A Smiling Public Man
Douglas Hyde had lived a long and controversial life when, at the age of seventy-eight, he was unanimously elected first president of modern Ireland. His seven-year term (1938–1945) coincided with that crucial period in modern history when the war that swept Europe and Asia and buffeted the Americas not only threatened Ireland's very existence but compounded the social, economic, political, and cultural pressures already at work in the self-proclaimed new nation.
Born in Castlerea, a market town in county Roscommon seven miles west of the village of Frenchpark where he now lies buried, Hyde spent the first six years of his life approximately thirty miles to the north in the modest glebe house of Kilmactranny, where his father was rector until 1867. Although still remote by modern standards, the county Sligo village already had won the small place in Irish history that later fascinated Hyde, for it was here in the early eighteenth century that Donnacha Liath (Denis O'Conor), although impoverished during the wholesale confiscations of 1692–1700, had maintained his position as descendant of Connacht kings and Irish high kings. In O'Conor's modest cottage Blind O'Carolan had played on his celebrated harp the musical compositions for which he was known throughout Europe. This same cottage, a refuge for hedge schoolmasters and unregistered priests during Penal times, often had sheltered O'Conor's banished brother-in-law, the daring Bishop O'Rourke, who traveled the country disguised as "Mr. Fitzgerald" under the nose of English soldiers.
"The Hill," the handsome Georgian mansion in Castlerea where
Douglas Hyde was born (since altered by later owners), was not his own family home but the glebe house of Kilkeevan parish, home of his maternal grandparents, the Venerable John Orson Oldfield, archdeacon of Elphin and vicar of Kilkeevan, and Maria Meade Oldfield, daughter of Frank Meade, Q.C., of Dublin. Elevated by the hill that gave the house its name, in 1860 it looked across Main Street and over the walls and gardens of the Sandford demesne, now Castlerea town park, on the banks of the river Suck. A few hundred yards along the same street was the more modest birthplace of Sir William Wilde, a distinguished eye surgeon and antiquarian, son of the town doctor and father of Oscar Wilde. Although Oscar himself was born in Dublin in 1854, long after his father had left Castlerea, local memory continued to associate the house with the Wilde family. Prevalent in Hyde's boyhood were rumors, persistent even today, of a mysterious message scratched on a back window. When its street-level rooms were converted to a pub, the name given it was the Oscar Bar. At the time of Hyde's birth historic Clonalis—the walled estate at the edge of town on the Castlebar road that is still held by the O'Conors of Connacht—was the home of Charles Owen O'Conor Don, M.P., great-great-great-grandson of Donnacha Liath of Kilmactranny. Preserved and expanded by O'Conor Don, its extensive library and manuscript archive reflected then as today the interests of Donnacha Liath's son and grandson, Charles O'Conor ("the Historian") of Bellangare and Dr. Charles O'Conor, scholar, translator, and librarian to the Duke of Buckingham at Stowe. Distinguished visitors included not only well-known political figures but scholars from England and abroad. As a young man invited to visit the forty-four-room mansion with its halls and dining room lined with portraits of O'Conor ancestors, Hyde had examined there such ancient Gaelic manuscripts as the fourteenth-century Book of the Magauran (now in the National Library) and the earliest known fragment of Brehon law. At Clonalis also he had stood wondering before the harp that O'Carolan had played in Kilmactranny.
Hyde's paternal grandfather was the Reverend Arthur Hyde, Sr., vicar of Mohill, a town near Drumsna, where Anthony Trollope, then a post office inspector, had found the germ of his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran . As a lineal descendant of Sir Arthur Hyde, whose reward for service to Elizabeth I had been a knighthood and letters patent to 11,766 acres of county Cork, he belonged, however—through a junior line—to the Cork Hydes of Castle Hyde, a celebrated estate on the Blackwater that had remained the family seat until 1851. Father,
grandfather, and great-grandfather before him had served the Church of Ireland since the seventeenth century. Regarded before disestablishment as more social and economic than religious in nature, the respectable career the church provided—as Lady Melbourne had advised her son William—was particularly suited to younger sons. Indeed, had William's elder brother not died, clearing the way for him to become Lord Melbourne, he would have had neither the means nor the social position to rise as he did to prime minister and so earn his place in English political history.
