Hyde, Douglas (de hÍde, Dubhghlas) (1860–1949), Gaelic scholar, founder of the Gaelic League, and first president of Ireland, was born 17 January 1860 in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, fourth child among three sons and two daughters of the Rev. Arthur Hyde (descended from the Hydes of Castlehyde, Co. Cork), Church of Ireland rector of Kilmactrine, Co. Sligo, and Elizabeth Hyde (née Oldfield). In 1866 Arthur Hyde became rector of Tibohine, Co. Roscommon, resident at Frenchpark in that county. The Frenches (Lords de Freyne) were related to their rector, and allowed his family to shoot over their land. Douglas Hyde's biographers do not relate whether the Hyde family were directly affected by the bitter land agitation on the estate, carried on intermittently from the Plan of Campaign in the late 1880s to the early years of the twentieth century; however, Hyde remained close enough to the Frenches to lament the deaths of the then Lord de Freyne and his brother in the first world war, and the relationship was sometimes cited against him in internal Gaelic League disputes.
First contacts with the Irish language
At Frenchpark Douglas learned Irish by speaking to country people, keeping a notebook in which he phonetically transcribed words and expressions. He later began to collect songs and stories. He developed a considerable gift for languages; when asked what was his first language, Hyde said he dreamed in Irish. The area was no longer predominantly Irish-speaking, though the older people still knew the language; the ‘Roscommon Irish’ which Hyde spoke was often commented on adversely by purists. (Hyde believed it more important that Irish should be spoken at all than that it should be spoken correctly; if the language was kept alive by the former method, the latter would surely follow.) He was so close to a gamekeeper and old Fenian, Seamus Hart (d. 1875), that some commentators have suggested Hyde regarded Hart as a second father.
He was educated at home by his father after a brief and unhappy experience at school in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) in 1873. His upbringing distanced him from the more polished and anglicised urban protestant middle-class. (His father disliked the effect that the cosmopolitan atmosphere of TCD had on his two elder sons, claiming during an 1878 quarrel with Douglas that it had turned one son into an ‘undisciplined scoundrel’ and the other into ‘an agnostic’.) Hyde maintained many characteristics of the Connacht squireen (including fondness for snipe-shooting and poteen – in the 1930s he remarked wistfully that the latter had never seemed really illegal when it was the British government which collected the tax); casual acquaintances thought him a simple countryman. Relations with his father (who was brilliant but erratic and given to drinking-bouts) were tense; this encouraged identification with the Irish-speaking peasantry. The self-concealment involved fostered a sense, widely felt by those who came into contact with him, that Hyde had different personae which he expressed through different languages, and that a discernible sense of mischief underlay his high-mindedness; jokes were sometimes made linking Hyde to Robert Louis Stevenson's story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which Hyde himself greatly enjoyed.
Antiquarianism, poetry and nationalism
From the late 1870s Hyde collected Irish printed books, forming the nucleus of his collection at the auction of the books of John O'Daly (qv), whom he knew slightly, after the bookseller's death. His first encounter with organised antiquarianism came when he joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1877, in the process making the acquaintance of Thomas O'Neill Russell (qv), a close associate in his early linguistic activities. Hyde joined the Gaelic Union in 1878 and served on its council. From 1879 he published original Irish-language poems in the quasi-separatist weeklies The Shamrock and The Irishman (both edited by Richard Pigott (qv)), under the pen-name ‘An Craoibhín Aoibhinn’ (‘the pleasant little branch’). The pen name minimised possible repercussions from the aggressively nationalist views expressed; one poem celebrated the activities of the Craoibhín's (fictitious) grandfather in 1798 and lamented the failure of the rising. In later years the poem was revised to refer to the Fenians of the 1860s, with Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) as its protagonist. Hyde's views on the celebrated Fenian, Irish-speaker, and advocate of dynamite appear to have been ambivalent. An 1880 verse on Rossa's exhorting the unarmed peasantry to rise up against the soldiers can be read either as eulogy or as satire; but on a June 1891 visit to New York he went to see Rossa and passed the day with him. Hyde's admiration for the Fenian leader and Gaelic scholar John O'Mahony (qv) was less equivocal. In December 1887 he wrote a widely praised poem, ‘O'Mahony's lament’, in which the old Fenian is made to say that amid the wreckage of his life's struggles and hopes ‘I have rescued nought but my honour only / and this aged, lonely and whitening head.’
