Douglas Hyde

Contributors: DÓC.

Celtic scholar, translator, poet, cultural nationalist, and president of Ireland. Douglas Hyde was born near Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, on 17 January 1860, the son of Arthur Hyde, a Church of Ireland clergyman and a descendant of the Elizabethan planter, Arthur Hyde of Denchworth, Berkshire. Hyde spent his early years in Co. Sligo (where his father was rector of Kilmactranny) and then, from 1867, at Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon. He was educated at home due to a childhood illness. He spent most of his youth roaming the Roscommon countryside, fishing and shooting, in the company of an old Fenian, Johnny Lavin. At this time Irish was spoken by a little over a quarter of the people of Roscommon, but was in steep decline. He learned Irish from the ordinary people and studied the written language in an Irish New Testament he found in his father’s house. Here in Roscommon he heard the folk tales and songs of the ordinary people that fired his imagination and here, too, he developed strong nationalist feelings.

He went to Trinity College, Dublin in 1880 where he felt alienated by its anglicised culture. He attended no lectures for the first two years and preferred to study at home. However, he was a distinguished student and he won many prizes including the gold medal for modern literature. He studied German, French, Latin, English, Celtic, and history and took a BA in 1884. He had a notable talent for languages. To please his father, he read divinity and graduated with distinction but he had no taste for the clerical life. In October 1886 he came back to Trinity to study law and graduated with a doctorate in 1887. While at Trinity he joined the Contemporary Club where the questions of the day were vigorously debated, and among the participants were leading political activists (the Fenian John O’Leary; Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League; and Maud Gonne) and important writers (W. B. Yeats, T. W. Rolleston and C. Litton Falkiner). He contributed a reflective essay, ‘A plea for the Irish language’, to the Dublin University Review in August 1886, arguing that while English was necessary for all, it was essential for national honour to preserve Irish.

Hyde’s life’s work was to be the study and preservation of the Irish language. He was hardly twenty when he joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and between 1879 and 1884 he published over a hundred pieces of Irish verse, some of them strongly nationalist. He used the pen name An Craoibhín Aoibhinn (‘Delightful little branch’) by which he became well known. In Dublin he associated with two different sets. The first was an Irish-language set centred about the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language. He helped to establish the Gaelic Journal (Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge), the first important bilingual Irish periodical and he set himself to learn the older literature in Irish. The second set was a group of writers on Celtic themes but in English, among them W. B. Yeats, T. W. Rolleston and Katharine Tynan. He collaborated with them and they thought very highly of him. He contributed to W. B. Yeats’s Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).

In 1889 he published a collection of folk tales (An leabhar sgeulaigheachta). Here he expressed his idealist views on the value of Irish:

‘Wherever Irish is the vernacular of the people there live enshrined in it memories and imaginations, deeds of daring, … an heroic cycle of legend and poem … which contain the very best and truest thoughts … of kings, sages, bards and shanachies of bygone ages. … if we allow one of the finest and the richest languages in Europe, which, fifty years ago, was spoken by nearly four millions of Irishmen, to die out without a struggle, it will be an everlasting disgrace, and a blighting stigma upon our nationality’.

In 1890 he published Besides the Fire: a collection of Irish Gaelic folk stories, a work that is a landmark in Irish folklore studies and in Irish literary history, because of his scholarly approach and because his translations are in the genuine English speech of the people.

With W. B. Yeats he founded the Irish Literary Society in London (1891) and the National Literary Society in Dublin (May 1892). In November 1892 Hyde delivered a manifesto to the National Literary Society under the title ‘The necessity for the de-anglicising the Irish nation’ in which he urged the Irish people to assert their separate cultural identity and to arrest the decay of the Irish language. He caustically attacked what he called ‘West-Britonism’, the copying of English manners and habits.

He spent 1891–2 in Canada as an interim professor of modern languages in the University of New Brunswick. When he returned to Ireland, he travelled the countryside collecting Irish folk tales and poetry. The result of his labour was Abhráin Grádh Chúige Connacht, or Love Songs of Connacht, first published in the newspapers and issued as a book in 1893—the original texts in Irish with translations in verse and prose. His work had a remarkable effect. W. B. Yeats wrote:

‘the prose parts of that book were to me, as they were to many others, the coming of a new power in literature’.

