Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-70)


By the early twentieth century the Irish language was only spoken along the Atlantic seaboard. Although a relatively small and isolated part of the country, the Connemara Gaeltacht was and is rich in culture, heritage, folklore and custom. It was into this milieu that Máirtín Ó Cadhain was born in 1906 in Cnocán Glas.


Máirtín received his initial education in An Spidéal. He was regarded as an excellent scholar: a fact which compelled his father to place him in secondary school, despite needing help on the family farm. Máirtín subsequently enrolled in St. Patrick’s College, Dublin, where he qualified as a teacher in 1926. He then spent the next year teaching in Daighinis, before taking a permanent position in Camus, in the parish of Ros Muc.


It was here that Máirtín first began seriously writing in Irish, the only language in which he ever wrote.Patrick Pearse had a profound influence in Ros Muc both before and after the 1916 Rising. Ros Muc had its own Irish-speaking volunteers in 1916. Militant republicanism always thrived in the area.


Máirtín imbibed this republican spirit. Shortly after his arrival in 1927 he was sworn into the IRA by his fellow school teacher, Joe MacMahon. Máirtín was motivated by the political ideals promulgated in the 1916 Proclamation, in particular, the importance it bestowed upon the Irish language.


But in many people’s eyes the nascent Free State had abandoned these noble goals. The country was partitioned and the restoration of the language was paid little more than lip-service.


In 1933 Máirtín ó Cadhain helped establish Muintir na Gaeltachta. Frustrated by the slow pace of political change and regional neglect, Muintir na Gaeltachta was the first political pressure group to emerge from within the Gaeltacht. The group received support from the Dublin newspaper An t-Éireannach, to which Máirtín regularly contributed.In that same year Máirtín made a famous speech in An Ceathrú Rua, where he called for a ‘Black Pig’s Dyke’ to be built around the Gaeltacht to protect it from anglicising influences. He also demanded that work be made available to stem the flow of emigration which was decimating the region, and for all state services to be made available in Irish.


The formation of Muintir na Gaeltachta empowered the people of the Gaeltacht and eroded their allegiance to conventional political parties.After being sacked from his position as teacher in 1935 due to his political affiliations, Máirtín moved to Dublin where he worked as an organiser for Conradh na Gaeilge while also operating as an IRA recruiting officer. In April 1938, he was elected to the IRA Army Council.


In 1940 he was one of many republicans interned by the wartime Fianna Fáil government. He spent the next five years in the Curragh Internment Camp. There Máirtín wrote his first book of short stories, Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre.


Following his release in 1945 Máirtín married Máirín Ní Rodaigh, a school teacher in Scoil Lorcáin, Dublin’s first Gaelscoil. By this time Máirtín was no longer active in the IRA. In 1948 he published his second book of short stories, An Braon Broghach. His masterpiece, Cré na Cille – which many scholars believe to be the one of the most important books in Irish literature –  was published in 1949.


For the next seven years Máirtín worked in the translation section of Leinster House. And although not writing with the same intensity, he still managed to publish Cois Caoláire and Athnuachan. In 1957 Máirtín was employed by the Department of Irish in Trinity College Dublin. Widely regarded as an excellent lecturer, he was subsequently appointed Professor of Irish.


By the 1960s Máirtín witnessed the Irish language dying before his eyes, with few raising voices in anger. The ideals which inspired the men and women of 1916 were jettisoned amid a new wave of materialism. However, Máirtín did not fall victim to despair. He reverted to his dearly-held republican beliefs. He was one of the founding members of Misneach (Courage): a group established out of the disillusionment felt by many towards the official language movement.


Misneach’s aims and objectives were based on the 1916 Proclamation. Its political agenda was to be achieved by any means necessary. The organisation heightened political awareness of various issues by organising pickets and protests, by withholding rates, and by embarking on highly symbolic hunger strikes. Máirtín’s wife passed away in 1965 and the remaining years of his life were dogged by ill-health. However, this was no obstacle to continued activism.


In 1966 Misneach boycotted the official 50th commemoration of the 1916 Rising, due to the Free State’s betrayal of the ideals that motivated the insurrection. Instead the group organised an eighteen-man hunger-strike. The eighteen included a number of 1916 veterans. This gesture of solidarity by several 1916 veterans meant a lot to Máirtín Ó Cadhain.


Despite being in ill-health, between 1967-70, Máirtín produced a whole volume of new work, which included An tSraith Dhá Tógáil and stories such as An Eochair and Ag Déanamh Pápéir. In 1967 a new generation of political activists formed the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement. There younger campaigners were influenced by the earlier political programme Muintir na Gaeltachta.


The new generation of activists frequently asked Máirtín for advice and were regularly joined by the Professor of Irish on many a picket or platform.


Sadly, in 1970, Máirtín Ó Cadhain passed away after years of ill-health.


Throughout his life he laboured selflessly for the freedom of Ireland and for the restoration of the Irish language.


Revolutionary, gaeilgeoir, soldier, scholar, writer, professor: his sad parting was Ireland’s loss. Máirtín Ó Cadhain was one of the Gaeltacht’s, and indeed, one of Ireland’s greatest son.