadhain and Ó Droighneáin. One might well characterise Ó Droighneáin as typifying the move towards an ‘imagined community’, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) famous phrase to describe the creation of modern nations. Uncomplicated by local affinities, Muiris Ó Droighnéain looked to the state as both the regulator and guarantor of an official Standard Irish which would transcend local and dialectal difference in the aim of creating a unified language to which each member of the Irish nation could share allegiance. Hence his frequent phone calls and letters to Rannóg an Aistriúchán (the state Translation Department). Moreover, in his role as an educator, Ó Droighneáin was ideally placed to facilitate a key requisite of modern nation-building as understood by Ernest Gellner, that is to say, the establishment of a standardised idiom for context-free communication. The development of modern nations, Gellner (1983: 57) tells us, depends on the following:

…the general diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of a reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of the previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.

Inevitably, such a standardised code cannot preserve historical continuity at micro-level. Rather, the emphasis is on the clarity and consistency so prized by Ó Droighneáin as aids to the development of a nationwide, school-mediated Irish. Ó Cadhain on the other hand, despite his avowed commitment to the need for a standardised language was troubled by the lack of fidelity to historical forms. Thus, he criticised Proinsias Mac Cana and Tomás Ó Floinn’s Scéalaíocht na Ríthe (1956), a modernised retelling of some Old Irish and Middle Irish texts, for discarding forms of speech which still survived in the Gaeltacht and for replacing common speech with civil-service clichés11. Although Ó Cadhain was scathing of academics who spoke disparagingly about ‘revivalist Irish’, proclaiming that everyone’s Irish was revivalist now, one gets the sense that he was fighting a battle on two fronts (Ó Laighin ed. 1990: 90). On the one hand, there were the professors and pedants who seemed to care about little else other than the historic language and on the other hand there were the excesses of revivalism which led to either a fetishisation of or detachment from the living historically-rooted communities in which Irish was spoken. In his private correspondence with Ó Droighneáin before their dispute, Ó Cadhain warns of the dangers of discarding Gaeltacht dialects, which he says would encourage people in the Gaeltacht to abandon the Irish language and to regard it henceforth as merely the responsibility of schools. If this were to happen, Ó Cadhain continues, the Irish language would be dead and any standard would be entirely irrelevant12.

The imagined linguistic community

Ó Droighneáin seemed to embody the ability to imagine a new linguistic community which would place Irish beyond the ties of the local; a Cork man who had learned Cork Irish, he taught himself Ulster Irish which he used, in standardised form, after his move to Ulster. Another example of the propensity of revivalists to imagine a new linguistic community is given by the Belfast poet Ciarán Carson (2004) writing about his father Liam. Liam Carson/Mac Carráin had learned Irish as a second language and was an enthusiastic member of the Gaelic League, through which he formed many relationships. He was an equally enthusiastic member of the Esperanto Association and corresponded with people around the world. On one occasion Ciarán Carson remembers accompanying his father and brothers on board a Russian ship which had docked in Belfast so that they could have high tea with the captain, an Esperanto enthusiast. Very often the catalyst for such encounters in either Irish or Esperanto was the lapel-ring worn by Irish speakers or the star worn by speakers of Esperanto. These are the ‘mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture’ of which Gellner speaks. In the case of both urban revivalist Irish and Esperanto both were underpinned by a Utopian ideal, expressed literally in the name of the invented language ‘Esperanto’ or ‘hope’.

It may well be argued that the Utopian universalism of revivalists was essential to the long term survival of the Irish language. While it is clear that Máirtín Ó Cadhain was deeply committed to the integrity of his local community both linguistically and politically13, there can be no doubt that he also shared a belief in the need for a more abstract, utopian ideal and in particular the ideal to which Ó Droighneáin alludes in his essay, summarised in a single word, ‘republic’. Hope, according to Ó Cadhain (1966: 1), was the single greatest catalyst for change in Irish history, Hope is the chain detonation which I see going right back in the history of the country. If it were not for a mindset which ran contrary to reason, he went on to say, the Irish would have long since disappeared from history.

