Death and Dispersal
The decision to move Ireland's first former president into the lodge in Phoenix Park that was the home of the lord lieutenant's private secretary was made by de Valera and McDunphy some weeks before Hyde was to leave office in June 1945. Designated "Little Ratra," the lodge that stood near the Blackhorse Avenue gate to the Park was Douglas Hyde's last residence. There, under the care of Nurse Fitzsimons (Hyde called her "the dark little one"), who had been at his side since his stroke in April 1940, comfortable in a favorite old tweed jacket, he received regular visits from Annette, Una, Michael McDunphy, and Dr. Boxwell and occasional visits from his closest old friends, including Eamon de Valera. Although now free of the staff that had constantly surrounded him, anticipating his needs and reminding him of his responsibilities for seven years, he missed the small pleasures of daily life at the Áras: feeding the swans in the park pond; circling the Áras, followed by a friendly pheasant who so trusted him that sometimes it even would follow him through the door of the mansion; chatting with Luke Nangle, the gardener; feeling the unobtrusive presence of genial Tom Manning, his Irish-speaking aide-de-camp from west Kerry; anticipating the special dishes prepared by his "most important person," as he always called her, Miss Dowling; making notes for his Saturday evening talks—part business, part pleasure—with Eamon de Valera; even being scolded for his frequent evasions of routine by the meticulous Michael McDunphy. One of his last acts as president had been to present McDunphy, who had arranged his daily schedule for
seven years, with a plaster copy of the original casting of a bust of himself by Seamus Murphy and the original manuscript of one of his Trinity College prize essays, "The Organization of Philanthropy."
In spring 1947, Douglas told Annette and Una that he had decided to make a gift to the Gaelic League of "Big Ratra," the Frenchpark house that he had leased from John French when he and Lucy were married, which had been purchased for him by friends and associates in the league after his return from America in 1906. Except for Lucy, his family had been happy there. It was the house in which Nuala and Una had been born, the house to which he and Lucy had returned when he retired from University College. After Lucy's death on December 31, 1938, he had seen little of it except for brief visits during the August shooting seasons of 1938 and 1939. After his stroke in the spring of 1940 travel had become difficult, and his activities had been necessarily restricted. Confined as he was to a wheelchair, if he went there now he would not be able to inspect the fruit trees he had set out so long ago or stroll from Ratra to the glebe house to wind the clocks for Annette. The Morrisroes and Mahons kept an eye on the place and dusted and aired it regularly, but the jumble of guns, fishing rods, Wellingtons, umbrellas, and overcoats in the hall, noted by Hyde's American visitor, Ben Greenwald, in the summer of 1937, remained as they were. Gone from Hyde's study, however, were the hundreds of books, manuscripts, papers, letters, and press clippings that were his scholar's workshop. They had been moved to the Áras shortly after Lucy's death and then to the Secretary's Lodge when he finished his presidential term. There they were all accessible to him, for he had only to give Nurse Fitzsimons shelf and volume number for any book that he wished to consult, and she fetched it for him.
Thought was not deed: the decision to transfer Ratra to the league was easy; accomplishment was another thing. Not until May 1949 was Annette able to tell Hyde that the transfer that he had signed two years before, finally, after inordinate bureaucratic delay, had been approved by the land registry. She also had to give Douglas the first of a series of disappointing reports about his gift. The Dublin lawyer had written that "every scheme" he had "tried to work out for utilising the house for Irish language purposes" unfortunately had "turned out to be impracticable." Despite strong feeling among many of the people of Frenchpark that Ratra should be preserved, if not as a language study center perhaps as a convent school or hospital, house and land were sold and the proceeds, not the place, presented to the Gaelic League.
At one point the message that Annette had received from the lawyer indicated that the Roscommon county manager had thoughts about taking over Ratra as a "preventorium for young children threatened with tuberculosis." It would be a very good use for the place, Hyde had said, and would result in the Gaelic League getting more for it. In 1949, however, the roof and windows were removed, shrubs and trees were cut down, and the hollow shell was left open to the elements. The property passed through several hands after its sale by the league's agent, the parish priest in Frenchpark. By 1972 the walls had been leveled; the broken stone had been used for fill under a new creamery in Ballaghaderreen; the land itself was let for pasturage.
