Prof. Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
It’s been a month of headlines for the Irish language. I suppose one might say that tá sé ag éirí trendy, as the Belfast poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn once said. About a month ago, in what became a highly publicised incident, a young Cork city barman left his job after being told by his boss that he was strictly “forbidden to speak Irish” while working. Soon thereafter, keyboard warriors with varying opinions on the matter took to the comfortable confines of twitter and facebook to engage each other on a number of topics ranging from the reason for the language’s decline, to its place in modern society. Protestors took their dismay a step further. Pointing to the incident as but the latest in a number that highlight the continued negative and discriminatory attitudes towards the use of the language in the public space, they brought their message to the streets, and picketed outside the establishment, known as The Flying Enterprise. A few weeks later, quite bizarrely, Hollywood star and Texas native, Matthew McConaughey threw his hat into the ring, catching the attention of both Irish language enthusiasts and an equal amount of sardonic critics, when he remarked to The Irish Sun that regarding his three children, “I want them fluent (in Irish) – which means I gotta do a crash course too. When they’re older, I want to send them to that Irish language summer camp you guys do, it’s like a rite of passage…isn’t it?” Regardless of one’s opinions on either story, both drew quite a bit of attention to the many issues regarding the use and preservation of Irish in the modern age.
At the same time that such headlines swirled and circulated in the public sphere, members of the Clonakilty branches of Conradh na Gaeilge and Cumann Seanchais were looking back at their own history, and reclaiming the memory of one of West Cork’s finest Irish scholars and a renowned revivalist figure at the national level, Máire Ní Shíthe, perhaps better known by her penname Dul Amú (going astray).
Born in Lackendubh in 1868 to Ned Sheehy and Ann Deasy, Ní Shíthe was a native speaker of Irish who, from a young age took great interest in her native tongue, and its relation to national identity. After attending school at Darrara National School and the Convent of Mercy in Clonakilty, Máire was in prime position to contribute to the Gaelic Revival, which by the 1880s, was just beginning to come into its own.
Well known for her abilities as a translator, dramatist, and writer, Ní Shíthe’s efforts were recognised by some of the leading figures of the revival, most notably, Pádraig Pearse, with whom she was in regular correspondence. In 1971, a number of letters between Ní Shíthe and Pearse were discovered in the Convent of Mercy in Clonakilty. In the letters, Pearse, then serving as editor of the Gaelic League organ, ‘An Claidheamh Soluis’, conveyed praise for Ní Shíthe’s work, and encouraged her to send in further contributions, noting “Bhéinn buidheach dhíot dá gcuirfeá alt nó scéal gear chugam le haghaidh an Claighimh anois ‘s arís.” (I would be grateful to you if you would send me an article or short story for the paper once and awhile) Some months later, he made a similar yet more urgent appeal to the young West Cork woman to contribute small pieces of interest on a weekly basis, noting that her past entries had been wildly popular with the paper’s readership. Her involvement as a contributor spanned the height of the paper’s existence, from 1901 to 1922. The same year that she began writing for An Claidheamh Soluis, Ní Shíthe won first prize at the 1901 Oireachtas for her drama ‘Suipéar Dhiarmada Mhic Pháidín’. Perhaps in acknowledgement of her early successes and the direction in which her career would move in the coming years, Ní Shíthe listed her profession in the census of that year as ‘Gaelic Authoress’.
However, her contributions weren’t relegated to her musings in the paper and her many other contributions to dramas and periodicals, amongst which were ‘Irisleabhar na Gaeilge’ and the ‘Cork Sun’. Ní Shíthe’s further linguistic abilities in French and German allowed her to enjoy success as a translator, bringing a number of works into Irish, most notably ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’ by the French dramatist, Molière.
Despite her renown as a writer, Ní Shíthe remained very grounded in her sense of community. Her later years were spent teaching conversational Irish in her native area, and quietly farming with her husband, Denis Leary, a native of Timoleague whom she married in 1915. Upon her death in the summer of 1955, she was buried in Timoleague Abbey. Not long after, Gaelic League organiser and Skibbereen native Peadar Ó hannracháin reflected upon both his surprise at her passing, and her impact on the revival, noting, “were it not for my friend Caitlín Ní Cheocháin (a cousin of Ní Shíthe), of good Cloich na gCoillte district stock, perhaps I would not have heard of the death of the once well-known and popular writer of Gaeilge, Máire Ní Shíthe…Máire herself was no milk and water advocate of Irish. She had early in life developed a national consciousness as sound and as uncompromising as the bravest of those of our people whose names have found a place on the roll of honour in recent years.”
Undoubtedly, the restoration of Ní Shíthe’s gravesite, complete with a Celtic cross and descriptive headstone, is of great value to anyone with an interest in either the Irish language or the history of the revival period. Additionally, the rekindled awareness of her various efforts might yet serve as inspiration to language revivalists and learners alike. Who knows, we might even see a certain well-known Texan and his children stop off to pay their respects to the ‘Gaelic Authoress’ on their way out to learn a bit of Irish on Cape next summer.