No providential death having intervened to raise the eighteenth-century family of Douglas Hyde from junior-branch status, son followed father: the heir of the Reverend Arthur Hyde of Hyde Park, county Cork, became the Reverend Arthur Hyde, vicar of Killarney. His marriage to a daughter of George French of Innfield established a connection with the Frenches, the family of Lord de Freyne, proprietary landlord of Frenchpark. So it was that in 1867, when he was appointed rector of the parish of Tibohine, the Reverend Arthur Hyde, Jr., son of the Reverend Arthur Hyde of Mohill and father of Douglas Hyde, moved his family to Frenchpark, to live among country squires and landed gentry in a social environment more favorable than that offered by Kilmactranny. Neighboring kinsmen in Frenchpark included not only Lord de Freyne but his brother, John French, whose Roscommon estate, Ratra, was later to become, in 1893, the home of Dr. Douglas Hyde.
Such a pedigree was not the kind from which controversy ordinarily might be expected, nor was there anything apparent in Hyde's childhood or youth that pointed to the many and various careers that were later to engage him. When he grew old enough to handle fishing rod and gun, he was included in the sporting activities his father organized with his sons. But as Douglas's two brothers, Arthur and Oldfield, were in general too old to be his companions and his sister, Annette, who was five years his junior, was too young, most of Hyde's days were spent alone with his dog, Diver, or tagging along behind amiable workmen, or with the sons of neighboring cottagers from the glebe lands and nearby estates. Crossing meadow and bog on these daily rambles, he often stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit in the thatched cabins that dotted the countryside. His welcome was warmest in those in which Irish was the primary language, where it was a matter of some amusement that the master's boy had an ear for the language and liked to try his few phrases on willing listeners. Douglas's interest in Irish won at-
tention at home, too, where until he and his brothers were old enough to assert different aspirations both the Reverend and Mrs. Hyde assumed that all three of their sons would follow the family tradition and enter the ministry. The church, advised the Reverend Hyde, when young Arthur and Oldfield mocked Douglas for making a serious study of what they considered a language of servants, was particularly interested in young men who might qualify for a living in one of the areas to the west where Irish was still dominant. But Douglas—who was educated at home, as were his brothers and sister, in his father's well-stocked library—also was given to understand that history, natural science, mathematics, the classics, and Continental languages and literature were more important subjects, in which one day he would be required to pass entrance examinations for admission to Trinity College.
Before his sixteenth birthday Douglas had acquired the informal elementary education in the Irish language and Irish history and the interest in Irish folktale and song which he then began to pursue through self-directed study of texts bought in secondhand bookstores on rare boyhood trips to Dublin. It was in a Dublin bookstore when he was not yet eighteen that he first met members of the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, an organization of which O'Conor Don of Clonalis was a founding member and officer. Through the society he was introduced to the old manuscripts and rare books of the Irish-language collection of the Royal Irish Academy and to new friends who encouraged his attempts at translating and writing original verse in modern Irish. Before he was twenty-one his Irish poems and translations had appeared in periodicals published on either side of the Atlantic, and he had been accepted as a cultural nationalist by fellow members of both the sedate and literary society and its splinter organization, the more activist Gaelic Union.
Meanwhile there was Trinity to be concerned about. Admitted in 1880 to the divinity program through which, from the sixteenth century, sons of the Ascendancy (including his own father and grandfathers) had received their university education, Hyde quickly won a reputation as an outstanding scholar. To his father it seemed that for Douglas a career in the church and a living in Irish-speaking Mayo was assured. Hyde himself was ambivalent, especially when he discovered that Trinity circles equated an interest in modern Irish with nationalism and regarded nationalists as anathema. Despite the disapproval of influential faculty, he not only continued his membership in the society and the Gaelic Union but joined the beautiful and radical Maud Gonne,
the flamboyant young Yeats, and other women and men of their age and class in a circle called "the Young Irelanders" (after the revolutionary Young Ireland movement of the 1840s) that clustered around John O'Leary, an old Fenian leader returned from exile. Yet to most people Hyde seemed harmless enough, for between 1886 and 1890, having earned B.A., M.A., and LL.D. degrees, he appeared intent on becoming nothing more dangerous than a Dublin man-about-town: a gentleman scholar who spent his days in the library of the Royal Irish Academy and his evenings at theaters, concerts, and dinner parties; a convivial member of proper clubs; a familiar and socially adept figure at teas and tennis parties who talked easily about his travels to English watering holes and the fashionable and scenic gathering spots he had visited on the Continent; an aspiring candidate for a respectable university post in literature and language.
