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THE MAN WHO DIED FOR THE LANGUAGE: THE REVEREND DR. O’HICKEY AND THE “ESSENTIAL IRISH” CONTROVERSY OF 1909 LUCY McDIARMID See! an Craoibhín at the wheel, Says the Sean Bhean Bhocht. See! his pilot’s Eoin MacNeill, Says the Sean Bhean Bhocht. See O’Hickey in Maynooth, Our brave advocate of truth; Fighting for the Poor Man’s Youth, Says the Sean Bhean Bhocht. —“Misneach,” in The Irish Nation and Peasant, 6 February 1909 Ag uaigh Sheáin Uí Éigeartaigh, chuir Máirtín Ó Cadhain i gcomórtas leis an Dochtúir O hIceadha é. Chaon duine acu ar a bhealach féin, d’fhéadfá a rádh go bhfuair sé bás ar son na Gaedhilge. Go dtuga Dia luach a saothair dóibh. —Pádraig Eric Mac Fhinn, An tAthair Mícheál Ó hIceadha culture wars do not generally accumulate the clutter that political wars leave behind, things like the flags, uniforms, guns, deathmasks, medals, bits of prison biscuit and soap that remain from the 1916 Rising for later generations to museumize and revere. What after all are dead controversies but so much yelling and name-calling, arguments and angers well forgotten ; a hundred thousand letters-to-the-editor of The Irish Nation and Peasant , The Irish Independent, An Claidheamh Soluis, and Sinn Féin; a few dozen academic articles; and a touch of residual rancor in some long-gone polemicist’s heir? The controversy over the role of the Rev. Dr. Michael O’Hickey in the 1909 “essential Irish” debate is unusual in this respect: it is driven by THE MAN WHO DIED FOR THE LANGUAGE 188 texts—in their material, paper form—that became the center of rituals. His words were dangerously outspoken, and whether they were banned or sacralized they seemed to give a potency to the paper itself. O’Hickey, who lived from 1860 to 1916, is the man who “dissed” the bishops, writing with such passion and belligerence on behalf of the Irish language requirement for matriculation in the new National University that he was dismissed from the Chair of Irish at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. A former vice-president of the Gaelic League, O’Hickey had been involved in the controversy over the place of Irish in the intermediate school system (1899–1902) but had been absent from public debate for six years when he was invited to address the issues in the 1909 controversy.1 O’Hickey’s style strikes a modern ear as extravagant and occasionally silly; his irony is heavy-handed, and his tropes were the clichés of his time. But culture wars were fought through him, and his pamphlet An Irish University, or Else— belongs to the category Stephen Greenblatt defined as literary works “that situate themselves on the very edges of what can be said at a particular place and time, that batter against the boundaries of their own culture.”2 The construction of O’Hickey as a folk-hero during the winter of 1908–09 was inspired by the publication of this pamphlet at the very time he had been silenced by the bishops, who complained about the language of his public utterances; and both his punishment by the Trustees of Maynooth in June 1909 and his rehabilitation years later in his native Carrick-on-Suir were oriented around text-based rituals. O’Hickey himself determined the textuality of his fame because he imagined a public readership for his work. During the essential Irish controversy, O’Hickey was known primarily through the effect of his words on audiences and readers. O’Hickey was not present at the Gaelic League meetings where his words, read aloud by other people, were greeted with thunderous applause. He reached even more people on the days following the meetings when the letters that had been read aloud were printed in newspapers. THE MAN WHO DIED FOR THE LANGUAGE 189 1 His translation of the bishops’ Synodal Pastoral was “pronounced the Gaelic publishing event of the year” by An Claidheamh Soluis in 1901. See Philip O’Leary, The Prose Literature of the Gaelic Revival, 1881–1921: Ideology and Innovation (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994...


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