Ó Móráin, Dónall (1923–2001), Irish language campaigner, ceannasaí (chief executive) of Gael-Linn, and chairman of the RTÉ authority, was born 6 September 1923 at Waterville, Co. Kerry, only child of Mícheál Ó Móráin, a farmer who had served in the Free State army until the 1924 mutiny, and his wife Eibhlin Ní Loinsigh, a principal teacher, who died when Ó Móráin was two years of age. His maternal uncle Fionán Lynch (qv) was active in the early Gaelic League.
Ó Moráin attended St Finian's school, Spunkane, Waterville, Co. Kerry, before moving to Dublin (1935), where he lived with his maternal grandmother Ellie Lynch and his aunt Bríd Ní Loinsigh, a national teacher. In Dublin he attended Coláiste Mhuire before entering UCD with the Micheál Ó Cléirigh scholarship (1942). As an undergraduate, Ó Móráin served as auditor of the Cumann Gaelach and of the History Society. He was a member of the board of Comhairle Teachtaí na Mac Léinn (the students’ representative council), edited An Iodh Morainn and Comhthrom Féinne, and won the 1945 Oireachtas essay prize for ‘Dúnghaois iarchogaidh don talmhaíocht’, which was published in Comhar in April 1945.
Taking an honours degree in history and economics, he went on to the King's Inns and was called to the bar (1946), but never practised as a lawyer. He chose instead to dedicate himself to the promotion of the Irish language, which he believed was essential to Irish national identity and to the social and cultural life of the country. Having served (1944–5) as vice-president of An Comhchaidreamh, the association of university Irish-language societies in Ireland, founded by Máirtín Ó Flathartaigh in 1935, Ó Móráin joined the national board of Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge in November 1946 and applied unsuccessfully for the post of secretary of the organisation.
Opting for a career in publishing, he served (1946–51) as managing editor of the food trade journal RGDATA Review before leaving to be general manager of Hugh R. MacLoughlin's printing and publishing group Fleet/Creation until 1963. He used his background in economics and publishing to provide help to farmers (Irish Farmers Journal). The years of printing football pool fixtures gave Ó Móráin the experience in managing pools that he would use later in his work for Gael-Linn.
Despite his career he continued to pursue his campaign for the Irish language part-time by working for Comhar, the Irish-language journal of contemporary literature and the arts, and was appointed its stiúrthóir (honorary director) (1950–57). He wrote many articles for the journal, including the lead article that supported Dr Noel Browne (qv) in his controversy with the Irish hierarchy over the ‘mother and child scheme’. It was an important moment of political independence in the history of Comhar. The following June, Máirtín Ó Cadhain (qv) wrote a withering review of the Department of Education magazine An Treallán, pointing out, among other things, the number of grammatical mistakes it contained. There were no further issues of An Treallán.
The Fianna Fáil government's policy toward the Irish language at the time was one of general goodwill, but without commitment to policies and programmes that would develop the economy of the shrinking Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking areas). Frustrated with this situation, Ó Móráin, in cooperation with An Comhchaidreamh, founded Gael-Linn (3 May 1953) to foster an interest and knowledge of the Irish language and to provide economic development schemes for Gaeltacht areas with profits from its football pools. Ó Móráin is often credited with being the organisation's begetter, and was stiúrthóir and chairman of the board of trustees (1953–62). As head of Gael-Linn, Ó Moráin was called on to participate in government-sponsored boards to recommend ways to support the Irish language. In 1958 he served on the Commission on the Restoration of the Irish Language chaired by An tAthair Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv). The commission delivered its report in 1963. Few of its more than 200 recommendations were adopted.
Under Ó Móráin's leadership Gael-Linn introduced a modern age of Irish language and culture. Through the introduction of its own football pools the organisation raised money to fund pilot projects such as a three-month Gaeltacht scholarship and the Damer Theatre that produced ‘An giall’ (later translated into English as ‘The hostage’) by Brendan Behan (qv) in 1956, and Máiréad Ní Ghráda's (qv) ‘An triail’ in 1964. Gael-Linn also financed industry in the Gaeltacht and developed Irish-language adult education courses through Foras na Gaeilge. All of these projects were designed to embarrass the state into action by showing that the issue was a matter of will rather than money. Gael-Linn also created Irish-language opportunities for debate and performance for secondary school students, particularly through Slógadh (1969), its arts festival for young people.
Ó Móráin helped to establish a line of records and tapes that promoted traditional music and provided a living for the musicians. The Gael-Linn Cabaret in the Metropolitan Lounge created a Dublin venue for groups like the Chieftains (formed in 1963) who also performed elsewhere in Dublin and throughout the country. In 1957 Gael-Linn began to produce film shorts and newsreels (‘Amharc Éireann’). Three full-length documentaries followed: Mise Éire (1959), Saoirse (1961), and An Tine Bheo (1966). Seán Ó Riada (qv) was commissioned to score the films, and his orchestral arrangements of traditional melodies for full orchestra became a best-selling record. In 1963 the organisation was given a more secure status and independence from An Comhchaidreamh when it became a company limited by guarantee and charitable status with Ó Móráin as ceannasaí (chief executive). He took part (1964) in the ‘Let the language live’ campaign in support of the Irish language, which gathered 270,000 signatures and presented them to the taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv). Another government study followed in 1965, resulting in a white paper entitled The restoration of the Irish language. However, it was vague about long-term goals for the Irish language aside from the national aspiration for the restoration of Irish as the first language of the country. The study also expressed an awareness of the antagonism toward the existing government policies of compulsory Irish in the country's educational system. It warned against antagonising those whom its authors would wish to persuade to learn and use Irish, and the warning anticipated the Language Freedom Movement (LFM), which sought to change requirements for Irish for education and employment. While Ó Móráin went to the LFM meeting at the Mansion House in Dublin on 21 September 1966 to support Irish, his action that evening, bringing order to the meeting by asserting the right of everyone in the room to speak, was another occasion when he defended free speech. The 1966 census, which showed a fivefold decrease in native speakers of Irish, appeared against a climate of government indifference and the hostility represented by the Language Freedom Movement, but Ó Moráin saw other opportunities for the Irish language.
