In his famous statue of the writer and Irish scholar Pádraic Ó Conaire, the sculpture Albert Power presents a brilliant likeness to the man Galway knew as he went about the town. Liam Ó Briain, a friend and fellow Irish enthusiast, remarked that Albert Power had captured exactly how the man looked. Meeting Ó Conaire in town one evening, Ó Briain remembered that he looked in reality as he is on the statue: ‘the stick in his right hand, the little hat on his head’, a face that could show his ‘puckish humour.’ *
Pádraic’s benign expression, however, hides the energy within him, and the enthusiasm with which he promoted the Irish language, while working with the civil service in London. He taught Irish in several centres in evenings and weekends, while writing short stories and newspaper articles.
Years in London taught him that the life of the emigrant was not always easy. Influenced by Russian writers Ó Conaire was quickly hailed as a pioneer in the development of modern Irish literature. His bleak story Nóra Mharcuis Bhig, which enraged the romantics such as Douglas Hyde and the influential Rev Peadar Ó Laoghaire at the time, shows the grim side to emigration when Nora leaves her Connemara home for London. She falls into a life of drinking among her prostitute companions. In a desperate effort for restitution and peace of mind, she comes home and works hard, earning the respect of her community. On the surface at least, she appears to have found contentment. Unable to resist a drink, however, she falls on the floor drunk in a local pub. Nora, daughter of Marcus Beag, leaves her village for the second time.
Too much blood
Despite disappointments, and the objections to his articles being included in examinations, Liam Ó Briain testifies that Ó Conaire ‘was amazingly free of spite, of bitterness and of vindictiveness.’ O Briain recalls ** that on the night when World War I was officially ended, men and women, soldiers and officers were in the streets of Dublin celebrating that they had survived. Mad things were done that night, including soldiers attacking the Sinn Féin headquarters in Harcourt Street. Revenge was taken on celebrating soldiers later. ‘There were English soldiers on their own or in twos’, writes Ó Briain in his essay Pádraic Ó Conaire, ‘who were doing nothing except looking for a drink, or attempting in some childish way, to show how happy they were to be alive after the years of strife. Here and there they were knocked down, kicked or injured. I saw a young soldier flat-out on Westmoreland Street, bleeding from the mouth and pleading: “I belong to an Irish Regiment!”…
‘That night I walked in the streets in Padraic’s company. He was doing his best all afternoon to save these soldiers, and he did indeed manage to prevent the mob from inflicting more harm; because it was a mob, and not the Volunteers who were responsible for these actions. “I’m an International Socialist,” Pádraic shouted at the crowd. “Let there be peace between all nations. We’ve had too much blood spilled.”
Padraic spent the final years of his life primarily in Galway town and county teaching Irish and drinking heavily. His writings had mellowed, and perhaps today he is best remembered for his gentle stories of country life, and travels with a donkey.
His wild days forgotten. He died destitute in Richmond Hospital, Dublin, October 6 1928, aged 46 years. He was buried in the New Cemetery, Galway, with his brother Isaac and his Welsh wife Margred. Also in the grave is Mary Conroy.
Their grave was unmarked until following an appeal in the local papers, money was generously subscribed by readers. Albert Power’s son, James, made a suitable gravestone carved from Rosmuc limestone, bolding proclaiming, in old Irish script: Fíor Gael, agus Sár-Ugdar.
It was unveiled by the poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, June 1982, the centenary of Pádraic’s birth.
‘But now he has returned in dreaming stone
And staying, sits forever as if hewn
Out of this Galway place where some will stray
To talk near him, where fairing men will lean
Upon his shoulder singing songs and say:
They knew, or how their fathers once had been -
Where busy strangers too will speak his name
Because he has been greatly born again.’
(From Of a Portrait in Stone, by Irene Haugh, Irish Times April 20 1935 ).
NOTES: *Having remained in his original location at the top of Eyre Square for 64 years, during which the Ó Conaire statue welcomed people from all over the world, and was a favourite photograph backdrop. It was vandalised in 1999, and removed from view. Today, perfectly repaired and restored, Pádraic resides at the Galway City Museum. A bronze replica is located at Eyre Square.
**Taken from from Essays of an Irish Rebel - Liam Ó Briain, translated by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh.
The photograph of Albert Power working on the Ó Conaire statue is from Saol agus Saothar Albert Power, by Dara Ó Conaola, and I acknowledge help from Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, Dictionary of Irish Biography.