Even the master of intrigue himself, John le Carré, would have been mystified at the bizarre challenges the late Labhrás Ó Nualláin was presented with when he applied for a lectureship in economics, commerce and accountancy (through Irish ) at University College Galway in 1953.
He was an outstanding candidate. Born of Irish emigrant parents in Manchester, Labhrás developed a passion for Ireland and the Irish language through active membership of his local branch of the Gaelic League, and holidays at his grandparents homes in Ireland. He left school at 15, but was later to resume his studies, and achieved a civil service position in Dublin by the age of 21.
He continued his studies at both UCD and Trinity as an evening student, wrote articles in Irish for the Clann na Poblachta’s Our Nation (including a much admired, if somewhat controversial, article on Finances of Partition ); and edited Comhar.
Initially his interview went well. There were five other candidates, each accorded 30 minutes in front of a panel of between 10 and 12 persons presided over by the imposing president of the college, Monsignor Pádraig de Brún. However, politics was still hotly debated among the academic staff. Labhrás was taken aback at the sharp questioning concerning his article on Finances of Partition by two on the panalists, professor Seán Ó Buachalla, and professor Liam Ó Briain. Although both argued from different political points of view, neither agreed with Labhrás’ thesis.
The exchange was watched with amusement by the monsignor.
Labhrás, however, felt he had done well at the interview, but he was not aware of the customs and practices that a new applicant must go through. A friend in the civil service warned him that before any appointments were made the candidate must canvass the national university members of the Senate; and that he must immediately return to Galway and visit as many of the members of the Governing Body as he could.
This was a formidable task. Apart from the Senate, the UCG Governing Body consisted of government nominees, county councillors, some academic staff, and several members of the clegy including two bishops. And it was June when most of the staff were at home either busy with exam papers or off on their travels.
Monsignor de Brún offered him tea in his garden. Nothing was discussed about his possible appointment, what his duties might be, or when he might begin. Instead the monsignor explained that the university was participating in a regatta on the river that day, and that he had better put in an appearance. Would Labhrás mind rowing him up to Menlo?
The monsignor was a very big man, well over six feet, built proportionally and standing at 16 stone. He practically sank the rowing boat as he sat on the back seat. It took all Labhrás’s strength to row the two miles up to Menlo, and home later.
Back in Dublin Labhrás received an anonymous letter. No signature. No date. It was typed on a page under the university letterhead. It gave the marks awarded to all six candidates, and showed clearly that he was by far the preferred choice for the position in Galway. The letter urged him to immediately see as many members of the Senate as possible. Daunted by such a task Labhrás was fortunate that the first academic elected to the Senate he met was Rev Fr Tomás Ó Fiach (later to become a cardinal ), who agreed to support him as he liked his Irish writings.
In the end Labhrás was successful. He was appointed to the university on a salary of £750 per annum, which was at the bottom of the scale. This was a considerable reduction on his present income at the Institute of Industrial Research, and to relocate to Galway, his wife, Frances, had to leave her teaching post at Tallagh national school. In addition, the fact that they had to find a house in Galway would mean considerable expense. During the long interview procedure, there had been hints that the appointment came two increments above the minimum.
The Monsignor assured Labhrás that he was expecting an increase in the college grant coming from the government, and that if Labhrás would be patient, there was no reason why he could not be placed two increments higher.
Some months later, the extra grant did arrive. But it was allocated to the faculty of medicine. Accountants came low in the university pecking order.
Labhrás Ó Nualláin and his family flourished in Galway. He enjoyed his life here, later becoming a very popular, and inspirational professor of economics. He was a strong advocate for Ireland joining the EU, and set up a successful branch of the European Momenet in the city. He loved Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, and would often go there to get some work written. He struck up a warm friendship with Brendan Behan whom he initially met hiding in the lower deck when the Dun Aengus (built in 1914 ) was tied up for a period at the quayside at Kilroran, Inismór, before it went to call at the other islands.
Behan had a contract with the Irish publishers Sairséal agus Dill and found it easier to write on the islands where Irish was the spoken language. But once the boat had left Kilronan, Behan greeted everyone boisterously. The pints began to flow. He told Labhrás that he had had ‘a little trouble’ with the guards on Inishmór’.
According to Behan he was arrested for causing a nuisance one night at Kilronan. He was locked up in a room at the Garda station. By some connivence, however, Behan maintained, that he tricked the sergeant into coming in to talk to him, raced out and locked the poor sergeant into the room instead. Naturally he felt that Inishmór was out of bounds for the forseeable future.
Labhrás died in 2000, but fortunately left an extended diary of his life and thoughts, often with flashes of great humour. His diaries have been lovingly edited by his daughter Niamh Ó Dochartaigh.*
NOTES: * Memoir of an Irish Economist - Working Class Manchester to Irish Academia, published with support from NUI Galway, on sale at €15.