President Michael D. Higgins visited UCD to give a lecture on the legacy of President Douglas Hyde and open the inaugural Hyde lecture series. Douglas Hyde was the first president of Ireland and served between the years 1938 and 1945, making this year the 80th anniversary of Hyde’s presidency.
Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina met with Lucy Seely, the granddaughter of Douglas Hyde. This is not the first time that President Higgins has paid homage to the country’s first president this year. In June, President Higgins dedicated a tree in the gardens of Áras an Uachtaráin to Douglas Hyde and his immense influence in shaping the role of president in Ireland. Following this, In July, on the exact anniversary of Hyde’s inauguration, President Higgins and Sabina travelled to Co. Roscommon, where Hyde was born, to visit the Douglas Hyde Interpretive centre.
This year is also Bliain na Gaeilge, a year dedicated to the celebration of the Irish language since it’s revival 125 years ago. Hyde is known as a prominent Irish language advocate. He was a founding member of Conradh na Gaeilge, also known as the Gaelic League and was its first president in 1893. In 1909, He became the first modern Irish language professor in UCD. Today, UCD Cumann Gaelach has a Douglas Hyde award, that has coincidentally previously been awarded to Michael D Higgins. Professor Uí Chollatáin, who is the head of the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore in UCD, commented that ‘It made absolute sense to highlight the role of this prominent figure in UCD in the context of present commemoration events and research and his very important role in the formation of Irish society,’
The president was incredibly well received, having packed the entirety of Theatre Q, people were sitting on the steps and hanging in the doorways. His hour long lecture was incredibly well researched, and excellently given as he switched seamlessly between English and Irish.
President Higgins discussed the importance of UCD and UCD’s Irish department to Hyde. Hyde had a pivotal position in the establishment of UCD, which was then known as the National University of Ireland. The decision on whether the study of Irish should be a prerequisite to attend the college. It was only when Douglas Hyde made a speech to the United Irish League at the Ard Fheis of 1909 that the majority were in support of Irish as an essential aspect of the university and of education in Ireland.
President Higgins also quotes an anecdote from the first biography of Hyde, which was compiled by Diarmuid Ó Cobhthaigh in 1918. In the story, a fellow student insisting that Hyde must have learned his Latin at a continental academy, so alien was his pronunciation to the ears of his peers:
‘No,’ answered Hyde; ‘but I have modelled my pronunciation on it on that of Irish.’
‘You do know a lot of languages, Hyde,’ a fellow-student remarked to him: ‘How many do you know? English, German, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and French, I suppose?’
‘Yes,’ answered Hyde, ‘and I can read Italian. But the language I know best is Irish.’
‘Irish!’, exclaimed the fellow-student in astonishment; ‘do you know Irish?’
‘Yes,’ said Hyde quietly; ‘I dream in Irish.’
Among the other academic texts that President Higgins cited in his lecture were ‘Forgotten Patriot: Douglas Hyde and the Foundation of the Irish Presidency’ by UCD graduate Dr Brian Murphy, Dr Patrick Maume work in ‘The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment’ and ‘An Irish-Speaking Island: Religion, Community, and the Linguistic landscape in Ireland, 1770–1870’ by Dr. Nicholas Wolf of NYU.
President Higgins finished his lecture on a profound note on the importance of the Irish language to the Irish people by saying, ‘While a failure of political leadership and clerical influence are often suggested as proximate causes for the decline of the language, Douglas Hyde spoke of a past in which the ‘the Irish peasantry… were all to some extent cultured men, and many of the better off ones were scholars and poets’. This is the description of a form of cultural democracy, in which every man and woman can participate in creating and shaping their own culture. It is not merely a description of the past, but also a prospectus for a more hopeful future.’
The following day President Higgins officially launched his campaign to be reelected when the country votes on October 26th.
By Muireann O’Shea – CoEditor