Pádraic Ó Conaire, prince of storytellers

“A short walk on the gravelled path and I was before the man I had come to see. There was a great peace about him as he sat there, leg crossed upon leg, hat rakish on his head, mute in the sculptured dignity of stone. Ever since I had learned the Gaelic, I had loved him, this strange man of dreams whose friends were the birds and the furry people of the wood, the wind and the small white stars.

“Ever since a gentlemanly Christian Brother had loaned me his books, I had hungered for the solace of the white roads that twist through the heather hills and furze-haunted fields of Banba; for the green companionship of the trees, and the lonely personality of raths at night where fairies dance on wee shoes lined with moonlight ....

“The grandest man in the world he was, God rest him.’ I turned and saw a man beside me, tattered, thin, grey-bearded, a green fiddle-bag bulked under his arm. ‘The grandest writer of them all. I’ve read a lot but he’s the man for me. The singing Spanish of Cervantes, the subtle French of Moliere, the purple prose of Donn Byrne, they have all comforted me, but the Gaelic of Sean-Phádraic stole my heart. You wouldn’t think by looking at me that I know a half a dozen languages and I only a tattered man fondling a fiddle.”

An extract there from an article written by Sigerson Clifford after visiting the statue of Sean-Phádraic in 1937. It captures the spirit of the author, and the ómós discerning readers give him. Ó Conaire was more than a picturesque character, more than a writer of no mean skill and delicacy, he was one of our greatest short story writers, a profound psychologist, a cunning craftsman, a weaver of tales. He had no political or social axe to grind. His mission was the expression of his own personality and the analysis of that of others. Life was his setting, and experience his brush. He created wonderful characters, his plots were original and displayed a great fertility of imagination.

In his dress and mannerisms and outlook on life, he was unorthodox. He was usually dressed in an old brown suit which he apparently slept in as often as he walked about in it. He was a Bohemian by nature. In the early part of his career, he worked in London, and taught Gaelic League classes there. In Galway, he taught Irish in the Technical School, and to the boys of the Grammar School.

The Galway City Museum reopens this week with some new exhibitions, including an important one on Ó Conaire. The statue by Albert Power is there, of course, as well as a collection of photographs, books, and memorabilia, all enlivened by an animated re-telling of M’Asal Beag Dubh in their own words by the children of Claddagh National School. Highly recommended.

Our thanks to Elizabeth Midgley (née Scanlan ) who lives in the UK, for today’s photograph of a young Pádraic. Elizabeth’s grandmother and Pádraic’s mother, Kathleen McDonagh, were sisters. The photograph was taken about 1890 by W Hopkins, Number 6 Eglinton Street.

 

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