Ó Laoghaire, Peadar (An tAthair Peadar; O'Leary, Peter) (1839–1920), pioneering writer in modern Irish, was born 30 April 1839 at Lios Carragáin, in an Irish-speaking district some miles west of Macroom, Co. Cork, one of six children of Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire, small farmer, and Siobhán Ní Laoghaire, teacher. He was educated bilingually at home and later at schools in Macroom and elsewhere in Co. Cork. Having spent two years (1859–61) at St Colman's College, Fermoy, he studied for the priesthood in Maynooth, where he was ordained in 1867. He went on to serve in various parishes in the diocese of Cloyne, spending his final twenty years as parish priest of Castlelyons. From 1906 he was officially ‘Canon Peter O'Leary’ anglice, but he was popularly and universally known as an tAthair Peadar (‘Father Peter’). He was made a freeman of Dublin and of Cork in 1912, and received an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1919.
His reading and writing skills in Irish were probably acquired during his Maynooth days. Although he sporadically taught some classes in the language in the 1870s, it was the Gaelic League (founded 1893) that stimulated him in his mid fifties to take up a writing career, thereby responding to a new demand by enthusiastic revivalists for reading materials in Irish. For the next twenty-five years an tAthair Peadar poured out a prolific stream of publications from his parochial house in the north Cork countryside. They included numerous books and innumerable articles in newspapers and periodicals, covering a remarkable range of material – autobiography, original prose, the first drama in Irish (‘Tadhg saor’), modernisations of early and medieval Irish texts, translations of the classics and the gospels, a catechism, treatises on Irish grammar and idiom. Shán Ó Cuiv's bibliography lists 487 items in all (Celtica, ii, pt 2 (1954)).
An tAthair Peadar's best-known works are Séadna (1904) and Mo scéal féin (1915). Séadna is a quasi-Faustian folk-tale and the first extensive literary composition in modern Irish. Similarly Mo scéal féin is the first modern Irish-language experiment in autobiography. In reflecting an tAthair Peadar's nineteenth-century Ireland, it includes graphic firsthand descriptions of famine suffering, vivid recollections of early schooling, and expressions of the author's opposition to physical-force nationalism and his enthusiastic support for the Land League. It also acknowledges the bilingual strength (an dá arm aigne) of his early intellectual formation. An tAthair Peadar opposed the politicisation of the Gaelic League after 1915. He reflected a prudish Gaelic League mentality in his bowdlerisation of early Gaelic texts and in his disapproval, for example, of the racy work of Pádraic Ó Conaire (qv) as obscene.
An tAthair Peadar's significance in the Irish revival movement cannot be overstated. He was the mentor of, and the source of inspiration for, such scholars as Osborn Bergin (qv), T. F. O'Rahilly (qv), Eleanor Knott (qv), and Cormac Ó Cadhlaigh (qv). He was greatly admired by the founders of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde (qv) and Eoin MacNeill (qv), though his quarrel with MacNeill suggests that he could be petulant and egotistic on occasion. There is general agreement among Irish scholars that he brought the language of the people (caint na ndaoine) into modern literature with superb clarity, precision, and style. These qualities characterised all his work, irrespective of subject matter. In T. F. O'Rahilly's words, ‘whether as a writer of Irish or an exponent of Irish idiom, Canon O'Leary's work stands the crucial test of time’. He died 21 March 1920 at Castlelyons.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).