In spite of Ó Cadhain’s qualified enthusiasm for standardisation of the Irish language as part of the progression to full independent nationhood (what he called the “vision”)14, perhaps the pull of the local was too persistent for him to fully accede to this. This dichotomy is neatly summarised by T. S. Eliot in one of those essays to which Ó Cadhain looked for his understanding of the meaning of tradition: It is only a law of nature, that local patriotism, when it represents a distinct tradition and culture, takes precedence over a more abstract national patriotism (1933: 20)15. In the process of allowing the nation to appropriate the culture of the local community, to create what has been called a periphery-dominated centre, people from the Gaeltacht had in certain ways more to lose than those from without, such as Muiris Ó Droighneáin16. Ó Cadhain became sufficiently exercised about this to declare, in a letter written in the year before his death, that:

the people of the Gaeltacht and, for that matter, of the whole western side of Ireland must grasp the first opportunity to secede from this meaningless state with its meaningless paraphernalia of ministers, as Biafra seceded from Nigeria and Cuba from senile dependence on America. The Orient and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world will gladly have them17.

Perhaps the origin of this last sentence can be explained in Ó Cadhain’s final essay, in which the antagonism between the particular and the general, the local and national, the material and the abstract is especially evident. Ó Cadhain speaks here of travelling to the Orient and Eastern Europe, specifically to Leningrad, Moscow and to the Soviet Republic of Kirghizia. Sitting in the airport in Moscow, he was reminded not of Marx and Lenin nor of Dostoevsky or the great Russian authors but the folktales he had heard as a child at home about the Eastern World. He goes on to describe how his mind had mapped these tales heard in childhood to every hedge and stone in his home locality, so much so that they shaped his mind and person entirely. In an ironic way, the idealised Oriental world of the folktale had become local material reality. Perhaps Ó Cadhain’s realisation that he was forever bound to return to the material rather than the ideal is the reason for his choosing a piece of verse by Hugh MacDiarmaid as the last word of his final essay:

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet — and breaks the heart.

While in Mac Diarmaid’s verse the paradoxical inversion is that of the national over the global, in Ó Cadhain’s case this inversion seems to have been overshadowed by that of the local over the national.


In 2012 a new revised set of guidelines for the Standard Irish, so beloved by Muiris Ó Droighneáin, was made available as a PDF after a period of consultation (Gramadach na Gaeilge 2012). The new guidelines were the work of a panel of experts appointed by Minister Éamon Ó Cuív, grandson of Éamon de Valera, who had commissioned the first handbook of Standard Irish in 1958. Later that year, in August 2012 under a new minister, Donnchadh Mac Fhionnlaoich, the government Translation Section (Rannóg an Aistriúcháin) published its own revised edition of the original 1958 handbook. This has created an anomalous situation in that both publications were officially commissioned by the Irish government, yet the content of one differs from the other to a significant degree. One wonders how effective either set of guidelines will be when each seems to be in direct competition with the other. A solution may lie in the three-year consultation period which the Translation Section announced with the publication of its new Standard Irish. Yet the period of uncertainty which will accompany the consultation process has led to criticism, particularly among those for whom written Irish is their professional field18. One feature worth noting is the tendency of the guidelines commissioned by Ó Cuív to embrace dialectal forms more explicitly than before and, in this way, rather than prescribing specific standard forms, in some places ‘dialect-neutral’ forms are given. This approach seems to me to reflect a general tendency, encouraged by the growing influence of language planning analysis, to accept that speakers of Irish from Gaeltacht areas had never really embraced the Standard Irish that prevailed in schools and the civil service. The criticism has been that native speakers were estranged from written Irish, or what they call ‘school Irish’, and that this needed to be redressed given the most recent gloomy predictions on the future of the Gaeltacht19. With this in mind, it may appear pragmatic for Standard Irish to admit a greater tolerance of dialectal forms than was previously the case. Notwithstanding this, it would be a dangerous thing to give up on the ideal of a standardised written Irish. The lesson of Ó Cadhain versus Ó Droighneáin, it seems to me, is that, while there will always be antagonism between the material local actuality and the abstract utopian ideal, both may be mutually dependent.

Ulster University

Archival sources

  • University College Dublin, ‘The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin’, Archives IE UCDA P154.
  • Trinity College Dublin, ‘The Papers of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’, Manuscripts and Archives Research Library, TCD MS 10878.


