Ní Bhrolcháin, Muireann (1955–2015), academic and activist, was born on 15 May 1955 at Calvary Hospital (Bon Secours) in Galway, the eldest of three daughters of Cilian Ó Brolcháin, professor of physics at University College Galway (UCG, now the University of Galway) from Dublin, and his wife Mairéad (née Ní Chochláin), a former schools inspector in domestic science and native Irish-speaker from Macroom, Co. Cork. Ní Bhrolcháin grew up in an Irish-speaking household in Lenaboy Park, Salthill, a suburb of Galway city, and attended primary school locally at Scoil Fhursa, followed by Jesus and Mary, Salerno, for secondary. The family were musical and Ní Bhrolcháin and her sisters learned many traditional songs (as well as stories) from their mother. She played violin and was an accomplished singer, taking part in feiseanna, and at school was a keen participant in various musical productions. In 1972 she took part in the youth music festival Slógadh, and was ‘Banríon Shlógadh’, winning prizes for short story writing and singing. She subsequently performed on RTÉ television and on the Slógadh: Ceol na nÓg album in 1974.
After school in 1972 Ní Bhrolcháin attended UCG to study English, philosophy, history and Irish, and completed an MA in ancient Irish in 1978. She became involved in music and theatre productions in the mid-1970s with the national Irish language theatre An Taibhdhearc in Galway, including appearing in Irish language versions of Lorca’s ‘House of Bernarda Alba’, Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Threepenny opera’ and Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’, as well as the annual summer show ‘Seoda’ for several years. She met her husband Jim Cunningham on the Galway theatre scene, and they had two daughters together but later separated. She then met her long-term partner Don Foley in 1986.
Ní Bhrolcháin spent three years at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) producing a Ph.D. thesis on the 'Banshenchas' (the lore of women) in 1982. At the time she was the first married woman, and first woman with a child, to join DIAS. Her research drew on surviving metrical works and prose about the marriages of aristocratic Irish women to the twelfth century. Her first paper, ‘Women in early Irish myths and sagas’, was published in the Crane Bag in 1980. She started work as a part-time lecturer in Irish at Coláiste Pádraig, Maynooth, in 1981, and in 1983 became a full-time lecturer in ancient Irish literature, then associate dean at the school of Celtic studies. She next helped to establish the Centre for Irish Cultural Heritage at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM), and became its senior lecturer in early Irish (sean-Ghaeilge). Appreciated by students as an interested, enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable lecturer, Ní Bhrolcháin was an active member of the university’s governing authority (2010–15). She was also a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission (1995–8).
She published widely in academic journals including Éigse, Ériu, Léachtaí Cholm Cille,Seanchas Ard Mhacha and Ulidia. With her 2009 survey, An introduction to early Irish literature, she presented her vast knowledge and scholarship on writings from the old and middle Irish period (600–1200) in a style accessible to both undergraduate students and the general reader. Her intention was to address what she noted as a ‘a marked reluctance to produce books aimed at popularizing [sic] the topic and making it available to the general public’ (Ní Bhrolcháin, 152). In additional to her academic writing, she produced young adult fiction in Irish, including An bád sa chuan (1990), Ar ais arís (1991), Eachtraí samhraidh (1992), Dialann Chaoimhe (1994) and An solas sa chaisleán (1994). For a time, she was also a scriptwriter for TG4’s long-running Irish-language serial drama Ros na Rún.
A long-time member of the Labour party, she was deeply involved in its campaigns during both divorce referendums (1986 and 1995), acting as the party’s Irish language spokesperson. In 1996, she chaired the commission to examine the role of Irish language voluntary organisations at the request of then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins, which produced the report ‘Treo 2000’ (1997) and contributed to the development of the Official Languages Act 2003. Ní Bhrolcháin also served on Maynooth Community Council for some thirty years, in a variety of roles.
Described by the poet Christine Murray as a ‘ball of energy’ (Poethead, 18 Apr. 2015), Ní Bhrolcháin was especially passionate about the preservation of heritage sites, and Tara in Co. Meath was a focus for much of her considerable effort. The construction of the M3 motorway threatened to cause significant damage to archaeologically important sites in the Gabhra Valley (indeed nearly a quarter were damaged or demolished during the works). Ní Bhrolcháin was a prominent figure in the campaign to protect the area – she secured the signatures of 350 academics from around the world calling on the government to halt the development, brought court challenges, met with the taoiseach and various relevant government ministers, and was even arrested in 2007 under the Public Order Act for her protest activities. In August 2008 she organised and led proceedings at the first ‘Feis Teamhra: a turn at Tara’, an event that celebrated Tara and Irish heritage more broadly, and protested the destruction of important archaeological and historical sites. The event ran annually until 2013 with performers including poets Seamus Heaney (qv), Paul Muldoon and Eavan Boland (d. 2020), writer Kevin Barry, and singers Iarla Ó Lionáird and Susan McKeown.
Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin died on 14 April 2015 at St Francis Hospice, Blanchardstown, Co. Dublin. A funeral service was held on 18 April at Glasnevin Crematorium, which was attended by President Michael D. Higgins.