Greene, David William (1915–81), Celtic scholar, was born 22 October 1915 in Denmark House, Dublin, son of David Wilson Greene, salesman, and Edith Greene (née Young). After the death of his father from influenza during the first world war and the premature death of his mother, he was brought up by an aunt in Rathgar, Dublin, and educated at St Andrew's College and Trinity College Dublin (TCD). His passion for the Irish language was heavily influenced by Seán Óg Mac Murchadha Caomhánach (qv) of Dún Chaoin in west Kerry, a teacher in St Andrew's, who introduced him to the Gaeltacht area. Having entered TCD in 1933, he graduated in 1937 with first-class honours in Celtic and French and was awarded a travelling scholarship that brought him to Oslo to study under Carl Marstrander (qv), a distinguished Norwegian linguist. The decision to go to Norway rather than Bonn, which was then the Mecca of Irish celticists, was an early indication of the independence of mind that manifested itself throughout his career. It also inspired a great love of what he saw as Norway's independence, patriotism, and political sophistication.
His first job was as a lecturer in Celtic studies at Glasgow University, but he returned to Ireland in 1940 during the emergency and joined the auxiliary fire brigade. In 1942 he was appointed an assistant librarian at the National Library of Ireland (NLI), a position he held until 1948. He also became the lexicographer of the Royal Irish Academy's (RIA) Irish dictionary. As well as contributing to various Irish-language periodicals, he read widely outside his own area of expertise and contributed a monthly article to the Irish-language current affairs magazine Comhar (1946–51). In 1953 he was appointed professor of Irish at TCD, a position he held until 1967, when he became senior professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. During 1954–5 he taught Irish at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, as well as acting as a visiting professor at Harvard. Academically, Greene regarded himself primarily as a linguist and his scholarship remained grounded in the contemporary idiom of west Munster. Frequently drawing attention to disparity of styles in Irish language studies, he was unafraid to express views that were academically unpopular. Carrying his learning lightly and encouraging others to do likewise, he placed emphasis on the need for originality and a spirit of inquiry, rejecting the idea that absolute accuracy was the most important academic function, and he disliked ambiguity or suspension of judgment. His best-known publications were A golden treasury of Irish poetry (1967), which he edited with Frank O’ Connor (qv); Fingal Ronáin and other stories (1955); The Irish language (1966); and Cuírt an mheain oíche (1968).
Born a presbyterian, he was later temporarily a quaker, but ultimately rejected organised religion. He was politically active and made many controversial contributions to cultural debate, seeing the ideal Ireland as a non-denominational, Irish-speaking, socialist republic. Although he came from an entirely unionist background, he rejected unionism as morally and politically unsustainable, and as a teenager became a committed nationalist – in his own words, ‘in the tradition of Tone [qv] and refined by Hyde [qv]’. In his role as an Irish-language scholar, he viewed himself as taking part in ‘the reconstruction of the historic nation’. These were also convictions that led him to mock the pretensions of political parties in relation to the Irish language and the Gaeltacht. He resigned his membership of the Irish Labour party at the time of the mother-and-child controversy involving Noel Browne (qv), in protest at what he saw as the nauseating hypocrisy of both church and state.
A pacifist, he was a strong defender of Irish neutrality, and was also an anti-apartheid activist and an advocate of liberal social laws. An ebullient, bohemian, and populist academic and debater, he was a passionate sports fan, being particularly devoted to hurling. His term as president of the RIA (1973–6) was regarded as invigorating and resulted in Ériu becoming an annual journal, and in the inauguration of the Academy's Historical Dictionary of Modern Irish. His academic achievements were honoured with doctorates from the new University of Ulster (1974), the University of Glasgow (1979), and the National University of Ireland (NUI, 1981). He married first (date not known) Sheila May; they had a daughter, Vicky. His second wife, Hilary Heron (qv), an artist and sculptor whom he married in 1959, died in 1977. Greene died 13 June 1981 at Dublin airport, having just returned from a visit to the Faroe Islands, where he had presented the Ossian writing award for the promotion of minor languages. His sudden death ensured that his ultimate academic aim – to write a detailed history of the Irish language – remained unfulfilled.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).