Pádraic Ó Conaire: Man & Statue

/Pádraic Ó Conaire: Man & Statue
Pádraic Ó Conaire: Man & Statue 2017-11-16T22:06:36+00:00

Background

Patrick Joseph Conroy (Pádraic Ó Conaire) was born in Galway town in 1882 to middle-class Catholic publicans. Following the untimely deaths of his parents (his father in 1887 and his mother in 1894), he was reared by extended family members in the Connemara Gaeltacht and County Clare. He attended Rockwell College, County Tipperary, before transferring to Blackrock College in Dublin. In 1899, he finished school without completing his final exams and took a lowly position in the Civil Service in London. There, Ó Conaire joined the London Branch of the Gaelic League and flourished as an Irish-language teacher and writer, publishing his first short story, An t-Iascaire agus an File (‘The Fisherman and the Poet’), in An Claidheamh Soluis in 1901. Widely read and influenced by European literary models, Ó Conaire wrote in simple, direct Irish about the grim reality of life in contemporary Ireland, dealing with themes such as poverty, emigration, isolation, vagrancy, alcoholism, despair and mental illness.
In 1906, he won an Oireachtas award for short fiction for his stark story Nora Mhárcais Bhig (‘Nora, Daughter of Little Marcus’) about a poor Connemara girl who falls into a life of drink and prostitution when she emigrates to London, and is eventually disowned by her father. Though not a native speaker in the strict sense, he became the most innovative Irish-language writer to emerge from the Gaelic Revival, publishing his novella Deoraíocht (‘Exile’) in 1910 and his collection of short stories An Chéad Chloch (‘The First Stone’) in 1914 to great acclaim.

Described as Ó Conaire’s ‘last important creative work’, each of the seven stories – a novella and six short stories – deals with the way the Rising intervenes in the lives of Irish men and women. Typically, Ó Conaire wrote about: ordinary people, living ordinary lives, of fishermen, domestics, married women and spinsters, country and small town types, that is to say of the life and of the people he knew. He wrote largely of people whose lives were not very happy, who made mistakes, did the wrong thing at the crucial time, that is to say he wrote of life realistically. For him, there are no sinners, only unlucky ones and unfortunates.

By the summer of 1917, Ó Conaire had completed Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach. And when, in June 1917, the last of those imprisoned following the Rising were released from British jails and returned to Dublin, he was there to welcome the returnees and canvass nationalist sympathisers for funds towards the publication costs. Around the same time, Ó Conaire was electioneering for Sinn Féin during the famous by-election in East Clare in which Éamon de Valera (1882–1975) was returned by a large majority, replacing the incumbent MP, Willie Redmond (1861–1917) of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who was killed in action in Belgium.

Ó Conaire offered the completed manuscript to Maunsels, a publishing house synonymous with the Irish Literary Revival which had published the collected works of Patrick Pearse in 1917; its premises at 96 Middle Abbey Street had been destroyed by British guns during the Rising but the generous compensation from the Property Losses Commission for loss of stock (including ‘semi-treasonable works’) allowed it to rebuild its business. Co- director Edward MacLysaght (1887–1986) immediately recognised the book’s literary merit but felt that it would not be commercially viable. Nonetheless, MacLysaght decided to take a chance on the book and bought the copyright himself for £50: never expecting to see a penny of it again [but] in actual fact it was quite successful for an Irish language book and I reckon that in the end I just about got my money back.

Like the protagonists in Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach, MacLysaght had been deeply impacted by the events of 1916: In the weeks that followed the long drawn out toll of executions and subsequent events had a profound effect on me. From that time on I felt I would have to be much more than the sympathetic Gaelic Leaguer spectator I had been hitherto. Indeed the effect of Easter Week on me, as upon the majority of other Irishmen who were not even Gaelic Leaguers, was just what Pearse and Connolly hoped and expected it would be.

