Breatnach, Deasún (1921–2007), journalist, author and activist, was born 2 December 1921, probably in Belgrave Square, Dublin, the eldest child of three sons and a daughter of Kevin Walsh, a solicitor, and his wife Gertrude (née Andrews). His grandfather, James J. Walsh, also a solicitor, represented two of the Invincibles found guilty of the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv) and Thomas Henry Burke (qv), and was a strong Parnellite to the end. Kevin Walsh was a Redmondite and served with the British army in France in the first world war. His son was christened Francis Xavier Desmond ('Des' to his family and friends), but as a young man, inspired by his father's interests, he developed a love of Irish history and folklore, and began using the Irish form of his name, Deasún Breatnach. He went to Belvedere College, Dublin, but when his father (whom he described as 'his best friend') died in 1934, his mother could no longer afford to keep him there and sent him to a boarding school in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Family circumstances meant that going to university was out of the question. Instead, not long after leaving boarding school, he joined the Local Defence Force (a volunteer reserve founded in September 1940), and was among those incorporated into the regular army for the duration of the emergency occasioned by the second world war. He served with the 18th Battalion, attained the rank of lieutenant, and was often the officer in charge of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. He found his métier when asked to write for The Spearhead, a newsletter for the defence forces, and in December 1944 his first poem, 'Adeste fidelis', was published in the Irish Times. While still in the army he wrote an article for the New York Herald Tribune defending Irish neutrality under the pseudonym Rex Mac Gall. In 1945 he also contributed film reviews to Aiséirighe, the newspaper of Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, a small, radically ultra-nationalist party.
With his gratuity on leaving the army, he bought an airline ticket to Spain in May 1946. He managed to secure a position with the Spanish Tourist Board, and also worked as a freelance journalist and with an American radio station in Tangier, Morocco. While living in Madrid, he met and married (31 July 1947) Maria de la Piedad Lucila Hellman de Menchaca, thereafter Lucy Bhreatnach (1924–2007). She had been born 8 October 1924 in Algorta, Bizkaia (Biscay), in the Basque region of Spain, the daughter of Lucila de Menchaca Dilis, and a German businessman, Franz Heinrich Hellman; she had two brothers. Her family fled Spain during the civil war but later returned. Lucy's political interests and her facility with languages deepened her husband's commitment to his own heritage and to the Irish language. Their first son was born in Spain, and he, like the rest of the family (four younger sons and a daughter), was brought up speaking Irish and Spanish. When the family moved to Dublin in 1949, Deasún and Lucy Breatnach and other like-minded parents established the first gaelscoil, or Irish-language-medium school, Scoil Lorcáin, in Blackrock town hall. They had little support from the state, and as they wanted a school open to children of all religious backgrounds, tried to keep influence from established churches to a minimum. Later the Breatnachs helped establish an Irish-medium secondary school, Coláiste Cualann, which, unlike Scoil Lorcáin, did not flourish.
Breatnach made his living as a journalist and author, initially writing for the Irish Times, the Sunday Review, the Irish Independent and Scéala Éireann. He drew on his experiences in Spain and in the Arabic world for many of his articles, and from 1950 gave radio talks and wrote regularly in the Irish Press on maritime topics. He often wrote as Rex Mac Gall (MacGall), and employed the pseudonyms Dara Mac Dara and Mac Lir when writing on politics. He also wrote for the Irish Farmers' Journal, Inniu, Feasta, and the catholic magazine An Timire (Breatnach was a devout catholic), and became a features editor with the Irish Press and then a journalist and sub-editor with the Irish Independent. After studying Irish at night classes in TCD (1958–60) under teachers such as David Greene (qv) and Máirtín Ó Cadhain (qv), he wrote more in Irish than in English, including five books for children: An fáinne Arabach (1960), An dealbh Spáinneach (1962), An buama deireanach (1962), An deachtóir (1963) and An gasúr a chaill a ghoile (1984). He developed a strong interest in the career of William Bedell (qv), a seventeenth-century Church of Ireland bishop who had promoted the Irish language, and wrote The best of the English: a short account of the life and work of the bishop of Kilmore, William Bedell (1971). He was awarded an M.Litt. by TCD for his 1993 thesis on 'An Púca' (a creature in Irish folk belief), which he published as Chugat an Púca (1994). Breatnach continued to write poetry and published his own works and translations from Spanish, Italian and Latin in Dánta amadóra (1998). He wrote a collection of short stories, Galar na bhfocal agus scéalta eile (1999), and a collection of essays and journalism, Gríscíní saillte (2001). Some of his poems and Irish-language stories for children featured on the school curriculum. In addition to his literary work, he composed music in the traditional idiom, including a piece dedicated to the memory of those shot dead in Derry on 'Bloody Sunday' (30 January 1972), and 'An Ghailseach', which was inspired by his love for Lucy. She also expressed herself creatively, in drawing and painting, and in writing and illustrating a children's story. Lucy became a well-known figure in Dublin, often to be found arguing with the Irish Times editor R. M. Smyllie (qv), and writers such as Brendan Behan (qv) and Brian O'Nolan (qv), in the Pearl Bar in Fleet Street.