At "Little Ratra" it was Annette, who had always helped McDunphy with Hyde's personal mail, who took charge of his entire correspondence. Letters still came from every part of the globe. Some were from a new generation of Irish abroad who, determined to preserve their heritage, sent anecdotes, folktales, and poetry in Irish. Some, from scholars as distant as Queensland, Australia, expressed appreciation for Hyde's help in resolving a research problem or for his generosity in writing a foreword to a book. Gathered for their summer colloquium at 64 Merrion Square in July 1948, faculty and fellows of the School for Celtic Studies sent salutations and "blessings on the Craoibhin." Among the signatures affixed were those of famous twentieth-century Celtic scholars—Michael O'Brien, Osborne Bergin, Gerard Murphy, Cecille O'Rahilly, David Greene, James Carney, Brian O'Cuiv, Máire MacEntee—but also those of women and men just beginning their work or newly established in it. Notes, queries, articles and reviews from a new generation of French Celticists arrived frequently and were acknowledged and responded to in accordance with Hyde's instructions. Before each Christmas, working from the lists Hyde had maintained for years, Annette mailed scores of cards which brought greetings in return from such old friends as Sinéad de Valera, who addressed him in Irish as "friend of my heart."
Tended by Annette and Nurse Fitzsimons, visited by Una, his grandchildren, de Valera, McDunphy, and those old friends who were not dead or dying, Hyde lived quietly—for the first time in his life perhaps—for four years. Generally well, although troubled like most bedridden people with a variety of skin ailments, he sustained his good nature. In a later interview with Sean O'Luing, Nurse Fitzsimons remembered Hyde as simple and kindly, always smiling, a man of the people. Even when he had no choice but to summon her to his bedside
in the early hours of the morning, to ask her to relieve the torment of his itching shoulders, he was, she said, always gentlemanly, apologetic and appreciative. He died quickly and peacefully, as if he had simply gone to sleep, at ten o'clock in the evening, July 12, 1949.
In July 1941, Hyde had made a will, noting special bequests to David and Ann Morrisroe of Ratra, Frenchpark; to the Irish Society for the Protection of Birds; to the Gaelic League and An Fáinne; and to Aileen Crofton, Kiltee House, Wellington Bridge, county Wexford. In a change from the instructions contained in his first will of July 1929, he asked that his Irish manuscripts be given to University College, Galway, instead of University College, Dublin. All remaining cash and worldly goods—he asked that the latter be sold—he left to Una.
Word of Douglas Hyde's death created the need for the new Irish nation to introduce a new tradition, a ceremonial mourning for a former head of state. Telegrams and cables, notes of condolence, official messages of sympathy from Europe and North America, and personal notes from all over the world from women and men whose lives he had touched poured into Little Ratra. First to pay his respects in person, within twenty-four hours after the news had been published, was Hyde's successor, President Sean T. O'Kelly. With McDunphy's help Annette set up a register for mourners to sign. At Trinity College, the college flag was lowered to half mast and the chief steward was instructed to drape the college mace in black crepe. The day following Hyde's death the Dublin press carried tributes and appreciations. Daniel Corkery declared that Douglas Hyde had restored Ireland's sense of nationhood. An Seabhac credited him with having pioneered a methodology for collecting Irish folklore. To Robert Farren, Hyde had awakened students and scholars in all branches of Irish letters "to be native, continuous, rooting, branching and fruitful." Agnes O'Farrelly saw Hyde's life as a panorama: poet, dramatist, folklorist, and "leader of a lowly cause," "a slave descendant of lofty and cultured traditions, making common cause with his Catholic fellow-countrymen, particularly the submerged of the race."
Douglas Hyde's last journey through the streets of Dublin began at 8:30 A.M. on Thursday, July 14, when his flag-covered coffin with a military escort was carried out Little Ratra, out of Phoenix Park, to O'Connell Street, by way of the North Circular Road, past the Gresham Hotel. For half a minute the procession paused in silence before the General Post Office, symbol of sacrifice and nationalism. Then the hearse and its escort moved slowly up Dame Street and Lord Edward
Street to Patrick Street and to St. Patrick's Cathedral for a brief service conducted by the archbishop of Dublin and the dean of the cathedral. Official mourners from the nation's political and educational establishment huddled in an alley near the cathedral—unable, in an era before official ecumenicism, to attend the service for Hyde, most ecumenical of men. Critical of behavior that emphasized division rather than unity at this time when, to him, Ireland was more than ever in need of unification, Austin Clarke captured them in a tableau in the poem in which he paid tribute to Hyde, "The Burial of an Irish President":
Professors of cap and gown,
Costello, his cabinet
In Government cars, hiding
Around the corner, ready
Tall hat in hand.