This appearance of indolence and indifference was misleading. By the time Hyde was thirty, his scholarly publications (at which he had been working in fact very seriously) were attracting as much attention as his published poems and translations; his growing international reputation as an authority on Irish folklore and as a theorist and methodologist in the new field of folklore scholarship was bringing him respectful inquiries and requests for assistance from eminent scholars abroad. Had he not been opposed (because he advocated educational support for modern Irish) by such powerful political academicians as John Pentland Mahaffy, later provost of Trinity College, he might have had the Irish university post he coveted. But on this issue Hyde was as implacable as his enemies. Alternatives were few until an invitation to Canada to serve a one-year term as interim professor of modern languages at the University of New Brunswick offered an opportunity beyond Mahaffy's sphere of influence.
In Fredericton, where life was both pleasant and comfortable, Hyde soon began to weigh the possibility of emigrating permanently to Canada or the United States. His duties, which he enjoyed, included teaching French and German; he quickly acquired a circle of congenial friends; he became fascinated with the language and culture of nearby native American tribes; and he set for himself such compatible scholarly tasks as that of comparing native American folklore with the folklore of Gaelic Ireland. Yet at the same time, in what seemed a strange departure to acquaintances who knew of such activities, he sought contacts with such men as O'Donovan Rossa and Patrick Ford, known Fenians and Irish compatriots who were unwelcome in Ireland because of their
political activities. And in his diaries and in notes that he sent home he attempted to gauge Irish-American reactions to contemporary events in Lord Salisbury's England and Parnell's Ireland. Although Hyde's letters from Canada cite his father's illness as the deciding factor in his return home at the end of his New Brunswick year, they also reflect his strong support of Charles Stewart Parnell and his interest in the trials and scandals that had weakened Parnell's position and divided public opinion on the question of his reelection.
By October 1891 Parnell was dead, and with him the energy, excitement, and hope he had generated. The Parnellite nationalists were in rout; the entire Home Rule party was in disarray; the populace was too discouraged to respond to political attempts to rally them. Back in Ireland, Hyde had returned to his usual circles, where his reputation was enhanced by the success of Beside the Fire, published in 1890 and the first of his books to establish his work as an important source for the young writers of what was soon being called "the Irish Literary Renaissance." Word from abroad was that his poems and translations, reprinted in Paris and Rennes, were being enthusiastically received on the Continent, especially in Paris and Brittany where Celtic studies had become a growing area of scholarly investigation and a pan-Celtic movement was gathering popular strength. He was receiving letters soliciting his new work from both popular and scholarly publications.
Elected president of the newly organized National Literary Society in 1892, Hyde boldly chose as both title and theme of his inaugural speech "The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland." Its call for cultural revolution raised few alarms among English authorities, apparently because they could not conceive of an effete literary circle that was seditious, or of folktales, folk songs, and traditional games that could pose a clear and present danger to the state. Nor did the government take notice a year later, in 1893, when Hyde was chosen first president of another new organization, the Gaelic League. Officially its policy was to avoid conflict with the British government by steadfastly maintaining a nonpolitical stance. Unofficially it engaged in activities expressly designed and publicly proclaimed to have as their purpose the fulfillment of the goals Hyde had set forth in his speech on deanglicization. But the prime reason why Hyde's tentative plans for a return to Canada were dropped was that his friendship with Lucy Cometina Kurtz, an attractive, intelligent, and intellectually independent young heiress to whom he had been introduced by his Oldfield aunts, had ripened into engage-
ment. By 1893 they were married. As the turn of the century and his fortieth birthday approached, Hyde's professional and private life were by all appearances both promising and satisfying.
During the next twelve years Hyde continued composing, collecting, and translating the Irish stories and poems that provided, according to Yeats, the "entire imaginative tradition" that stirred the writers of the Irish literary revival. His scholarly studies—expanded to include philology and literary history—drew inquiries from such eminent academicians as Harvard's Fred Norris Robinson and Georges Dottin of the University of Rennes. His circle of friends grew to include the distinguished German Celticist, Kuno Meyer. By 1899 Hyde had published A Literary History of Ireland, a full-length pioneer study still regarded as authoritative. Persuaded by Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats to join their newly formed Irish Literary Theatre, forerunner of Dublin's famous Abbey, he successfully tried his hand at writing original plays in Irish for its repertoire. By 1905 he had composed a corpus of Irish plays performed throughout the country and available in print, and he had preserved hundreds of poems and stories from the oral tradition in such collections as Beside the Fire (1890), Love Songs of Connacht (1893), The Three Sorrows of Storytelling (1895), and Songs Ascribed to Raftery (1903). Extracts of his work that appeared in translation in France and in English-language periodicals in the United States and Ireland had attracted enthusiastic readers who, writing to editors, were requesting more. So varied and prolific were Hyde's activities in the years between 1893 and 1905 that Yeats publicly compared him to Frederic Mistral, the Provençal poet and founder of the Félibrige who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1904.
