A new book pays tribute to the celebrated Cork priest and author who championed 'caint na ndaoine', writes
Just two words, “laoch áitiúil” pay tribute to the life of a priest, Land League activist, and Gaelic scholar regarded as a pioneer of modern Irish language literature.
The understatement of the newly-inscribed plaque in the Cork church where An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire was baptised and received his first Communion and Confirmation, is deliberate.
The author of Séadna, Mo Scéal Féin, and Tadhg Saor, the first play published in Irish, has been the subject of numerous biographical and scholarly studies since his death 100 years ago.
In his home parish, An tAthair Peadar’s literary fame stands alongside his leadership as a priest and champion of farmers’ rights as deserving of the epitaph of local hero, laoch áitiúil.
Centenary celebrations in the mid-Cork village of Carriganima, where An tAthair Peadar attended school and church, fell victim to Covid-19 restrictions. But providing a lasting testament to the esteem in which the farmer’s son is held 181 years after his birth, is a new book reflecting both his legacy and the life of the people of his native parish during the last century.
Edited by local historian James O’Leary, Ár Scéal Féin, its title a tribute to An tAthair Peadar’s autobiographical work, tells in fact, folklore, and photographs the story of a community, much of it though “caint na ndaoine”, the spoken Múscraí Irish for which the priest’s work is famed.
An tAthair Peadar, says O’Leary, “spent his life helping the ordinary people”. Ordained in 1867 and made a canon in 1906, he served in the Cloyne Diocese, including in Kilshannig, Kilworth, and Rathcormac, before being appointed parish priest in Castlelyons. There, he wrote the story of the shoemaker Séadna, which became a fixture on the school curriculum.
Though as a centenary celebration “everything else went by the wayside”, Ár Scéal Féin/Our Own Story: From Carriganima to Castlelyons “will always be there”, says O’Leary, for whom the book was a project close to his heart.
“I didn’t consider it work; I considered it a duty, as the proper way to commemorate a man who was the first who wrote in caint na ndaoine, the language of the people. Before that it was classical Irish,” he says. Though he contends that an tAthair Peadar “was looked down upon by the intelligentsia at the time because he was writing in caint na ndaoine”, it was his use of the vernacular that helped put Munster Irish “at the forefront” of Irish language literature during the Gaelic revival of the late 19th Century. At the time, the promotion of the language by contemporaries such as Dr Dónal Ó Loingsigh led Pádraig Pearse to refer to Baile Mhúirne, near Ó Laoghaire’s birthplace in Liscarrigane, as “the principal city of the Gaeltacht”.
Although he did not begin writing in earnest until his 50s, upon the foundation of Conradh na Gaeilge, An tAthair Peadar completed more than 500 pieces of work including essays, stories, and translations of The Bible and Don Quixote, before his death in 1920 in Castlelyons, where he is buried.
His contribution to Irish language literature saw him honoured as a freeman of both Dublin and Cork, with Cork Corporation describing him as “the greatest Irish writer of his age” when granting him the freedom of the city in 1912.
A year later, an tAthair Peadar told an audience at the opening of Coláiste na Nua Ghaeilge: “Do not bother yourselves with Old Irish. It is not in any danger. It is in the old books and can be got from them, when anybody wants to do so. Turn instead to the Irish that is alive. The old people are taking it with them to the grave.” His exhortation, and use of spoken Irish as a basis for literature, has resonance in Ár Scéal Féin, whose Irish and English texts give voice to the ordinary person, recounting the customs and folklore of rural Ireland.
One of the book’s legacies is likely to be its inclusion of stories collected by national school pupils in the villages of Carriganima, Clondrohid, and Muinefliuch during the 1930s for the Irish Folklore Commission.
“If nothing else comes of the book, that heritage has now been unlocked within the community,” says O’Leary, who invited the schools’ current pupils to select local folklore entries from Duchas.ie for Ár Scéal Féin.
“The teachers told me they hadn’t met anything in all their years teaching that had such an effect on [the pupils] because they went home and spoke to their parents, and their parents knew the people that had written the stories. They learnt about their own heritage,” he adds.
Another contributor to the 1930s schools collection was Nóra Ní Chríodáin, then a pupil of Scoil Barr d’Inse, who as Nóra Uí Scanaill after marriage lived in Liscarrigane, yards from Laoghaire’s homeplace.
Among the items reproduced in her original handwriting in Ár Scéal Féin are accounts of landlords’ rent collection and the hardships of farming life, which are comparable to those told by an tAthair Peadar, says O’Leary, describing their discovery as “like gold dust”.
A Land League proponent, as detailed in Mo Scéal Féin, An tAthair Peadar “was a man who stood for the ordinary tenant farmer,” says O’Leary. He draws modern parallels, in Ár Scéal Féin, with the 1850s land reform demands of fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure, describing An tAthair Peadar as “the spiritual leader of the Land League”.
O’Leary, a distant relative of the scholar, includes in the book his own research on an extended Ó Laoghaire family tree stretching to 80 first cousins.
“I tried to pay tribute to the man, the writer, and the priest,” he adds. “The book was the only way we could commemorate him properly for what he had done for both the Irish people and the Irish language.”
The “outstanding” entry in Ár Scéal Féin, according to editor James O’Leary, is written by Tomás Breathnach, nephew of Thomas Kent, Volunteer commandant and Land Leaguer, of Bawnard House, Castlelyons, and after whom Cork’s main train station is named.
Arrested following a gun battle at Bawnard on May 2, 1916, Thomas Kent faced a court martial and though there had been no rebellion in Cork, was executed in Cork Military Detention Barracks, suffering the same fate as the Dublin leaders of the Easter Rising.
His nephew Tomás, a retired teacher, “never spoke publicly that I know of, about the events, but the information he gives is extraordinary,” says James, pointing to Breathnach’s account of an tAthair Peadar’s close association with the Kent family and assertion that “his uncles were on the run a week before 1916”.
O’Leary describes the account’s significance: “There were very few knew that the Rising was about to take place and they wouldn’t have been on the run the week before the Rising only they knew what was coming down the track.”
Kent’s body was exhumed, and reinterred at a State funeral in Castlelyons in 2015, with a copy of Mo Scéal Féin among the offertory gifts.