It inspired Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory.

Hyde married Lucy Cometina Kurtz in Liverpool in October 1893. He signed his name in the registry book in Irish. Now he settled down in Frenchpark as a country gentleman. Here he went shooting and fishing with Lord de Freyne, the O’Conors of Cloonalis and the county gentry and partied with them in the evenings. He was hugely popular; he mixed effortlessly with quite different people and classes; and, though firm in his convictions, he was always courteous and never quarrelled with anybody. Utterly free of religious prejudice, he was an ecumenist before his time. He did not care very much which church he attended. His Abhráin diadha Chúige Connacht or Religious songs of Connacht (1906) is full of Catholic religious sentiment. As Seán Ó Lúing says: ‘He was the most Roman Catholic of Protestants, or put the other way around, the most Protestant of Roman Catholics’.

In July 1893 he became a joint founder, with Eoin MacNeill, of the Gaelic League (Connradh na Gaeilge), and remained its president until his resignation in 1915. Its purpose was to preserve Irish as a spoken language and maintain Ireland’s distinctive Gaelic culture. From its establishment, the League was independent of all political parties and open to persons of any religion or none. It promoted the cause of Irish language, Irish music, Irish dancing, Irish culture, Irish games, as well as Irish industries. The League published an influential newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (‘the sword of light’) and organised feiseanna and literary competitions. It successfully campaigned to have St Patrick’s Day made a national holiday. Timirí (travelling teachers) visited all parts of the country to encourage the formation of Irish language classes. In 1905 its first college for the training of Irish teachers, Coláiste na Mumhan, was established in the Cork Gaeltacht. In 1905–6 Hyde toured the USA to raise funds for the League and collected the large sum of $64,000. By now the League had 550 branches nationwide and had become a major cultural force.

At the Commission on Intermediate Education in 1899 there was an animated discussion: should Irish be on the curriculum? The Trinity professors J. P. Mahaffy, Robert Atkinson and their supporters strongly opposed making Irish a school subject, arguing that there was nothing in Irish fit to be studied. Hyde took them on and trounced them. He sent copies of what they had said to the leading Celtic scholars of Europe—among them Rudolf Thurneysen, Ernst Windisch and Ludwig Christian Stern in Germany; Holger Pedersen in Denmark; and Georges Dottin in France. Hyde submitted their calm scholarly replies on the outstanding quality of Irish literature to the Commission. This crushed the opposition. Irish became a school subject and the status of Irish and Irish scholarhip was vindicated spectacularly. In 1906 he was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on University Education and, against much opposition, notably of the Catholic bishops, he was successful in making Irish a compulsory subject for matriculation into the new National University of Ireland. In this, Hyde proved an inspired campaigner and so strong was popular support that 100,000 attended a pro-Irish rally in Dublin.

In 1909 he was appointed the first professor of Modern Irish at University College Dublin, a position that he held until 1932. He was also Dean of the Faculty of Celtic Studies. He was Chairman of the Irish Folklore Commission (1930–34) and was awarded the Gregory Medal in 1937. On his retirment, he lived at Ratra, near Frenchpark, in a house bought and given to him by the Gaelic League.

Hyde’s writing are central to the Irish Revival. In 1897 Hyde, because of the insistence of W. B. Yeats, became an editor, with T. W. Rolleston and Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, of the New Irish Library, a series of books on Irish history and literature issued by the London publisher, Fisher Unwin. It published Hyde’s own Story of early Gaelic literature in 1905. He edited Giolla an Fhiugha (1899) and Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir: the conquest of Charlemagne (1917), both published by the Irish Texts Society, of which he was president. His Literary history of Ireland, a remarkable achievement in its day and still not bettered, appeared in 1899. In 1901 he collaborated with Yeats and Lady Gregory on theatrical productions, beginning with Casadh an tSúgáin ‘The twisting of the straw rope’. This was the first play in Irish to be performed in the Literary Theatre. This is how James Cousins describes the performance:

‘A simple story; but its dressing and dialogue and the energy and delight of the actors were irresistible, and a scene of ungovernable enthusiasm followed …’.