In 1880 Hyde entered TCD as a divinity student, partly under pressure from his father (who wished at least one son to follow him in the ministry), partly because Irish was studied in the faculty of divinity. Though graduating BD (1885), he did not proceed to ordination because of religious doubts. Hyde remained a lifelong practising member of the Church of Ireland but ignored and disliked theological distinctions in general, in response to the bitter polemical controversies between and within denominations in nineteenth-century Ireland. (His father appears to have been mildly high-church, and Hyde's diary mentions occasional arguments with ultra-evangelicals.) He retained a general religious sense and a general view that ‘materialism’ was a bad thing; Hyde is frequently cited as a case-study in support of the theory that the Irish cultural revival was profoundly influenced by discontented sons of the Church of Ireland rectory, seeking to supersede or substitute for the theological braces of their parents.
Like other Trinity contemporaries with liberal/nationalist views, Hyde moved in literary circles around the Contemporary Club, the short-lived Dublin University Review (to which he contributed literary articles), and the Young Ireland Society. Hyde's diaries (excerpted in Dominic Daly, The young Douglas Hyde (1974)) are an important source for this milieu, which brought him into contact with a wide range of people ranging from unionists such as the scientist G. F. Fitzgerald (qv), later a staunch opponent of the Gaelic League, to physical-force separatists, and where he encountered W. B. Yeats (qv). Hyde assisted Yeats's collections of folk-tales, but their relations were strained. Hyde found Yeats condescending; Yeats was disappointed that Hyde lacked his own sense of poetic mission and was prepared to subordinate both his poetic gift and individual self-assertion to the central mission of saving the Irish language. In his memoirs Yeats complains that while he fought for higher literary standards Hyde ‘sat dreaming of his old white cockatoo in County Roscommon’ (the cockatoo perches on Hyde's shoulder in one of the photographs reproduced between pp 242–3 of the Dunlevy and Dunlevy biography); and the late poem ‘Coole Park, 1929’ claims that after his late 1890s collaboration with Lady Gregory (qv) (whom he tutored in Irish while she assisted him with his collection of folkloric material) and the literary movement, Hyde ‘had beaten into prose / That noble blade the Muses buckled on’.
Academic career; publications
In 1884 Hyde took a first class honours BA; he transferred to law in 1886, graduating LLB (1887) and LLD (1888), but never practised. Instead, he sought an academic career. Between October 1890 and May 1891 Hyde taught English at the University of New Brunswick as locum tenens for his college friend William Stockley (qv), taking an interest in the language and customs of the local Milicete people. He returned via the north-eastern US, making contact with Irish literary circles in Boston and New York. Hyde hoped for an academic position, but his career was severely hindered by his concentration on spoken Irish – academic study of Irish then focused on medieval and early modern written Irish, with the spoken form seen as degenerate. Hyde also came to believe that his career had been injured by his nationalist views and that such Trinity dons as George Salmon (qv) (who had expressed strong dissent at a March 1885 Theological Society paper in which Hyde argued that the Church of Ireland ought to show greater sympathy to Irish nationalism), while outwardly friendly and even supplying him with references, had secretly worked against his applications for academic vacancies. Hyde's suspicions have not been independently confirmed, but are not implausible; they contributed to his growing estrangement from Trinity.
From 1889 Hyde published numerous bilingual collections of Connacht folk tales and folk poetry. The best-known are Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta (1889), Love songs of Connaught (1893), Poems ascribed to Raftery (1909), and Religious songs of Connacht (1906). Previous Irish folklorists freely rewrote the material they collected and ignored its provenance; Hyde deployed the more advanced techniques of Scots folklorists, setting new standards in reproducing the names, locations, and Hiberno-English speech of informants. Some of Hyde's lyric translations from the Irish, such as ‘My grief on the sea’ are highly praised in their own right; there has been speculation that some of the Irish-language ‘original’ lyrics may also have been composed or improved by Hyde. A collection of his acknowledged original Irish verse, Ubhla de'n Chraoibh, was published in 1900. He also published a survey of early Irish literature (1895) and a Literary history of Ireland (1899). This last, the work of twenty years, deals exclusively with literature in Irish and expresses the view that the works of Irish writers in English cannot properly be called Irish literature; it remained a useful survey of the subject for many years after its publication.