  • Anderson, B., 1983, Imagined Communities, London: Verso.
  • Carson, C., 2004, ‘The Language Instinct’, The Guardian (01/05/2004).
  • Christian Brothers, 1990, New Irish Grammar, Dublin: Fallons.
  • Costigan, B., Ó Curraoin, S., 1987, De Ghlaschloich an Oileáin: Beatha agus Saothar Mháirtín Uí Chadhain [Of Island Limestone: the Life and Work of Mairtín Ó Cadhain], Indreabhán: Cló Iar-Chonnacht.
  • Eliot, T.S., 1933, After Strange Gods: a Primer of Modern Heresy, London: Faber and Faber.
  • Gellner, E., 1983, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Kiberd, D., 1996, Inventing Ireland: the Literature of the Modern Nation, London: Vintage.
  • Mac Lochlainn, A., 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Gaeilge — Lucht Teanga Céasta idir Dhá Chaighdeán’ [‘Fifty Shades of Irish — Language-Users Tormented between Two Standards’], The Irish Times (12/09/2012) .
  • Mc Guire, J., Quinn, J., eds., 2009, Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ó Baoighill, P., 2007, Ó Cadhain i dTír Chonaill [Ó Cadhain in Donegal], Dublin: Coiscéim.
  • Ó Cadhain, M., 1962, ‘Gan Rath orthu mar Choinbhinsiúin’ [‘Conventions that are Useless’], An tUltach (Lúnasa), 6–7.
  • Ó Cadhain, M., 1966, An Aisling [The Vision], Dublin: An Coiste Cuimhneacháin Náisiúnta.
  • Ó Cadhain, M., 1969, Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca [White Papers and Written Papers], Dublin: An Clóchomhar.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, A., 2002, Ag Samhlú Troda: Máirtín Ó Cadhain 1905–1970 [Imagining a Fight: Máirtín Ó Cadhain 1905–1970], Dublin: Coiscéim.
  • Ó Dónaill, N., 1951, Forbairt na Gaeilge [The Development of Irish], Dublin: Sáirséal agus Dill.
  • Ó Dónaill, N., ed., 1977, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla [Irish English Dictionary], Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair.
  • Ó Droighneáin, M., 1962a, ‘Teagasc agus Foghlaim’ [‘Teaching and Learning’], An tUltach (Meitheamh), 12.
  • Ó Droighneáin, M., 1962b, ‘Crógacht is Cinnteacht linn’ [‘Bravery and Certainty with us’], An tUltach (Meán Fómhair), 8.
  • Ó Fiannachta, P. ed., 1981, An Bíobla Naofa [The Holy Bible], Maynooth: An Sagart.
  • Ó Giollagáin, C., Mac Donncha, S. ed., 2007, Staidéar Cuimsitheach Teangeolaíoch ar Úsáid na Gaeilge sa Ghaeltacht:Tuarascáil Chríochnaitheach [A Comprehensive Linguistic Study of the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht: Full Report], Galway: Ollscoil na hÉireann Gaillimh.
  • Ó Laighin, S., ed., 1990, Ó Cadhain i bhFeasta [Ó Cadhain in Feasta], Dublin: Clódhanna Teoranta.
  • Stockman, G., ‘Muiris Ó Droighneáin’, An tUltach (Lúnasa), 4.
  • Titley, A., 1975, Máirtín Ó Cadhain: Clár Saothair [Máirtín Ó Cadhain: a List of Works], Dublin: An Clóchomhar.
  • Titley, A., 2011, Nailing Theses, Belfast: Lagan Press.
  • Tönnies, F., 2001, Community and Civil Society, Harris, J., Hollis, M., ed., J.
  • Harris, M. Hollis, trans., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Welch, R., ed., The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Web sources