Realising the potential that the media offered to develop special radio and television services for Irish speakers, especially those in the Gaeltacht, Ó Móráin had applied in 1958 on behalf of Gael-Linn for the licence to broadcast television. He was named to the RTÉ authority in 1965 and succeeded C. S. (‘Todd’) Andrews (qv) as chair of the authority in 1970. Andrews wrote in his autobiography that he was especially pleased to see Ó Moráin appointed, because no organisation had accomplished more for the Irish language than Gael-Linn. In common with his other positions in life, Ó Móráin used his place on the authority to continue the promotion of his campaign.
Just as he had defended the right to criticise the government in Comhar and had asserted the right of people to speak against the Irish language, Ó Moráin defended RTÉ's decision to air a scripted report of an interview with Seán Mac Stiofáin (qv), chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, in 1972. The decision violated section 31 of the 1971 broadcasting act, and the government dismissed the RTÉ authority. While Ó Móráin did not approve of the IRA, he defended the RTÉ interview, saying: ‘Those who would wish for the victory of truth should be the most adamant in demanding broadcasting time for the person whose political, religious, social, or cultural doctrines they themselves regard as being fundamentally false’ (Ir. Times, 16 Dec. 1972). The Fine Gael–Labour government reappointed Ó Móráin as chair in June 1973; he served until May 1976.
During his tenure with RTÉ Ó Moráin was attentive to opportunities for Irish. He was not the first to see the potential of the media for the language. P. S. O'Hegarty (qv), secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs in the Free State government, who worked on 2RN, the Free State radio service that preceded Radio Éireann, wrote in 1924 of the importance of providing radio service to Irish speakers. Ó Mórain oversaw the inauguration of Raidió na Gaeltachta (1972) and assumed the position of Cathaoirleach Chomhairle Raidió na Gaeltachta (1971–6). He argued that the Irish-language service was a model for local radio. ‘This authentic voice of the traditionally Irish-speaking population is . . . of outstanding importance to the future of the Gaeltacht: it is also an excellent prototype for the development of the best type of local radio for other identifiable communities in Ireland’ (Ir. Times, 16 Dec. 1972).
By any measure, Ó Móráin was one of the most important figures in the Irish-language movement in the twentieth century, but he was a complicated and controversial man. An authoritarian manager, he opened any letter that came into Gael-Linn, regardless of addressee. The Gael-Linn paper Anois (1984–96), which he helped to launch, failed to a significant extent due to his autocratic editorial interference. Although Ó Cadhain and Ó Móráin had been early allies, the former attacked the Gael-Linn children's scholarship scheme in his article ‘Scoláireachtaí Gaeltachta’ in the July 1960 issue of Feasta. When Ó Móráin failed to respond to his letter, Ó Cadhain wrote another, more vituperative letter to the monthly in October, concluding with the charge that nothing profited more from the Irish language than Gael-Linn. Ó Móráin was one of the targets of Ó Cadhain's ‘Do na Fíréin’, an essay in the April 1962 issue of Comhar that criticised everyone who had anything to do with the Irish-language movement. Máirtín Ó Cadhain called Ó Móráin croiméal na cúise (‘moustache of the causes’) in the article, and some believe that the protagonist of Diarmada Ó Donnchadha's Ardfhear (1992) was based on Ó Móráin.
Some found Ó Móráin's opposition to Gaelscoileanna (schools teaching through the medium of Irish) and the Irish-language television channel TG4 puzzling, but it was consistent with his view that the Department of Education would focus its Irish-language resources on Gaelscoileanna and make no further efforts in other schools. He made the same argument about TG4, which opened in 1996; it would limit the use of Irish in RTÉ's other services. His views turned out to be prescient. As a member of Comhairle na Gaeilge, the organisation that preceded Bord na Gaeilge, he frequently complained of other instances of the government's short-sightedness about Irish, and particularly its failure to create a long-term plan for the language. He had hopes for Europe, and for Irish receiving the support of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages. In 1966, he became a member of the Irish Commission for UNESCO.
He served the NUI by chairing its convocation, the assembly of graduates and lecturers of the NUI (1955–84). The NUI awarded him an honorary LLD in 1979. Bord na Gaeilge recognised his service to the language by awarding him a gradam (award). Gael-Linn gave him a life membership on their board. Ó Móráin had his faults, but he gave inspiration and hope to a new generation on behalf of the Irish language. Dónall Ó Riagáin wrote in his obituary of Ó Móráin that as Douglas Hyde (qv) had given hope to the Irish language in the first half of the twentieth century, so Ó Móráin showed how flesh and blood could be put on the dream in the second half.
He died at his home, 32 Sydney Avenue, Blackrock, on 11 January 2001. He asked that his ashes be scattered on the grave of Michael Collins (qv) in Glasnevin cemetery. He left his library and his papers to the department of Irish folklore, UCD. His family established a scholarship in his memory for postgraduate students, particularly those interested in folklore and Irish-language tradition. In addition to his other interests he was a director of Glens of Antrim Tweed Co., Inisfree Handknits, and Irlandia Teo.
He married (1949) Máire, daughter of Sean Beaumont, lecturer in maths and Irish at TCD and Irish editor of the Irish Press, and Máirín Beaumont (qv) (née McGavock). They had three sons – Fergal, Eoin, and Conall – and two daughters, Iseult and Muireann.