With financial backing and a publisher secured, Ó Conaire had one final obstacle to overcome. In the aftermath of the Rising everything printed in the Irish language had to be submitted to Dublin Castle, the seat of British administration in Ireland, for scrutiny. Seacht mBua an Eírí Amach was given in instalments to RIC Head Constable Peter Folan to translate and review before publication was permitted. Folan, a Connemara man with nationalist sympathies, allowed the book to pass inspection without edit. The book was finally published in April 1918 and was, as one might expect, hailed by the publishers as ‘without doubt his best book’: It is more mature; his command of language as always is remarkable and his subject is refreshingly modern. His seven stories, seven victories or triumphs of the Rising, as he calls them, represent the after effects of the Rising on different types of individual Irishmen. Perhaps the most striking is Anam an Easbuic [‘Anam an Easpaig/The Bishop’s Soul’], in which a bishop’s political metamorphose is described with particular brilliance. No reader of modern Irish can afford to miss this book. We have endeavoured, perhaps, for the first time in the history of modern Irish literature to turn out this book in a manner worthy of its importance. It contains no word of any language but Irish, and is printed and bound in Ireland, in the style of our best books.

Described as Ó Conaire’s ‘last important creative work’, each of the seven stories – a novella and six short stories – deals with the way the Rising intervenes in the lives of Irish men and women. Typically, Ó Conaire wrote about: ordinary people, living ordinary lives, of fishermen, domestics, married women and spinsters, country and small town types, that is to say of the life and of the people he knew. He wrote largely of people whose lives were not very happy, who made mistakes, did the wrong thing at the crucial time, that is to say he wrote of life realistically. For him, there are no sinners, only unlucky ones and unfortunates.

By contrast, however, many of the protagonists in Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach belong to the middle or even upper classes. ‘Ceoltóirí/Musicians’; ‘Díoltas/Revenge’ and ‘Beirt Bhan Misniúil/Two Courageous Women’ are centred on large estate houses and are the first stories about the ‘Big House’ in the Irish language. In some of the stories, the Rising erupts quite unexpectedly, ‘diverting the flow of events or even totally demolishing the plot just as it moves towards a resolution’, as in the case of ‘Ceoltóirí/ Musicians’. Some of the plotlines, it must be said, tend towards the bizarre or even improbable. One reviewer, Fr Cathaoir Ó Braonáin (1875–1937), noted that unlike much of the output of the Gaelic Revival, which was produced to save the language rather than for purely literary value, Ó Conaire had delivered ‘a piece of pure literature which he would have us judge as such’. He compared the author with two fellow contemporaries, Patrick Pearse (1879–1916) and Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (An Seabhac, 1883–1964), arguing that Ó Conaire: paints on a larger canvas than either. His themes are broader, his types more various. For them the almost inevitable background was the Gaeltacht. He makes his background of life itself.

Having first read the book in the summer of 1918, León Ó Broin (Leo Byrne, 1902–1990) wrote that his previous work had ‘marked him out for … distinction in the small and generally undistinguished band who were writing in Irish at that time’ but that Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach: raised Ó Conaire out of that class completely and placed him on a plane so immeasurably higher that the Gaelic world justifiably thought that the striving of the preceding quarter of a century to revive the language had not been in vain. To have produced at last a native writer whose work was comparable both as to style and matter with his contemporaries abroad was, to the revivalists, a sure indication that the corner had been turned.

Ó Broin also felt that the book had inspired other Irish-language writers ‘to venture into paths which an inferiority complex had theretofore prevented them from treading’. Three of the seven stories were singled out for particular praise by readers and critics alike: ‘Beirt Bhan Misniúil/Two Courageous Women’; ‘Anam an Easpaig/The Bishop’s Soul’, and ‘M’Fhile Caol Dubh/My Dark, Slender Poet’. In particular, ‘Beirt Bhan Misniúil/Two Courageous Women’ was favourably compared to the work of Anton Chekhov, the great Russian short-story writer. Never reluctant to give an opinion, Seosamh Mac Grianna thought the story was better than anything produced by Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant or Leo Tolstoy.However, not everyone was as taken with it as Mac Grianna; journalist Seán Mac Réamoinn (John Redmond, 1921–2007) dismissed it as the sort of story produced by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862–1910), American author and master of the ironic plot-twist ending.

Ó Conaire dedicated the book itself to Anne Gordon (c. 1880–1836), the Scottish-born wife of Englishman Thomas B. Rudmose-Brown (‘Ruddy’, 1878–1942), Professor of Romance Languages at Trinity College, Dublin and mentor to Samuel Beckett (1906–1989). Evidently, at the time of writing, Ó Conaire was well-acquainted with Anne Gordon, and there are pointers to suggest that it was, or became, a romantic relationship. Indeed, Pádraig Ó Siadhail has suggested that the characters of Eibhlín, her husband and her poet-lover in ‘M’Fhile Caol Dubh/My Dark, Slender Poet’ are in fact based on Ó Conaire and Mr and Mrs Rudmose-Brown.