Hyde later became the vice–president of the Abbey Theatre company.

The Gaelic League grew dramatically in strength. But it attracted people like Patrick Pearse and Sinn Féin activists. Now political events overshadowed Ireland. The Sinn Féin party had been founded (1905) and was working for a fully independent Ireland. Many of its members were also active members of the League. Hyde tried continuously to keep politics out of the League’s affairs and, though a nationalist, never expressed any political opinion himself. But with the growing excitement following the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (January 1913) and the Irish Volunteers (November 1913), it became difficult to keep the League out of politics. In 1915 the Oireachtas of the League was held at Dundalk. There was a motion to add to the League’s objects the further one of making Ireland ‘free of foreign domination’. It passed by a large majority, but it was divisive. Besides, it was a coup: the Gaelic League was now being taken over by those identified with revolutionary politics. Hyde resigned as President, and the League’s main interest became politics, not language. He was well aware of the impact on national politics of the Gaelic League. He wrote:

‘The Gaelic League grew up and became the spiritual father of Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin’s progeny were the Volunteers who forced the English to make the Treaty. The Dáil is the the child of the Volunteers, and thus it descends directly from the Gaelic League, whose traditions it inherits’.

His dream that Irish would unite all the people, regardless of politics or religion, was over.

When the office of President of Ireland was created under the Constitution of 1937, Hyde was unanimously selected by all parties and held office until his term expired in 1945. While in office, he published three volumes for private circulation: The Children of Lir (1941), Songs of Columcille (1942) and Dánta éagsamhla. He died in Dublin, on 12 July 1949. He was given a state funeral, and a Church of Ireland service was held in St Patrick’s Cathedral. The President and cabinet, Catholic politicians, and people stood outside the Cathedral in meek obedience to a canon law of the Catholic Church that forbade Catholics to attend a non-Catholic religious service in any circumstances. His remains were then taken across Ireland by motorcade and buried in Frenchpark churchyard, Co. Roscommon, on 14 July.

Writings, Biography & Studies. Douglas Hyde (ed. & tr.), Beside the fire: a collection of Irish Gaelic folk stories (London 1890; 2nd ed. London 1910; repr. New York 1973; repr. Dublin 1978). Dúbhglas de hÍde (ed. & tr.), The love songs of Connacht (Dublin 1893; repr. Shannon 1969). Douglas Hyde, A literary history of Ireland (London 1899; repr. with revisions by Brian Ó Cuív, London & New York 1967, 1980). Dúbhglas de hÍde (ed), An sgéaluidhe Gaedhealach (London & Dublin, 1895–1901) [with French translation by Georges Dottin]. Douglas Hyde, The story of early Gaelic literature (London 1905). Dúbhglas de hÍde (ed. & tr.), The religious songs of Connacht (Dublin 1906; repr. Shannon 1969). Dúbhglas de hÍde, Mise agus an Connradh (go dtí 1905) (Dublin 1937). Dúbhglas de hÍde, Mo thurus go h-Americe (Dublin 1937). Diarmid Coffey, Douglas Hyde, President of Ireland (Dublin 1938). Myles Dillon, ‘Douglas Hyde’, in Conor Cruise O’Brien (ed), The shaping of modern Ireland (London 1960) 50–62. Máirín Ní Mhuiríosa, Réamhchonraitheoirí (Dublin 1963). Brian Ó Cuív, ‘The Gaelic cultural movements and the new nationalism’, in K. B. Nowlan (ed), The making of 1916: studies in the history of the Rising (Dublin 1969) 1–27. Seán Ó Tuama (ed), The Gaelic League idea (Cork & Dublin 1972; 2nd ed. Cork 1993). Dominic Daly, The young Douglas Hyde (Dublin 1974). Janet E. & Gareth W. Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde: a maker of modern Ireland (Berkeley CA 1991). Seán Ó Lúing, ‘Douglas Hyde and the Gaelic League’, in Celtic Studies in Europe and other essays (Dublin 2000) 77–94.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin