Padraic Ó Conaire could write ‘pretty racy stuff’

Week III

Although Padraic Ó Conaire often had the look of an angel, he could write pretty racy stuff. His book Deoraíocht (Exiles ) ranks as one of the most colourful and audacious Irish language novels ever written. He presented a different Ireland in this and other books, an Ireland riddled with envy, alcoholism, terminal poverty and destitution, mental illnesses, emotional and physical abuse As they sank into anonymity, the ‘exiles’ experience the successes and failures of their new life. Published in 1910, it reflected real life, its sorrows and struggles. At a time when book-banning was seen as an attempt to keep Ireland pure and ‘clean,’ the book was immediately banned.

There it remained until a couple of months before the unveiling of the Ó Conaire statue at Eyre Square. It was our friends in the Mayo Library Committee who did it.

In a gesture of support for Galway, the committee debated an item on the agenda supporting the unbanning of the controversial book. Minutes tells us that Fr Corcoran, supporting the motion, said that he had read some of Ó Conaire’s books and found nothing objectionable in any of them. “The books were in the programmes of secondary schools and the universities, and the bodies in charge of these were very carefull in the selection of reading matter.”

The reverend gentleman, in explaining to the committee the offending paragraph, argued that it was in fact the most tender paragraph in all Ó Conaire’s books. “It would be possible for an evil-minded person to read some thing bad into it, but it would not be justified.” But Fr Enilly, clearly hurt by the insinuation of an evil-minded man, said there was an objectionable thing in the book, but he got over it ‘by tearing the page out!

After further discussion it was agreed to refer the whole question to the selection committee. The book was soon released from its chains.

Pioneers of modern Irish

But one man who would have objected, had he been a member of the Mayo library committee, was An tAthair Peadar Ua Laoghaire, who, in the modern Irish style, wrote a similar volume of works to Ó Conaire, only his subjects were chaste and unsullied as the driven snow.*

At the end of the 19th century the great challenge of the Gaelic Revival was to undo the Anglicisation of Ireland. This was spearheaded by the Gaelic League, founded by Eoin MacNeill in 1893, and other enthusiasts of Gaelic language and culture. Its first president was Douglas Hyde, and its objective was to encourage the use of Irish in everyday life.

Although tAthair Peadar did not start writing until his mid fifties, a stream of publications poured from his parochial house in the north Cork countryside. They included numerous books, and innumerable articles in newspapers and periodicals, covering a prolific range of interests including the modernisations of early and medieval texts, translations of the classics and the gospels, a catechism, and treaties on Irish grammar and idiom.

Although their subject matters were different, Patrick Pearse, Peádar Ó Conaire and tAthair Peadar Ua Laoghaire were the pioneers of modern Irish.

Numbingly boring

In April 1917 Ó Conaire became involved in a fierce row with Ua Laoghaire, and one of the leading Irish scholars of the day, Douglas Hyde, professor of Modern Irish in UCD. Fr Peadar complained to the registrar of the NUI about the presence of Deoraíocht on the matriculation syllabus, and Nóra Mharcuis Bhig, and An Chéad Chloch on Hyde’s university course. Now, to his despair, Deoraíocht, which dealt with issues such as adultery, prostitution and alcholicism, had replaced his Séadna, which had been on the matriculation course from 1913 until 1916. As a result Deoraícht and Nóra Mharcuis Bhig were replaced by the numbingly boring, and naive Iosagáin by Patrick Pearse.

Pearse had a better destiny than than to be a writer.

Next Week: A walk around Galway: Padraic Ó Conaire, and Liam Ó Briain.

Notes: *Two well known books by An tAthaire Peadar were Séadna, based on the German legend Faust (1904 ) and Mo Sgéal Féin, My Own Story, (1915 ).

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