‘De-anglicising Ireland’; the Gaelic League
In 1892 Hyde became president of the National Literary Society. His inaugural address, ‘The necessity for de-anglicising Ireland’, delivered on 25 November, argued that political nationalism, however necessary, had by propagating itself through English-language media, and drawing popular attention to debates at Westminster, blinded the Irish people to the fact that they were losing their national identity along with the language. In terminology reminiscent of Young Ireland (and with echoes of the Arnoldian belief in Celtic racial characteristics) Hyde declared that the loss of the language had left the Irish people culturally impoverished and degraded, while their residual sense of Irishness left them both unable and unwilling to be completely absorbed by the arrogant and materialistic civilisation of England. Since the Irish could never become English they must recover their identity by reviving the Gaelic language and thereby re-establishing contact with their ancestral traditions. The lecture inspired the formation of the Gaelic League in July 1893; Hyde became its first president.
The paper drew on several articles Hyde had written over the years; his writings have been praised for their acute sense of cultural devastation through language loss (based on Hyde's own observations in Connacht) and criticised for conflating anglicisation and degeneration with inevitable products of modernisation (displacement of oral culture by mass-produced print media) or incidental changes in fashion (replacement of knee-breeches by trousers). Although Hyde saw the Irish language as the basis for an all-embracing national identity (part of its appeal lay in its offer to bridge the divisions between the ‘two Irelands’ caused by the land war and home rule controversies and the more recent divisions of the Parnell split, which had left nationalist Ireland demoralised and disheartened), his criticism of the Anglo-Irish tradition as imitative and superficial was exploited by aggressive polemicists such as D. P. Moran (qv) to identify ‘Gael’ and ‘catholic’.
Hyde married (10 October 1893), in Liverpool, Lucy Cometina Kurtz, a wealthy Englishwoman of remote German descent. They had two daughters, Nuala (d. 1916 of tuberculosis) and Una. The marriage suffered from tensions caused by Lucy's belief that the Gaelic League was exploiting and demeaning Hyde; she came to detest the League, the language, and the Roscommon countryside where they lived. (They initially leased Ratra House near Frenchpark from the de Freyne estate; when the estate was sold under the Wyndham land act the Gaelic League bought the freehold and presented it to Hyde, to the despair of Lucy, who had tried to persuade him to sell up and move to Dublin.) A few years after marriage she became a chronic invalid. Her ill health (possibly neurasthenia) persisted until her death in 1938; Hyde devoted considerable effort to caring for her.
Unlike earlier revivalist groups, the League sought mass membership. In 1899 Hyde organised resistance to the attempts of the Trinity academics J. P. Mahaffy (qv) and Robert Atkinson (qv) to remove Irish from the school curriculum; this aroused public interest and helped make the League a mass organisation. Hyde's 1903 satirical play ‘Pleusgadh na bulgóide’ (‘the bursting of the bubble’) depicts ‘Magaffy’ and ‘Hatkin’ magically compelled to speak Irish. Between 1901 and 1905 Hyde wrote several plays in Irish, in extensive though under-acknowledged collaboration with Lady Gregory. On 21 October 1901 his comedy ‘Casadh an tsúgáin’ (‘The twisting of the rope’) became the first all-Irish play to receive theatrical production. His other plays were ‘An tincéar agus an tsídheóg’, first performed in the Dublin garden of George Moore (qv) on 19 May 1902, with Sinéad Flanagan (qv) (later de Valera) as the sídheóg, ‘An pósadh’ (1902), ‘An naomh ar iarraidh’ (1902/3), ‘Dráma breithe Chríosta’ (1902; which attracted some hostility from catholic and protestant clerics both for dramatising the Nativity and for folkloric additions to the Gospel narrative), ‘Teach na mBocht’ (1902; later reworked by Gregory as ‘The workhouse ward’), ‘Rí Séamas’ (reworked as Gregory's ‘White cockade’), ‘An cleamhnas’ (1904), and ‘Maistín an Bhéarla’ (1905; a savage depiction of the mistreatment of Irish-speaking schoolchildren by a monoglot English-speaking schoolmaster), which concluded his main period of dramatic productivity. Hyde himself sometimes acted in such roles as the disreputable Connacht poet who tries to seduce a Munster bride in ‘Casadh an tsúgáin’ and the benevolent ghost of Raftery (qv) in ‘An pósadh’. Daniel Corkery (qv) later recalled (in an article honouring Hyde's nomination as president of Ireland) that witnessing Hyde in a 1903 Dublin performance of the latter play was the first time he had seen a living writer. For Corkery, and many others like him, such experiences confirmed the view of Hyde as the ideal of a writer from an ascendancy background who had come to identify with the people; although intended to do him honour, such views exaggerated the extent of his supposed early alienation from ‘the people’ and ignored the extent to which he retained contact with his protestant and small-gentry roots.
