Pádraic Ó Conaire was born on February 28 1882 in a pub by the docks, to middle-class Catholic publicans. He briefly attended the Presentation National School, but when his parents both died young he went to live with some of his extended family in Rosmuc. He later went to school in Rockwell and from there to Blackrock College in Dublin. He emigrated to London and took a lowly job in the civil service. He joined the local branch of Conradh na Gaeilge and flourished as an Irish language teacher and writer. In 1901 he published his first short story, An t-Iascaire agus an File.
He was widely read and influenced by European literary models and wrote in simple direct Irish about themes such as poverty, emigration, isolation, vagrancy, alcoholism, despair, and mental illness. In 1906 he won an Oireachtas prize for his story Nora Mhárcais Bhig. He became the most innovative Irish language writer to emerge from the Gaelic Revival publishing his novella Deoraíocht in 1910 and a collection of short stories An Chéad Chloch in 1914 to acclaim.
His friend PS Ó hÉigeartaigh described him as follows: “Small and sturdy, the inevitable stick, pipe, hat on the back of his head, brown suit and then the fine head, the broad forehead and the kindly luminous eyes. In Fleet St and in cities generally, he looked, and he was an alien.” He was a nationalist and a socialist and firmly believed in what he called “the trinity of freedom: economic, national, and personal”.
In 1915, with the threat of conscription looming, he returned to Ireland leaving his wife, Mary McManus, and his four children behind. He found work as an organiser for the Gaelic League. In June 1917 he had completed a collection of stories called Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach and he was present when the last remaining prisoners following the Rising were released and returned to Dublin. He found a publisher but had one final obstacle to overcome, he had to submit the manuscript to Dublin Castle for scrutiny. It was given to Head Constable Peter Folan from Spiddal to review. Peter had nationalist sympathies and passed the book without edit.
In the 1920s, Ó Conaire struggled with alcohol addiction and his health and spent his final years in poor health in Galway, teaching at the technical school and Irish summer colleges, and writing newspaper articles. He died on October 6 1928, and is buried in the New Cemetery. MacLiammóir described him as “Of a tribe that is passing from the world, a born story-teller, a wanderer and a wastrel, one who like Raftery had known hardship and carousal everywhere, and who, more than Wilde ever dreamed of doing, had put his talent into his work, his genius into his life; a great man whom it was impossible not to love”. Our photograph shows him with his cousin Máire Ní Thuathail who first taught him to read and write in Irish and is courtesy of the late Thomas O’Toole of Tourmakeady.
The Galway City Council has, as part of the 1916 centenary celebrations, published an impressive new edition of Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach. It contains the seven stories in Irish and also in English, beautifully translated by Diarmuid De Faoite, and it includes an excellent introduction by Brendan McGowan. Arguably the first important fictional response to the Rising, these stories deal, not with the Rising itself, but with the ways in which the revolt intervenes in the lives of ordinary Irish people. It is a fitting end to the centenary celebrations and congratulations to all concerned. It is available in good bookshops at €20 and highly recommended. It will be launched on Saturday at 6pm in the Galway City Museum and all are welcome.