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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.