During these years the Gaelic League, still led by Hyde, also was gathering strength, abroad as well as in Ireland, and political and revolutionary pressures for Home Rule were increasing. Despite the clearly political implications of many of his activities, Hyde continued to maintain a nonpolitical stance and to insist that his own and the league's efforts were confined within a purely cultural framework. In 1899, with testimony from eminent scholars from abroad to support him, he defeated the governors of the British education system in Ireland on the question of the validity of formal study of the Irish language. In 1900 he took on the British Post Office in an epic battle that ended in a Pyrrhic victory for Goliath, so numerous were those who came to the aid of David. Word of these successes traveled, winning new supporters
for Hyde and the Gaelic League not only in Ireland but also in England, on the Continent, in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, and even in the Phillipines and far-off Australia.
As through branches and affiliate organizations the influence of the league spread, Hyde's personal popularity increased correspondingly. In persuasive letters urging Hyde to present a series of lectures in the United States, John Quinn of New York, a wealthy Irish-American philanthropist and lawyer, declared that academic and community groups in fifty-two American cities were eager to sponsor an eight-month tour, if he would but agree. Among prominent Americans who showered Hyde with invitations in 1905–1906, as he crossed and recrossed the United States and Canada by rail, carriage, and boat, were the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Catholic University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California; the daughters of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Andrew Carnegie; Finley Peter Dunne (Chicago's famous "Mr. Dooley"); and President Theodore Roosevelt. All San Francisco seemed to embrace him: its citizens responded generously to his request for financial contributions to continue the league's efforts on behalf of Irish culture and the Irish language.
The year before his fiftieth birthday Douglas Hyde began a new career as professor of modern Irish at University College, Dublin. Among his students were women and men who later taught Irish in this and other Irish universities. Some were appointed to the distinguished faculty of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Two months after Hyde's fifty-sixth birthday a small host of brilliant young men whom he had inspired and taught went to their deaths in the Easter Rising of 1916. He had opposed their action not, as is often stated, because he was against physical force as a means of gaining national independence but because he feared that their brave vulnerability would result in just such a blood sacrifice at a time when he believed that all alternatives had not yet been exhausted. Armistice in 1918 provided relief for neither Douglas Hyde nor Ireland. Physically ill, emotionally depressed, and beset by personal and family troubles and tragedies, he struggled to regain his equilibrium as Ireland struggled through the war of independence (1918–1921) and the civil war (1921–1923) that hampered efforts to build the limited self-government permitted under the divisive Treaty of 1921. Called upon to serve in the Free State Senate in 1925, Hyde readily assented, hoping to find relief from the sorrows of his personal life in renewed political activity and his continu-
ing commitment to scholarship, writing, and teaching. What he found instead was a factionalism that forced him to expend most of his energies on defending himself from personal attack in a climate in which old alliances were often abandoned and new ones were quickly repudiated. At the end of his senate term Hyde nevertheless made a bid for reelection—and lost.
During the next seven years, at an age when most men contemplate retirement, Hyde continued to devote long hours of every day to his teaching and scholarship and to Lia Fáil, a new literary journal in Irish studies that he had launched. Meanwhile anti-Treaty republicans who had been boycotting the Free State government reentered politics with the purpose of winning by election what they had been unable to gain by guerrilla warfare. Eamon de Valera, American-born survivor of the Easter rebellion, war of independence, and civil war, a committed nationalist who had been one of Hyde's young Gaelic Leaguers, soon emerged as the dominant political leader. His success was greeted by some as a sign of a new political optimism. To many dispirited citizens of the Free State it seemed that Thomas Davis's promise of a nation once again might yet be fulfilled. On de Valera's agenda was the writing of a new Constitution that would eliminate the provisions of the treaty he had opposed and establish the framework of the republic he had long envisioned.
In 1937 de Valera persuaded Hyde—then seventy-seven, retired from the university, but still actively engaged in scholarship at home in Roscommon—to return to Dublin to serve a second term in the Free State Senate. On December 29, 1937, the new Constitution was ratified. In the spring of 1938, at de Valera's insistence, Hyde agreed to stand for the office of uachtarán, or president, that had been created by the new Constitution. The same document silently abolished the Irish Free State, establishing by fiat the independent modern Irish nation called Ireland, or Éire. In May all political factions united to elect Douglas Hyde first president of an independent Ireland. For himself de Valera had reserved the post of taoiseach, or prime minister.