  1. Ó Droighneáin (1962a; 1962b); Ó Cadhain (1962). Ó Cadhain wrote a further article in reply to Ó Droighneáin (1962b) but this was not published by An tUltach. This may have been due to a number of factors including references to the word banéigean or ‘rape’, which may have been considered inappropriate by the editor of An tUltach, given that the magazine depended on a large school-based readership, or the claim made by Ó Cadhain that Ó Droighneáin had gone on a linguistic spying mission to Ó Cadhain’s family home in Cois Fharraige! This claim is interesting in the light of a later remark by Ó Cadhain (1969: 15) that People go to my house in Cois Fharraige and among my neighbours to enquire there if my speech is the speech of my people. (My translation. Similarly, all other translation in this article of original Irish source material is mine.) Ó Cadhain’s unpublished article in this correspondence is held in The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin, UCD Archives, P154/90 (4). In its March 1963 edition An tUltach carried two letters responding to the controversy, one from an individual using the pseudonym ‘Dubliner’ which, while deferential towards Ó Cadhain, makes a case for the need for standard Irish. The other letter was from the writer Breandán Ó hÉithir (1930–1990), who was quite contemptuous of Ó Droighneáin’s views.
  2. There are several biographical works on Ó Cadhain in Irish (Ó Cathasaigh (2002), Costigan and Ó Curraoin (1987), Titley (1975)) as well as the entry on Ó Cadhain in the digitised biographical database The key sources in English are Mc Guire and Quinn ed. (2009) and Welch ed. (1996). Inevitably, given Ó Droighneáin’s more modest profile, he figures much less prominently in biographical sources. Besides the entry for Ó Droighneáin in, the descriptive catalogue of The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin in UCD Archives (IE UCDA P154) is prefaced by a very useful biographical essay and chronology by Lisa T. Collins. A summary of this can be accessed on the DCU website.
  3. Bhí mé féin agus mo dheartháir i bhFianna Éireann ag cuidiú leis na hÓglaigh, My brother and I were in Fianna Éireann assisting the IRA (Ó Droighneáin 1962b: 8).
  4. See Muiris Ó Droighneáin biography in In a private correspondence with Ó Droighneáin Tomás de Bhaldraithe refers to him as Ireland’s chief corrector of Irish (phríomhcheartaitheoir Gaeilge na hÉireann; The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin, UCD, P154/220 (21)). It is worth noting that Ó Droighneáin’s manifold corrections of the text of de Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish Dictionary (1959) were not acknowledged in the supplement of ‘Terminological Additions and Corrections’ published in 1978, this in spite of de Bhaldraithe’s frequent private acknowledgement of Ó Droighneáin’s contribution (The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin, UCD, P154/220 (21)).
  5. The first director of TG4, Cathal Goan (later director general of RTÉ), and the writer and poet Gréagóir Ó Dúill were also pupils of Ó Droighneáin’s.
  6. See for example Ó Droighneáin (1962a). While this antagonism is suggested in Ó Cadhain’s claim, mentioned above, about Ó Droighneáin phoning the Translation Branch of the Civil Service where Ó Cadhain had worked, it is worth noting that Ó Cadhain had written a friendly letter to Ó Droighneáin in the previous year in which he discussed the standardisation of placenames, on which subject, Ó Cadhain remarks, they were in great agreement. He also mentions here a long letter in progress to Ó Droighneáin on matters of Irish spelling and syntax (The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin, UCD, P154/ 90).
  7. See also Titley (1993: 232–3) and Ó Cathasaigh (2002: 6–7, 11) for a discussion of both the origin of this term and Ó Cadhain’s reference to its development after Eliot by English writers such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. Titley regards both ‘local organic community’ and Ó Cadhain’s Irish rendering comhthionól fuinniúil fuinte as an egregious example of the tendency to sentimentalise and generalise the notion of rural community. Conversely, Ó Cathasaigh takes the view that Ó Cadhain’s Irish phrase comhthionól fuinniúil fuinte (literally, ‘kneaded, kneading community’) is an improvement on the original English notion and one which was intended to avoid an idealistic, romantic picture of rural community.
  8. ‘The Development of Irish’. See Ó Cadhain’s review in Ó Laighin (1990: 191–209).
  9. Interview with Pádraig Ó Baoighil who accompanied Ó Cadhain on his tour of the Donegal Gaeltacht in 1957, where they recorded a great number of stories, much of which has been published in Ó Baoighil (2007).
  10. The categories proposed by Ferdinand Tönnies in his Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) are generally translated into English as ‘community’ and ‘(civil) society’. See Tönnies (2001).
  11. Ó Cadhain (1969: 18) and Ó Cadhain Papers TCD, B/57.
  12. The Papers of Muiris Ó Droighneáin, UCD, P154/ 90.
  13. It is almost, but not entirely, true to say that whatever he [Ó Cadhain] did in the public arena he did for the people of the Gaeltacht (Titley 2011: 293).
  14. See Ó Cadhain 1966.
  15. See also Ó Cadhain 1969: 14.
  16. For a discussion of the concept of periphery-dominated centre, see Declan Kiberd’s chapter ‘The Periphery and the Centre’ in his Inventing Ireland (1996: 481–96).,/li>
  17. Letter to the editor of The Irish Press concerning the controversy following the commemoration of Peadar Ó Doirnín in March 1969; Ó Cadhain papers TCD, M/2/46.
  18. See for example Mac Lochlainn 2012.
  19. See the state-commissioned comprehensive study of the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht, where the authors conclude that, without decisive intervention, the strongest Gaeltacht areas will survive for at most fifteen to twenty years in their current state (Ó Giollagáin & Ó Donncha 2007: 517).