The League and politics
Hyde's presidency of the League was marked by a series of balancing acts aimed at keeping the League from being torn apart by rival political and linguistic factions. In 1904 he refused a nationalist seat in parliament offered by John Redmond (qv) (a classic example of the Irish parliamentary party's habit of attempting to take over independent grassroots organisations and turn them into its auxiliaries). Hyde maintained immense personal popularity, greatly assisted by personal charm and diplomacy and by occasional threats to resign if internal feuds were not resolved. (Acid comments about Munster dialect, separatist ‘footpads’, and clericalists – three groups which were not coextensive but sometimes overlapped, particularly in the Dublin-based Keating branch – were reserved for correspondence and his private jottings.)
Behind the scenes Hyde disliked the 1904–5 campaigns to insist that the post office accept parcels addressed in Irish, and that Irish-speakers be allowed to place their names on their carts in Irish rather than English (he feared that these would provoke government hostility which might seriously disrupt the League organisation and hinder its activities); he outwardly acquiesced in these tactics rather than alienate more enthusiastic activists, while privately working for compromise. Hyde remained a nationalist, but he had moved from the fiery separatism of his youth to see cultural revival as the precondition of national rebirth. Yeats humorously contrasts Hyde's diplomacy with the storms around the Abbey Theatre in ‘At the Abbey Theatre’ (‘Dear Craobhin Aoibhinn, look into our case’). There was a certain barb to the humour; Hyde's concern to preserve the Gaelic League from damage by Abbey controversies led to such incidents as his public declaration – in response to an angry request from John Devoy (qv) – that the League did not endorse the Abbey's 1911 performances of Synge's (qv) ‘Playboy’ in America.
In 1905–6 Hyde undertook an American fund-raising lecture tour organised by John Quinn (qv). Hyde's diplomacy (which included opportunistic appeals to catholic religious sentiment, and defusing possible Orange hostility in Toronto by emphasising his own genuine interest in Scots Gaelic) was eminently successful. His exhortations to save the language from the ‘foul and gluttonous jaws’ of the ‘demon of anglicisation’ were well received, and the League's finances were replenished for years to come. (Hyde's placating of Devoy over the ‘Playboy’ was partly due to concern for another fundraising tour then being undertaken by Fionan Mac Coluim and Fr Michael O'Flanagan (qv).)
In 1909 Hyde became first professor of Irish at UCD, holding the post until 1932; during his tenure of the post the Hydes wintered in Dublin and only spent the summer at Ratra, to Lucy's relief. He led the successful Gaelic League campaign to make Irish compulsory for matriculation in the new NUI. Hyde resigned the League's presidency in August 1915 after an ard-fheis voted to make it a specifically nationalist organisation. Although this had long been the case, Hyde chose to make a stand on his original vision that it should remain open to well-disposed unionists in the name of national reconciliation. The wisdom of the decision continues to provoke debate; Hyde later commented that the decision might after all have been for the best, while Eoin MacNeill (qv), one of the principal movers behind the change, later believed that Hyde had been correct and that the Gaelic League had been severely damaged by linking its fortunes to a political movement.