The benediction in Irish having been pronounced by Archbishop Barton, the coffin was borne out of the cathedral by eight military policemen wearing black arm bands. Before them, in solemn parade, were the clergy, the choir, and a bearer carrying the Trinity College mace draped in black crepe. The coffin was placed in the hearse. The hearse moved slowly, followed by long black cars containing diplomats, politicians, the judiciary, and representatives of cultural and religious groups. Behind them walked members of other groups and the general public. Along O'Connell Street stood schoolteachers, schoolchildren, members of the civil service, office workers, artisans and shopkeepers, students from colleges and universities, priests and nuns. Some fell in behind the soldiers carrying reversed arms, the hearse, the official cars. The "Dead March" from Saul , played by the No. 1 Army band echoed down the processional. As the funeral approached Phoenix Park, a twenty-one-gun salute was fired by army artillery near the base of the Wellington Monument. A mist began to fall. At the end of Conyngham Road the army and police formed ranks to salute the hearse which, followed by an army lorry filled with flowers, slowly turned west, carrying Hyde on his last journey to Frenchpark. In the next car were Hyde's sister, Annette; his daughter, Una Sealy; his two grandsons, Christopher and Douglas; Nurse Fitzsimons; and Commandant Eamon de Buitléar. Behind them rode the president, then Eamon de Valera, Michael McDunphy, and representatives of the Gaelic League. As the funeral motorcade passed through towns, from Mullingar to Longford
and Carrick-on-Shannon and Boyle, honor guards stood ready for their last salute to the nations' first president. At Rathdown near Longford, schoolteachers and their children stood at attention as the procession passed. The motorcade grew longer as it crossed into county Roscommon. In Frenchpark the entire population of the village lined the road as they had eleven years ago on May 15, 1938, when they celebrated Hyde's election to the presidency.
Outside the church at Portahard a large crowd awaiting the coffin included Catholic clergy, all friends of Hyde, many of whom had worked with him in the early years of the Gaelic League; Molly O'Conor, wife of William Teeling, M.P., representing her brother Charles O'Conor Don, S.J.; Lady de Freyne, Lord de Freyne, Major Pakenham-Mahon, Madame MacDermot, The MacDermot, and friends and neighbors beyond number. After the Office of Committal the coffin was carried to the far corner of the Hyde plot in the small adjoining graveyard. At Annette's request the military-police escort did not fire the traditional rifle salute over the grave lined with moss and flowers from the de Freyne gardens. Una dropped a small flowering branch, an craoibhín aoibhinn, on the lowered coffin. Douglas Hyde's journey had ended.
Next came the dispersal. In the weeks following, Commandant de Buitléar, at Annette's request, worked at Little Ratra, sorting out Hyde's books, many dating from his student years at Trinity. Announcements were published that a public auction of books, furniture, pictures, silver, and plate would be held at Little Ratra beginning October 10 and continuing daily until everything was sold. On October 11 in the drawing room of Little Ratra, Hyde's personal library, carefully and lovingly acquired over a period of more than eighty years, went to new owners. Included were the complete works of Shakespeare, Scott, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Spenser; dozens of prize books won by Hyde, resplendent in their rich morocco bindings, impressed with the gold arms of Trinity; dozens of Irish-language dictionaries, grammars, and texts, many annotated in Hyde's own hand; autographed copies of books that had been presented to Hyde by such authors as Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats, Synge, Patrick Pearse, and George Moore; and much more. Auctioneer Eric Maguire withdrew Hyde's Greek New Testament printed in 1602 when it failed to meet the reserve price. Everything else went under the hammer. Hyde's correspondence and papers, accumulated over many decades—including some belonging to
his presidency—were similarly disposed of. Items remaining were removed for storage to McKee Barracks. There they gradually decreased in number until 1970, when those that had not disappeared or disintegrated were rescued. Most of these are now preserved in the Manuscript Collection of the National Library of Ireland.