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is very grateful to the author for his permission to publish this article.

Ailt ⁊ Aistí Material in English

Máirtín Ó Cadhain 1906–1970

By Tomás de Bhaldraithe.

This article was first published in Lochlann 6, in 1974.

The appointment of Máirtín Ó Cadhain to the Professorship of Irish in Trinity College, Dublin, in 1967, was as unexpected as it was unprecedented; particularly in a university which had on previous occasions seen fit to reject Douglas Hyde (for the same chair) and W. B. Yeats (for the chair of English), as being mere writers and critics.

Ó Cadhain’s academic qualifications, on paper, were minimal. He had been a primary school teacher, and held a Diploma in Education. His non-academic activities had not been of a nature that would normally impress university bodies. These included organizing the poor peasants of Connemara (in the early thirties) in an effort to gain recognition of their right to a decent livelihood in their own country, without having to turn over to the English language; active participation in the proscribed Irish Republican Army and its campaign of explosions in England (in an attempt to draw attention to the problem of partition in Northern Ireland); a consequent five years’ spell in an internment camp in Ireland. In spite of all this, Ó Cadhain was appointed to the chair, an appointment which showed enlightenment on the part of the authorities, but also that Ó Cadhain himself must have been a very unusual person.

He was born in the townland of Cnocán Glas, on the west Galway coast, into a community which barely subsisted on barren land, and whose way of life had changed very little over centuries. In spite of its proximity to Galway city, about twelve miles away, Cnocán Glas was wholly Irish-speaking, and indeed even still retains some monoglots. The formative years of his life were spent in this community, except for two years in a Dublin Teachers’ Training College (1924–26) after which he returned to the Galway Gaeltacht, and taught there until the late thirties. He escaped the influence of a secondary boarding school in an English-speaking area, to which most Irish speakers were of necessity subjected at an early age, if they were to get any formal post-primary education. That accounts, in part, for the depth of his knowledge of the spoken language, but only in part. Both his mother, Bríd Óg Nic Conaola, and his father, Sean Ó Cadhain, were traditional story tellers, as was his uncle, Máirtín Beag Ó Cadhain (and probably many more of his relations). His brother Seosamh, who assisted in the editing of the English-lrish Dictionary (Dublin, 1959) had also a remarkable knowledge of the vocabulary and idiom of Connemara Irish.

Máirtín himself had always been fascinated by language (and in later life acquired many other languages including English, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, German, Scottish Gaelic, French). In one of his recent published works (Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca) he admits that language sometimes got the upper hand, The most valuable literary instrument I got from my people was the spoken language, the natural earthy pungent speech of the country, which sometimes starts dancing and sometimes weeping, in spite of me. (Translated from the Irish.)

His special knowledge of the language was soon recognised, and in 1937 he was invited by the Department of Education to contribute to a projected Irish Dictionary. He had begun this work before he got involved in the political activities which led to his internment. On his release, at the request of the then Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, he was asked to continue the work. His collections of words and phrases from the living speech of Connemara have been used extensively in the preparation of the Department’s English-Irish Dictionary (1959) and its Irish-English Dictionary (in progress).

Ó Cadhain’s earliest contribution to scholarship was a collection of folk-tales, recorded mainly from his parents, which he made for the Folklore Commission. Some of these have been published in Béaloideas (Dec. 1933; Dec. 1935; June 1936).

