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 it available here.