Senator and president
Hyde continued to lecture at UCD with infectious enthusiasm and to publish, mainly on folkloric topics. He was coopted to the Free State senate in 1925 but defeated in the nationwide senate election later that year, partly because of a smear campaign against protestant senators who had voted for a procedural motion allowing a debate on divorce. (Hyde publicly declared that his vote had been misrepresented, and that he was opposed to divorce.) In 1931 he was nominated to the Irish Academy of Letters.
On retirement Hyde returned to Ratra full-time, caring for Lucy (whose illness severely strained family finances), shooting, and socialising with locals of all classes. David Thomson, then tutoring at Woodbrook House, whose Kirkwood owners were related to Hyde, met him occasionally at the de Freynes; in later years, having discovered from his reading Hyde's true stature, Thomson regretted that ‘my ignorance prevented me from listening to him properly’ and his only memory of ‘this great man’ was of a ‘ludicrous’ parlour game in which the octogenarian Hyde got down on all fours and took one end of a chocolate bar in his mouth, while girls bit off as much as they dared. In 1937 Hyde served briefly in the reconstituted senate, vacating his seat on becoming first president of Ireland under the 1937 constitution. (This possibility had been spoken of for some time, and the 1937 publications of the memoir volumes Mise agus an Connradh and Mo thurus go hAmerice may have been partly intended to bolster his image as an elder statesman.) Hyde was seen as representing the Gaelic Revival in culture and politics, giving force to the declaration by Éamon de Valera (qv) at the presidential inauguration (26 June 1938) in St Patrick's Hall, Dublin castle (whose ceiling was painted with representations of the Irish kings surrendering to Henry II (qv)), that the Irish people saluted Hyde as the rightful successor of their native princes, resuming the national life after a long foreign usurpation. His protestantism was useful in asserting the claim that the Irish state was religiously tolerant and potentially receptive to the protestants of Ulster (a view imperfectly shared by the local catholic parish priest of St. Paul's, Arran Quay, who demanded that Hyde pay him parish dues on the grounds that whatever his personal beliefs he was president of a catholic country). Hyde's age and non-political status also disarmed fears that the president might become a dictator. Lucy was too ill to take up residence in the Phoenix Park and died at Ratra on 31 December 1938; Hyde's sister Annette was his official hostess.
In November 1938 the GAA removed Hyde (who had composed its anthem) as a patron, for attending an international soccer match in his official capacity. Hyde chose not to make an issue of it, though de Valera later complained that no organisation should dictate to the president on the performance of his official duties. (The principal GAA stadium in Roscommon was named after Hyde on its opening in 1969.) Hyde also attracted some hostility from populists, who attacked his large official salary (a favourite theme of critics of earlier lords lieutenant and governors-general), and from IRA supporters, who accused him of complicity in de Valera's actions against the IRA. In April 1940 Hyde suffered a stroke which confined him to a wheelchair. Despite his figurehead status and fragile health Hyde established important precedents by referring controversial legislation to the supreme court for rulings on its constitutionality, and insisting on taking advice from his staff before granting a dáil dissolution to de Valera in 1944.
Hyde declined a second presidential term and spent his last years in the former residence of the private secretary to the viceroy (renamed ‘Little Ratra’). He died there on 13 July 1949 and was buried at Frenchpark. Catholic politicians and officials remained outside St Patrick's cathedral during his funeral service, reflecting contemporary catholic teaching; this provoked criticism (including a poem by Austin Clarke (qv), ‘Burial of a president’). His house was bequeathed to the language movement, sold off and demolished, a plaque subsequently being erected on the site. Gaelscoileanna have been called after him in Tallaght and Roscommon, and his father's old church at Frenchpark has been converted into a museum in his honour; in 1978 TCD opened the Douglas Hyde Gallery (used for art exhibitions). The principal collections of his papers are in the NLI and the folklore archives, UCD.
Hyde ignited cultural debates which have raged ever since; although latterly few would share his complete identification of Irishness with the Gaelic tradition, and much of his scholarship has been superseded by more academically rigorous successors, his status as a pioneer is secure. This outwardly simple man was a complex blend of Ireland's traditions; those who chose him to symbolise the new state wrought better than they knew.