Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ireland’s first president

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ireland’s first president - Douglas Hyde. A linguist and literary academic by vocation, he was the founding father of the influential Gaelic League. The National Library of Ireland holds a series of his diaries, written in Gaelic. Although not published, they have been used extensively in a modern biography, the full text of which is available online thanks to the University of California Press.

Hyde was born on 17 January 1860 - one and a half centuries ago today - at Longford House in Castlerea, County Roscommon, while his mother, Elizabeth, was on a short visit there. His father, Arthur Hyde, was Church of Ireland rector of Kilmactranny, County Sligo, which is where Hyde spent his early years. In 1867, the family moved to Frenchpark, in County Roscommon, when his father was appointed rector of Tibohine. As a youth, Hyde became interested in the Irish language, especially thanks to Seamus Hart, a gamekeeper, and he went on to study languages at Trinity College, Dublin. Later, in 1893, he founded the Gaelic League to promote the Irish language. The same year he married Lucy Cometina Kurtz, a German, and they had two daughters.

The Gaelic League soon became very popular, and helped forge a generation of Irish leaders who would play a central role in the fight for Irish independence in the early twentieth century. Hyde himself, though, became uncomfortable at the growing politicisation of his movement and resigned its presidency in 1915; he also eschewed any association with Sinn Féin and the Independence movement. After a short stint in the upper house of the new Irish Free State’s parliament, he returned to University College Dublin, as Professor of Irish. Throughout his career, Hyde published various works on the Gaelic language, but he also wrote poetry and plays.

Years later, after retirement from the university, Hyde was appointed by Taoiseach Éamon de Valera to the upper house. Before long, though, he was chosen - thanks to a variety of political compromises - as the first President of Ireland. He was inaugurated into the (largely ceremonial) post in June 1938 and proved to be a popular choice. He survived a serious stroke in April 1940, albeit paralysed and in a wheelchair, and remained in office until 1945. He died in 1949, and, as a former President of Ireland, was accorded a state funeral. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or RTE.

The National Library of Ireland holds many of Hyde’s papers, including 13 diaries (1873-1912) written in Gaelic and seven business diaries (memos relating to literary activities with entries mainly in English, 1897-1900, 1905-1938). As far as I can tell these have not been published, at least not in English. However, they were used extensively by Janet Egleson Dunleavy and Gareth W. Dunleavy in their biography - Douglas Hyde: A Maker of Modern Ireland - published by the University of California Press in 1991. Much of the book is available to read at Googlebooks, but the whole book has also been put online by the University of California Press.

Although the biography by the Dunleavys does use Hyde’s diaries extensively there are not many extracts of any length. Here, though are three extracts, two from when Hyde was but a teenager, and the last from when he and his wife were visiting the United States.

‘Got new boots from Narry on Feb 1
Had two new lambs on March
Snow on March 9. Heavy on March 10
Pa made a double shot at snipe at the flash on March
I shot a jackdaw Pa shot two snipe on March 10
Pa shot a jackdaw
Snow & frost on March 11
Pa shot a jackdaw on March 12
Thaw on March 12
Began thathing [sic] the cowhouse
Out shooting shot a partridge & field hare on Mar 13
Took a ride on the pony
Pa went to French park fine day 14
Sunday Fine day 15
Wet day 16
Fine day 17
Fine day. Shot a seagull, took a ride
Pa out shooting. Shot 2 snipe 18
Finished thaching [sic ] the cowhouse 18
Hart gave me a black-thorn 18
Connolly began harrowing 18
Rough day. Pa out shooting shot a snipe. Ma's sheep had two lambs 19
Fine day. Ma's sheep had a lamb. 20
Arthur came home from Dublin. Wet day. O went to London on the 21
Sunday 22
Arthur out shooting and shot a snipe, fine day took a ride on the pony 23
Hart gave Arthur a black-thorn on the 23
Very fine day. Pa and Arthur went to Cornwall [the Irish town, not the English
district] Connolly harrowing. I sowed some oats 24
Connolly branded the lambs. Pa shot a couple of rooks for the oats. Fine day.
Connolly bought 2 calves at Ballagh a derreen [sic ] for f 12s 10 25
Connolly harrowing, pretty fine day. Pa went to Slievroe [sic ] & gave cigars to
a man who had astma [sic ] on 26th
Had a third lamb. Very wet day. Harrowed a little 27’

29 December 1875
‘Seamas died yesterday. A man so decent and generous, alas, so true and honest, alas, so friendly, alas, never will I see again. He was sick about a week and today he is gone. Poor Seamas, I learned Irish from you. A man so good with the Irish, never will there be another like you. I can see no one at all from now on whom I would love as well as you. May seven angels be with you and may your blessed soul be in heaven now.’

21 April 1906
‘The white blossoms of the dog trees brightened the woods and forests on both sides of the railway, and the pink patches made by the Judas trees, as they are called, were beyond anything lovely. The Judas tree appears to have no leaves, but is thickly covered with pink blossoms. Judas is said to have hung himself on one of these trees, hence the name. They are numerous all over the South, but apparently not in the North. Toward evening we struck the Allegheny Mountains, a series of lovely ridges with a beautiful river running through them. All night long these ridges were lit up by brilliant flashes of summer lightning which kept playing on the hills and river for hours.’

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