He was appointed in 1949 to the Parliamentary Translation Staff, which had at the time been given the work of forming a standardized spelling and morphology of Irish, based on the spoken dialects as well as on the written language. Ó Cadhain made no small contribution to this difficult task, although of course, his suggestions were not always adopted (see his article ‘Forbairt na Gaeilge’ in Feasta, Dec. 1951).

His period with the Translation Staff provided him with valuable experience of the problems involved in the development and the adaptation to the requirements of modern urban society of a spoken rural language, which was divided into dialects and had been long neglected as a literary medium.

His first published creative work Idir Shúgradh agus Dháiríre appeared in 1939, followed by An Braon Broghach (1948), both collections of short stories, or rather nouvelles. The publication of Cré na Cille (a novel, 1949), Cois Caoláire (stories, 1953) and finally An tSraith ar Lár (1967) — which won for him the valuable Butler Award of the Irish-American Cultural Institute — added to his reputation, so that he had come to be considered by many as the foremost living Irish writer, in Irish or English.

The greater part of his creative writing deals with his own people in Connemara, whom he portrays with insight and deep sympathy, but with an honesty which makes no attempt to conceal the harsh realities of life in a depressed rural community. The danger of imminent extinction of the language and culture of this community is a frequent underlying theme in his work. He also writes about Dublin city life, certain facets of which he came to know more intimately than many city people. Stylistically, his great achievement was his artistic use of his rich native dialect and his ability to draw on the literary language of earlier periods. He was also remarkably successful in adapting and developing his dialect in such a way as to write convincingly about life in an English-speaking city.

Unfortunately much of his writing is still unpublished, including an Oireachtas prize-winning novel Athbheochan, and a critical assessment of the modern Irish novel.

His published lectures, articles and pamphlets on literary, language and political problems are essential for anyone who would understand fully the contemporary Irish scene. He never relaxed in his efforts in the defence of the Irish-speaking communities against the ever-increasing pressures from outside — which often included well-meaning but misled language revivalists. He was a formidable controversialist and satirist, and perhaps some of his best writing is to be found in articles such as ‘Do na Firéin’ (Comhar, March 1962), or ‘Béaloideas’ (Feasta, March 1950) in which he scarifies the folklorist who battens on the people of the Gaeltacht, while hoping for their speedy extinction in order to enhance the value of his own collections, or ‘An Treallán’ (Comhar, June 1952) — a devastating review of the first number of a Department of Education literary magazine, so devastating that no other number was published.

His public lecturing had the same quality as his writing. He could keep an audience — even a hardened academic one — spellbound for hours by his fluency and eloquence, his subtle use of language, his deep unmistakable sincerity. Páipéir Bhána agus Páipéir Bhreaca (1970), which shows him at the highest point of development as a writer, will be long remembered by those who were fortunate to hear it as a public lecture delivered to Cumann Merriman.

Professor Ó Cadhain was a born teacher. During his period of internment he had been remarkably successful in teaching spoken Irish to adults of very varied educational background. By his personality, his natural ability and his dedication, he inspired his students with enthusiasm for the subject. In these days of strained relations between students and university authorities, the esteem and affection which his students clearly felt for Ó Cadhain was quite remarkable. The Ó Cadhain best known to them and to his intimate friends was a gentle, generous, quiet-spoken, helpful person, who differed greatly from the Ó Cadhain who appeared to his opponents in political controversy.

When many a learned academic will be forgotten, Máirtín Ó Cadhain will be remembered for his contribution to Irish life in general, and in particular for his efforts, both literary and political, which put new heart into the young people of Connemara, and for his creative writing which has given such pleasure and encouragement to readers of Irish.

In many respects, Ó Cadhain seemed to belong to an older generation of native Irishmen, and perhaps it may be fitting to end with a few words from the seventeenth century annals, Annála Ríoghachta Éireann, which recount the death (in 1563) of one Maghnus Ó Domhnaill, chief of his clan, poet, historian, active politician, warrior, one-time prisoner in his own country, as follows:

…a fierce, obdurate, wrathful and combative man toward his enemies and opponents… and a mild, friendly, benign, amiable, bountiful, and hospitable man towards the learned, the strangers, the poets and the ollaves… a learned man skilled in many arts, with a profound intellect…

Iontaobhas Uí Chadhain is grateful to Lochlann and to the de Bhaldraithe family for permission to make this article available here.