Interestingly, there are several allusions throughout the book to key figures and locations connected with the Rising. The commander in ‘Díoltas/Revenge’ is clearly General John Maxwell (1859–1929), who had served in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and was appointed Military Governor during Easter Week. The tobacconist’s shop in ‘Bé an tSiopa Seandachta/The Antique Shop Muse’ is a clear reference to the newspaper and tobacconist shop belonging to Thomas ‘Tom’ Clarke (1858–1916), one of the key architects of the Rising, which was situated at 75A Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street) and was a focal point for the IRB. This particular story is littered with references to other identifiable locations in the capital; writer and critic Eoghan Ó hAnluain (1938–2012) described it as ‘the closest thing we have in Irish to the standard Joycean description in Dubliners’.33 Its central character, Peadar O’Donnell, seems to have been based on Seán Mac Diarmada (1883–1916), Clarke’s closest and staunchest ally; both IRB men, Clarke and Mac Diarmada were the first signatories of the Proclamation. The bishop in ‘Anam an Easpaig/The Bishop’s Soul’ can be identified as the controversial and outspoken Edward Thomas O’Dwyer (1842–1917), Bishop of Limerick. The story itself is inspired by a spat between Bishop O’Dwyer and General Maxwell. In the aftermath of the Rising, the general had requested that the bishop reprimand two republican priests in his diocese. The bishop responded with a blistering letter, which he had published, defending the priests and denouncing the general’s mishandling of the Rising:  You took care that no plea for mercy should interpose on behalf of the poor young fellows who surrendered to you in Dublin … Personally, I regard your action with horror, and I believe that it has outraged the conscience of the country. Then the deportation of hundreds and even thousands of poor fellows without a trial of any kind seems to me an abuse of power as fatuous as it is arbitrary and your regime has been one of the blackest chapters in the history of misgovernment of the country.

Timeline of a Lifetime

1928
August 10, 1928

Dies in Richmond Hospital, Dublin, and is buried at New Cemetery, Bohermore.

August 10, 1928

Dies in Richmond Hospital, Dublin, and is buried at New Cemetery, Bohermore.

1918
August 10, 1918

Wins Oireachtas Award for the play A Chéad Bhean (prize £10). Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach (The Seven Victories of the Rising) is published.

1916
August 10, 1916

Imprisoned as a spy in Ulster.

1914
August 10, 1914

An Chéad Cloch (The First Stone) is published.

1910
August 10, 1910

Deoraíocht (Exile) is published.

1909
August 10, 1909

Wins Oireachtas Awards for the novella Neill (prize £4) and for fiction Deoraíocht (prize £20).

1904
August 10, 1904

Wins Oireachtas Award for the short story Páidín Mháire (prize £3).

1903
August 10, 1903

Marries Mary ‘Moll’ McManus, with whom he has four children.

Marries Mary ‘Moll’ McManus, with whom he has four children.

1901
August 10, 1901

First story – An t-Iascaire agus an File – is published in An Claidheamh Soluis

1900
August 10, 1900

Joins Board of Education in London as a ‘Boy Copyist’

1899
August 10, 1899

Leaves Blackrock College prematurely

1898
August 10, 1898

Transfers to Blackrock College, Dublin.

1897
June 8, 1897

Enters Rockwell College, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, to train as a Holy Ghost Father.

1893
June 8, 1893

Mother, Kate, dies and he is sent to live with his uncle, a prosperous shopkeeper in Rosmuc, Connemara.

1888
June 8, 1888

Father, Thomas, emigrates to America, where he dies shortly afterwards.

Father, Thomas, emigrates to America, where he dies shortly afterwards.

1882
June 8, 1882

Pádraic Ó Conaire is born Patrick Joseph Conroy at New Docks, Galway.

The Man and his Stories

Irish-language writer Máirtín Ó Direáin unveiling headstone over Ó Conaire grave, New Cemetery, Bohermore, 1982.
Courtesy of Tom Kenny.

It was in Kinvara that I first got to know my little black donkey. It was a fair day, and there he stood by the ditch with his backside to the wind, heedless of the world and the world of him.

