Short Stories

‘Fr. Eugene O’Growney’ – By: Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh



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Anybody who visits Ireland today will quickly see that the Irish language is given a high

status. Admittedly, it is rarely heard spoken in most parts of the country. But street signs are

all in Irish as well as English, there are government-funded Irish language TV and radio

stations, and Irish language names are given to many of the country’s important institutions.

Most Irish people can speak the “cúpla focal” (few words). Schools in which instruction is

entirely through the Irish language are growing in popularity.

If we go back only a little more than a hundred years, things were very different. The Irish

language was associated with poverty and backwardness. Irish-speaking parents wanted

their children to speak English instead. Very few schools taught Irish. Daniel O’Connell, the

political leader who was known as the “uncrowned King of Ireland”, notoriously declared: “I

can witness, without a sigh, the gradual disuse of Irish.” Hardly any books were published in

Irish, other than scholarly works. The language was visibly dying.

If there is one man who did more than anyone else to halt the decline of the Irish language, it

is Fr. Eugene O’Growney (Eoghan Ó Gramhnaigh), a shy and sickly Catholic priest who died

at the age of thirty-six, in 1899. His Simple Lessons in Irish was a bestseller, giving the

rudiments of Irish to thousands who had never spoken it before. He has been described as

the John the Baptist of the Irish Language revival– and all this despite the fact that, by his

own account, he had not even realized that there was an Irish language until he was


Eugene O’Growney was born in Athboy, Meath, in 1863, to a moderately prosperous family.

Initially a healthy boy, he records an intriguing story of an encounter with a ghostly figure

when his family moved house, after which he never enjoyed good health again. He entered

Maynooth seminary in Kildare in 1882. By this time his interest had been aroused in the

language, having heard a neighbour use an Irish language greeting. He set about learning it

as best he could, through the scant printed sources and through holidays spent in Irish-

speaking areas. He also set up an Irish language debating society in Maynooth, one which

still exists today as Cuallacht Cholm Cille. According to contemporaries, O’Growney did not

win any of the academic prizes available in Maynooth because the bulk of his energies were

already going to the study and promotion of Irish. A priest who knew him at this time said:

“Other than the salvation of his soul, the Irish language was closest to his heart.”

In 1890, only a year after he was ordained as a priest, he wrote an article entitled “The

National Language” for the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, in which he stridently defended the

importance of Irish: “It surely stands to reason”, he wrote, “that the history, language, and

literature of a country are sacred national trusts.” This essay predates by two years the

lecture of his friend Dr. Douglas Hyde, “The Necessity for De-Anglicizing the Irish Nation”.

Hyde’s lecture led to the foundation of the Gaelic League (of which O’Growney was a

founder member and Vice-President), an organization which added tremendous momentum

towards the achievement of Irish independence in 1921.

Before O’Growney and his friends like Douglas Hyde, there had certainly been scholars who

took an interest in the Irish language. But these tended to be foreign academics who saw

Irish simply as a subject to be studied. It was O’Growney and his contemporaries who began

the push to preserve and revive Irish as a spoken language.

O’Growney was made the first professor of Irish at Maynooth University 1891. Two years

later, he began to publish his famous “Simple Lessons in Irish” in the Weekly Freeman

newspaper. These caused a sensation. Another language revivalist, Fr. Michael O’Hickey,

wrote: “Their publication, on the whole, was probably the greatest individual service ever

rendered to the Irish language movement.” They were eventually published in five booklets.

According to a contemporary source, everyone in Ireland had these little green books in their


In 1894, Fr. O’Growney took a sabbatical to America while suffering from tuberculosis. He

would never return to Ireland alive. His remaining years were spent writing in California and

Arizona, even making time for an Irish translation of the Star-Spangled Banner. He died in

Los Angeles in 1899 and his remains were returned to Ireland in 1903, where six thousand

people attended his funeral.