Mexico photo from 1890s recalls key moment in Irish revival

A man with a sombrero in a Mexican photo studio might not look like having much to do with the Irish-language revival but the image recalls a key moment in its early days.

Tomás Ó Coincheanainn in Mexico in the 1890s, when he first learned that Irish could be written down. Pic: Conradh na Gaeilge archive

It was in Mexico in the 1890s that Aran Islands-born Tomás Ó Coincheanainn first learned that his native language could be written down. Travelling the US and Central America as a rubber salesman, he saw an Irish magazine printed in New York and decided to teach himself to read and write it.

He would go on to help others do the same for more than a decade with Conradh na Gaeilge — then a fledgling organisation trying to revive the language at home.

It was on a visit to his mother on Inis Meáin in 1898 that Tomás’s enthusiasm was noted by early Conradh na Gaeilge officers.

“They decided to employ him to travel around Ireland on a bicycle, selling Irish to Irish people,” said Conradh na Gaeilge archivist Cuan Ó Seireadáin.

Central Branch of Conradh na Gaeilge on an Outing to Gleandalough 1907, Seán T Ó Ceallaigh and Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin present. Picture: Conradh na Gaeilge archive

The photo of Conradh’s first “timire”, or organiser, is from a collection of records, images, leaflets, and letters which are being made accessible to researchers and language enthusiasts under an agreement between Conradh na Gaeilge and NUI Galway. The university will host the organisation’s vast archive, ensuring the story of the language revival it prompted over a century ago is preserved, as only limited access has been previously available.

It contains copies of replies by its founding president, and first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, to some of the 80,000 letters he received. Researchers will find correspondence from other prominent figures in the cultural and political revolutions of the early 20th century, but also great insights into local life in Ireland.

Poster for a 1910 Gaelic League Céilí in London. Picture: Conradh na Gaeilge archive

As well as reports from local branches and weekly accounts from timirí who followed Tomás Ó Coincheanainn’s bicycle trails around Ireland, posters and letters detail local events like feiseanna, and concerts that helped raise the profile of Irish music and literature, as well as raise funds for the organisation.

NUI Galway will catalogue the collection and many parts will be digitised for global availability, while an academic event at the university next year will help mark Conradh na Gaeilge’s 125th anniversary.

Conradh na Gaeilge Committee election Ballot Paper with Micheal Collins mentioned. Picture: Conradh na Gaeilge archive

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