Opening lines from My Little Black Donkey by Pádraic Ó Conaire, which were etched into the memory of many Irish pupils.

Pádraic Ó Conaire moved to London in 1900, and there began writing extensively and exclusively in the Irish language (Gaelic), winning many prizes for his short stories. Many of these stories were first published in An Claidheamh Soluis –an Irish nationalist newspaper.
In London, Ó Conaire became active as an Irish teacher with the Gaelic League, an organisation that sought to revive Irish as a spoken and literary language. He also enrolled with the Irish Volunteers, which later became the Irish Republican Army. Ó Conaire married and had four children, but returned to Ireland in 1915, leaving his family behind.
In Ireland, Ó Conaire earned a meagre living writing and teaching the Irish language. His later years were spent in Galway and were characterised by poverty, ill-health and alcohol abuse. In 1928, at the age of 46, Ó Conaire died alone and penniless in the paupers’ ward of a Dublin hospital and was buried in Galway.
Ó Conaire is widely regarded as the first significant writer in the modern Irish language, publishing hundreds of short stories, many of which deal with emigration and the harsh realities of contemporary rural life. Nature was also a recurring theme in his writings. Ó Conaire’s surreal novel Deoraíocht (Exile) was the first to deal with urban life in Irish. He was also a pioneer in the use of the Irish language in journalism.

The Statue and it’s Story Unveiling

The statue was unveiled by President Eamon de Valera at Eyre Square on Easter Sunday 1935 to a crowd of about 3000 people.

Albert Power was born in Dublin in 1881. He was a pupil of distinguished Irish sculptors William Orpen, John Hughes and Oliver Sheppard. A major practitioner of Irish sculpture in the academic realist style he became leading sculptor in Ireland during the 1920s and 1930s. He is noted in particular for his
‘Gaelic sympathies’ and his use of uniquely Irish materials. Acclaimed for his talent as a ‘nationalistic sculptor’, Power
was commissioned to sculpt many Gaelic leaders including Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

“I propose to execute a limestone portrait of the late Pádraic Ó Conaire and to erect same on the existing pedestal in Eyre Square Galway, for the sum of £350.” Albert Power, 1930.

Sculptor’s original sketch This early sketch by Power proposes to mount the Ó Conaire statue on the original Dunkellin pedestal. It was later decided that a loose limestone wall would be more appropriate.

Controversy

The statue suffered many acts of vandalism for over a decade and this reached a climax in 1999 when it was decapitated. Gardai recovered the head and reattached it

but the controversial decision to bring it indoors was made in 2004. It was moved from Eyre Square to City Hall before finally being transported to the Galway CityMuseum in 2006. In the museum it is protected and conserved but remains accessible to all the public.

The Irish poet fixed forever by the magic chisel of the Irish sculptor, the while he dreams. Connacht Tribune, November 22nd 1930.

In 1929 Albert Power R.H.A. was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Pádraic Ó Conaire. In 1935 the statue was unveiled in Eyre Square by President Eamon de Valera, who used the occasion to call for an Irish (Gaelic)- speaking Ireland. Power’s work of art sought to embody the Irish spirit and tradition capturing in native stone a new and distinctly Irish style that he hoped reflected the cultural and political hopes of the newly independent Ireland. These political ideals supported the replacment of statues symbolising the dominion of the British Empire with familiar ones symbolising a movement towards a uniquely Irish identity. This limestone statue replaced that of Lord Dunkellin, Anglo-Irish MP, which was dragged from its pedestal in Eyre Square in 1922 and dumped into the River Corrib.

Undoubtedly the most popular landmark in Galway, the Ó Conaire statue welcomed people the world over. Visitors recall being photographed with the statue and many a marriage proposal happened in his presence. Having spent 64 years in Eyre Square, in four seperate locations, the statue was decapitated in 1999 sparking huge public outrage. The presiding Judge at the courtcase equalled this crime to the Mona Lisa being taken from the Louvre in Paris. If the statue could talk what a story it would tell!

Image of Pádraic Ó Conaire.

Pádraic Ó Conaire Galway City Museum

Pádraic Ó Conaire Galway City Museum

Pádraic Ó Conaire Galway City Museum

Pádraic Ó Conaire Galway City Museum

Pádraic Ó Conaire Galway City Museum

Pádraic Ó Conaire Galway City Museum

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