Seven years later, in 1945, at the end of a first full presidential term that had spanned the difficult war years, Hyde was asked if he would stand for a second term. He was eighty-five years old and he had suffered a stroke that had left him unable to walk, but his mind was as young and curious, his wit as active, and his commitment to the Irish nation as firm as ever. Nevertheless, he declined: the character of the office of president had been shaped under his aegis; it was time, he
believed, for someone else to take a hand in its future development. This time, however, instead of returning to his native Roscommon, he wanted to remain in Dublin, characteristically close to the action. "Little Ratra," a home in Phoenix Park near Áras an Uachtaráin, was made available to him. There he died, modern Ireland's first elder statesman.
Energetic, amiable, eminently approachable, an easy conversationalist and a charismatic speaker in several languages, Hyde was the kind of man whom people liked to refer to by nickname. In the Big House milieu in which he had been brought up, he was "Dougie." To the millions who knew him best through his work on behalf of the Irish language, he was "An Craoibhin," (from An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, "the delightful little branch," an Irish pen name he had adopted as a young poet). His sister, Annette, called him "Humpy," a name she had given him in childhood, when to her it seemed that whenever she wanted his company outdoors, he was bent over book or notebook. To his daughters he was their affectionate, prank-loving "Tweet." Yet he was also, contemporaries avow, an enigmatic figure, a strange and complex man with a private self kept well hidden from others and a goal-oriented capacity for callousness and thoughtlessness that shocked his most intimate co-workers whenever it emerged. Remembered by the people of northwest Roscommon as among the kindest and friendliest of the local gentry, he was also capable, they admitted, of a petty stinginess. In social circles he was regarded as a devoted husband and father, yet to this day private recollections and rumors of both serious and short-term romantic attachments persistently circulate. Widely perceived as a man dedicated to a cause, he was a puzzle to many who openly wondered at a commitment that, given his class, birth, and social status, cost him so much and held so little personal promise. On occasion his emotional involvement became so intense as to lead him to betray a friend. At the same time he was amused rather than annoyed by associations drawn between his name and that of the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . After his death conflicting statements by others concerning the date and place of his birth raised questions about his parentage. Unchecked by formal investigation and published evidence, over the years anecdote, rumor, recollection, and opinion have been quoted as fact.
Known thus to everyone and no one, Douglas Hyde, a maker of modern Ireland, died in 1949, leaving behind him no easy explanations of his life story but diaries, letters, copybooks, and journals, written
mostly in Irish but also in English, French, German, and occasionally Latin and Greek, to be sifted and winnowed in search of truths. His published writings include not only his own work, translated and published in many different countries, but his collaborations with Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats. Among hundreds of correspondents from all over the world whose letters he answered, usually within twenty-four hours of receipt, were such disparate figures as Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States; Katharine Tynan, distinguished poet; and Eoin O'Cahill, a native Irishman who had left Ireland as a young man but who returned to it in spirit at the end of his life when, living in Michigan, he refashioned figures from Irish mythology to create stories in Irish of the American Wild West. Hyde touched the lives of thousands; hundreds preserved recollections of specific incidents that reveal aspects of his character and personality. His wide circle of close friends was as varied as the range of his correspondents. To the end of his days it included Maud Gonne, whom he had once tried to teach Irish; Sinéad de Valera, who had played the Fairy to his Tinker in his play The Tinker and the Fairy ; the O'Conors of Clonalis in Castlerea; An Seabhac (Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha), folklorist of Dingle; Thomas Lavin, a former Frenchpark neighbor and a contemporary, father of the Irish writer Mary Lavin; old comrades from the Gaelic League; and the Mahons and Morrisroes of the cottages just outside the gates of Ratra, the home two miles from the center of the village of Frenchpark in county Roscommon that had been purchased for him from the estate of John French by the Gaelic League.
Today an afternoon's ramble that takes as its starting point the remains of the foundation of the now ruined Ratra passes over nearby meadow, along bog roads, through farmyards, and by stone cabins, many also in ruins, where 128 years ago a clergyman's son learned his first Irish words and the transformation from Douglas Hyde to An Craoibhin and an t-uachtarán began. Not far from the cottages outside the gates, in which there are still Mahons and Morrisroes who remember Douglas Hyde, is the cemetery in which he lies buried, next to the church in which the Reverend Hyde served as rector from 1867 to 1905.
Behind these public facts there was a private life.