Ó Cuinneagáin, Gearóid Seán Caoimhín (1910–91), political activist and publisher, was born 2 January 1910 at Belfast, the third child of Sean Cunningham and his wife Caitlín. He was educated in Belfast, at St Brigid's school, Malone Rd, and the CBS in Donegall Rd. Ó Cuinneagáin's political views were permanently influenced by memories of the sectarian violence of 1920–22. In 1927 Ó Cuinneagáin entered the Irish civil service as a tax clerk, stationed first at Athlone and then at Castlebar. He was promoted to junior executive officer in the Department of Defence, but resigned in July 1932 after his superiors refused to allow him six months’ unpaid leave to study Irish in the Donegal Gaeltacht. According to Ó Cuinneagáin, he turned down a promotion to the Department of Finance, a decision partly motivated by disillusion with Fianna Fáil. He subsequently worked as an accountant, and lived in the south Dublin suburbs. In 1934 he established his own publishing company, Nuachtáin Teoranta (which, he boasted, was the first company to be registered in the Irish language), and he also contributed to an Irish-language socialist paper, An t-Éireannach (1934–7) under the pen name ‘Bruinneal gan Smal’.
In 1940–41 Ó Cuinneagáin was active in the Friends of Germany, a pro-Nazi organisation which disintegrated after some of its leading members were interned. On 26 September 1940 he founded Craobh na h-Aiséirighe, a branch of the Gaelic League aimed at attracting dynamic young enthusiasts frustrated by the older activists who dominated established branches. It made a point of using modern publicity methods to get its message across, a trait which was carried over into Ailtirí na h-Aiséirí (‘architects of resurrection’), a political movement made up of branch members, which Ó Cuinneagáin founded in 1942. This move led to the expulsion of Craobh na h-Aiséirighe from the Gaelic League and the establishment of Glún na Buaidhe by branch members who disapproved of Ó Cuinneagáin's political ambitions and wished to concentrate on the promotion of the Irish language.
Members of Ailtirí wore an informal uniform of a green shirt, tweed suit, and báinín jacket. In private Ó Cuinneagáin revealed that the organisation was modelled on the Hitler Youth; his own title of ‘ceannaire’ (‘leader’) equates with ‘Führer’ and ‘duce’. Features of the movement copied from Nazism included an emphasis on propaganda based on a few simple concepts and phrases; the claim that party politics allowed statesmen to evade individual responsibility, whereas a single leader was necessarily more responsive to public opinion; and the belief that all difficulties could be overcome through willpower. (A less controversial aspect of his fondness for European models was Ó Cuinneagáin's early and lifelong advocacy of decimal coinage and the metric system.)
Ó Cuinneagáin took to extremes contemporary catholic advocacy of a corporate state based on vocational principles as the solution to the problems of modernity; while venerating Salazar's Portugal as a role model, he believed that Ireland could surpass it and create a catholic social model that would redeem the whole world. (He took a quasi-racial view of Irishness and came close to saying that the only true Irish catholics were of Gaelic race; when Sean O'Faolain (qv) commented acidly in The Bell on the paradox of ‘Celtophiles’ who bore such Celtic names as Blackham and Cunningham, Ó Cuinneagáin protested that he could prove his pure Gaelic descent.) The Ailtirí state would force all male citizens to undertake a year's compulsory military service, which would also be used as a means of Gaelicisation, and the resulting citizen army of 250,000 would mount a lightning invasion of Northern Ireland, modelled on the blitzkrieg: a favourite slogan was ‘Six Counties, Six Divisions, Sixty Minutes’. In 1943 the Stormont government excluded Ó Cuinneagáin from Northern Ireland.
Ailtirí attracted considerable attention; its leaders addressed numerous meetings around the country, attracting large crowds to demonstrations at Dublin and Cork. Ó Cuinneagáin, who was by no means unintelligent, was capable of shrewd observations on the restrictions imposed on most Irish-language bodies by government subsidies, and the impact of the snobbery shown towards the poor by their middle-class co-religionists. Several of his lieutenants were academics or engineers; in the 1970s he praised modernist architecture as breaking with the hated Georgian past, and denounced conservationists who opposed plans to build an oil refinery in Dublin Bay. Bilingual pamphlets produced by the group sold thousands of copies; Ó Cuinneagáin was the author of several, including Ireland's twentieth century destiny (1942), Aiséirí says . . . (1943), Partition: a positive policy (1945), and Aiséirí for the worker (1947). Ó Cuinneagáin's attempts to launch a party paper were stifled until the end of the war. Some of the interest attracted by the group derived from curiosity or amusement; it also functioned to some extent as a front organisation for the banned IRA, Ó Cuinneagáin declaring that Jews and freemasons should be locked up instead of IRA men. Aiséirí members were involved in the bombing of the Gough memorial in Phoenix Park (July 1957); the stolen head was concealed for a time in the party's offices.