Breatnach was a lifelong and active member of Conradh na Gaeilge, a prominent figure in its social activities, and a regular visitor to Connemara and the Aran Islands to perfect his command of Irish. He was deeply committed to the language, and regarded it as his human right to be allowed to use Irish in all aspects of life. From 1964 to 1968 he had a long-running disagreement with his motor insurance company, insisting that the required insurance documentation be in Irish. He refused to accept an individually typed certificate, and demanded Irish-language certificates in the standard printed format equivalent to those in English. When these were not forthcoming, he was unable to tax his car, and was prosecuted for not having motor tax. Supported by the main Irish-language organisations, he spent several days in Mountjoy jail in April 1966 until a fine was paid for him by a well-wisher. He subsequently paid the full arrears of tax due.
From an early age Breatnach had read the writings of Patrick Pearse (qv) and James Connolly (qv), which formed the bedrock of his strong republican and socialist views (he became a member of the Wolfe Tone Society, founded in 1963 to work out a synthesis between traditional republicanism and socialism). Breatnach believed that partition had been a disaster for Ireland, creating two conservative sectarian states that cared little for the welfare of ordinary people. In April 1966, during the commemorations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter rising, he was one of thirteen members of the Irish-language activist group Misneach who went on hunger strike for a week to draw attention to the state's failure to realise the aims of the 1916 proclamation. The hunger strikers picketed the GPO, Liberty Hall, and the newly opened Garden of Remembrance, receiving considerable publicity from the national and international media. During the 1960s, Breatnach wrote for the United Irishman, the monthly organ of Sinn Féin, and in 1973–4 edited An Phoblacht, the newspaper of Provisional Sinn Féin, during the imprisonment of the editor, Éamonn Mac Thomáis (qv); Breatnach was editor again in 1977–9. He also wrote for Saoirse, the monthly journal of Republican Sinn Féin from 1986. His daughter, Lucilita Bhreatnach, was general secretary of Sinn Féin (1988–2003), and played a prominent part in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Deasún opposed the agreement, seeing it as an entrenchment of partition, although his wife Lucy supported it.
The vision of both Breatnachs was not solely focused on Irish issues, and together they supported the cause of personal liberty and human rights in other settings and societies. Lucy supported women's rights, and was a founder member of the Dún Laoghaire branch of Amnesty International. The couple were noted for their opposition to racism and authoritarian regimes, and among many other issues campaigned for the rights of indigenous peoples in South America.
The couple were unavoidably involved in a campaign for human rights which affected them even more deeply, when they spent years supporting their son Osgur throughout the complex and long-drawn-out legal repercussions following his arrest in April 1976. Osgur, a founding member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) in 1974 and editor of the IRSP newspaper the Starry Plough, was accused of having taken part in the robbery of a mail train at Sallins, Co. Kildare. He and the co-accused were released for want of evidence, but arrested again, and confessions of guilt were obtained, but only after intimidation and physical force exerted by gardaí, who also failed to adhere to protocols governing questioning of suspects and taking of evidence. In subsequent legal proceedings, gruelling for all involved, Osgur Breatnach's 1978 conviction was quashed. He received substantial damages in an action against the state in 1993.
Deasún Breatnach did a great deal for various charities such as the Motor Neurone Disease Association, and for voluntary groups such as the Pipers' Club. Despite poor health, he continued to write and compose music into his seventies. After sixty years of marriage, his life and his wife's were so closely intertwined that their family was not surprised when they died within two days of each other in Dublin. Lucy Bhreatnach died 1 October 2007, and Deasún on the day of her funeral, 3 October 2007; he left his body to medical science.