The party ran four candidates (including Ó Cuinneagáin in Dublin north west)) in the 1943 general election and seven in 1944; all lost their deposits. Ó Cuinneagáin did not actually vote for himself: throughout his life he demanded Irish-language ballot papers; when given English-language ones he tore them up, claiming that they disenfranchised him and that this invalidated the election. In 1946 Ailtirí na h-Aiséirí elected eight members to local bodies in counties Louth and Cork. This helped to bring about the decline of the party, as the Cork activists rebelled against the rigid Führerprinzip upheld by the electorally unsuccessful ceannaire and his Dublin acolytes. Most of the party's local support was absorbed by Clann na Poblachta. Ó Cuinneagáin retained a small group of followers centred on his newspaper Aiséirighe (1945–75; monthly until 1962, bi-monthly 1962–70, quarterly 1971–5).
Ó Cuinneagáin kept himself in the public gaze by driving around the country in a van painted with slogans, and by regularly appearing in court for refusing to respond to official documents (rates demands, car insurance, court summonses) unless they were supplied in Irish. He enjoyed some success in securing the provision of Irish-language versions of such documents, and he contrasted the state's niggardliness on this point with its professed commitment to the revival of Irish. In 1954 Ó Cuinneagáin founded an Irish-language women's artistic and social paper, Deirdre, which operated successfully for over a decade without government subsidy.
Ó Cuinneagáin continued to write sympathetically about IRA activities (at one point he offered £1,000 reward for the capture of the Northern Ireland prime minister, Basil Brooke (qv)). He maintained surprisingly extensive international neo-fascist contacts: he regularly reprinted in Aiséirighe material by the American anti-Semite and racial segregationist Gerald L. K. Smith; he cited praise for Aiséirighe from Der Stahlhelm (a far-right German veterans’ paper) and noted Oswald Mosley's support for Irish reunification; he denounced Hugh Trevor-Roper's Last days of Hitler as typical British slander of a fallen enemy; he compared the sacrificial ideology of the Hungarian Nazi collaborator Ferenc Szálasi (executed in 1945) to that of Patrick Pearse (qv); he praised Juan Perón as a model whom Ireland should imitate; and he followed the electoral fortunes of Italian neo-fascism with interest. Ó Cuinneagáin also maintained contacts with the radical right-wing fringes of Breton, Scottish, and Welsh nationalism; he declared that Ireland's grievance was against England alone and bemoaned the Dublin government's failure to encourage the break-up of the UK.
Ó Cuinneagáin denounced the USSR and USA alike as controlled by Zionists and freemasons; he pointed to illegitimacy and divorce rates in the USA as proof of the folly of those who regarded ‘progressive’ American education as superior to the sound Irish teaching methods embodied by the Christian Brothers, and bemoaned the increasing flow of ‘immoral’ American comics and paperback books into Ireland. While noting with pride that he had been described as ‘Ireland's foremost Jew-baiter’, Ó Cuinneagáin claimed that his frequent diatribes against Robert Briscoe (qv) and the state of Israel were merely anti-Zionist, and that he had nothing against Jews, whom he defined as ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists. He hoped that a Europe united on national–Christian principles might fend off the influence of the super powers. He echoed Mosleyite calls for European unity and was an early and determined advocate of Irish membership of the European Community. However, he dissented from the Mosleyite view that such a union should be based on African empire; he was generally anti-imperialist, though somewhat more lenient towards Portuguese than British imperialism, and from 1956 President Nasser of Egypt became one of his heroes. While supporting European unity as a defensive strategy, he also warned that unless Ireland adopted mass conscription the country might be conquered by a regiment of Russian paratroopers landing on Dollymount Strand; throughout the 1950s and 1960s he regularly called for the Irish army to mount a military coup (hinting that it should instal him as leader in the same way that the Portuguese army had installed Salazar).
Ó Cuinneagáin had given up contesting elections but he regularly cited those who did not vote in elections as indicating the extent of political support for Ailtirí na h-Aiséirí; he regularly lamented that the safety valve of emigration took the steam out of radical politics. In his later years he noted the growth of anti-clericalism and the beginnings of a permissive society in Dublin; he attributed this to the church's failure to implement its own social teaching and its encouragement of West British snobbery at the expense of the truly catholic traditions of the Gael.
On 4 April 1945 Ó Cuinneagáin married Sile Ní Chochláin; they had four sons and two daughters, some of whom became active in left-wing politics. He died 13 June 1991. Ó Cuinneagáin tends to be remembered (if at all) as a figure of fun, but this view demands some qualification. He possessed genuine abilities and dedication; his fantasies were an extreme development of the official ideology of the state, and part of his appeal stemmed from his ability to point out the hypocrisy involved in paying it lip service while failing to push it to its logical conclusion. The blindness and cruelty involved in imposing Ó Cuinneagáin's world view at a personal level (recorded by the novelist Hugo Hamilton, whose father was one of Ó Cuinneagáin's associates) had their counterparts in the institutions of official Ireland. Ailtirí na h-Aiséirí may have been a marginal millennial cult, but in Europe during the 1940s such groups were often raised to power by circumstances; had the second world war taken a different direction after 1940, Ó Cuinneagáin might be remembered not as a parody of Pearse but as an Irish Szálasi.