Walsh, Paul (Breathnach, Pól) (1885–1941), priest and historian, was born 19 June 1885 in the townland of Ballina, a few miles from Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, eldest child among five sons and three daughters of Michael Walsh and Brigid Walsh (née Gallagher), while his paternal grandfather was also named Paul. The Walshes, a Cambro-Norman family, had deep roots in the area, as is indicated by the townland of Walshestown (North and South), which appears as ‘Ballynebrennagh’ and ‘Balnebrathnaghe’ (Baile na mBreatnach) in a source dated 1560.
He attended the local primary school before spending a year at the CBS in Mullingar. He then went for three years to St Finian's College, then located in Navan, and in autumn 1903 entered St Patrick's College, Maynooth, as a clerical student for the diocese of Meath. There he won numerous prizes – in mathematics, philosophy, French, English, Italian, and Irish. In Maynooth, too, Paul developed a passionate interest in the Irish language and in Irish culture generally, being one of a group of diligent, like-minded students who edited and published valuable collections of Irish texts, including Éigse Suadh is Seanchaidh (1909), Mil na mBeach (1911), and Seanmóirí Muighe Nuadhad (1907, 1908, 1911, etc.). The vexed question of ‘compulsory Irish’ in the new National University brought these students into conflict with the episcopal trustees, especially over the dismissal from his post of the strong-willed professor of Irish, Michael O'Hickey (qv). This led to several of the young clerics, including Walsh, being denied permission to be ordained in Maynooth. With his bishop's agreement, however, Paul was ordained at All Hallows College, Dublin, on 24 June 1909.
Having served briefly as curate in Dunsany, Co. Meath, Walsh taught Latin in St Finian's College, Mullingar, for some years. In 1912 he obtained a BA with first-class honours in Celtic studies from the NUI, and two years later was awarded an MA, again with first-class honours, for a dissertation on loanwords in Irish. He won a travelling scholarship, but, due to the outbreak of the Great War, was unable to travel to the Continent; instead he studied for a couple of years in Aberystwyth, Wales. In the immediate prewar years he had attended the School of Irish Studies, founded by Kuno Meyer (qv) in Dublin in 1903.
In April 1916 Paul Walsh played a small role in the events leading up to the Easter rising, being one of those sent out to convey the order of Eoin MacNeill (qv) countermanding military manoeuvres by the Irish Volunteers. In 1916, too, he was an unsuccessful applicant for the chair of Irish in UCC, but later the same year was appointed lecturer in Welsh in Maynooth. In June 1919 he was named professor of ecclesiastical history in the college. He was reputedly a poor lecturer, being very shy and soft-spoken. Besides, he was much less interested in the subject he was required to teach than in various aspects of Irish history and Gaelic learning. In 1928 he left Maynooth and, following two brief curacies, became parish priest of Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath, in 1932. There he spent the remainder of his life.
Walsh was a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission from 1933 and of the board of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies from November 1940. The NUI conferred an honorary doctorate (D.Litt.) on him in spring 1941, just as his health began to decline. He died in Pembroke Nursing Home, Dublin, on 18 June 1941, just minutes short of his fifty-sixth birthday, having become one of the most respected and productive scholars in the field of late medieval to early modern Irish history and Gaelic learning in the first half of the twentieth century.
From 1908 till the time of his death, Paul Walsh published an unceasing stream of learned articles, long and short, as well as several books. In these he edited some important Irish texts as well as numerous others that were little-known but still of interest. Many of his articles corrected the work of others, but also threw a great deal of fresh light on many hitherto neglected corners of Irish history. He particularly excelled in skilfully combining Gaelic and English sources to illuminate the origin and development of a placename, the history of a family, or some episode of Irish history – especially one relating to late medieval and early modern Meath or Ulster.
Many of his articles (numbering more than 300 in all) have been reprinted in three collections, Irish men of learning (1947), Irish chiefs and leaders (1960) – both edited by Colm Ó Lochlainn (qv) and containing some forty articles in total – and Irish leaders and learning through the ages (2003) – edited by Nollaig Ó Muraíle and containing almost 140 different items. His other books include The flight of the earls (1916), Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (1920), Gleanings from Irish manuscripts (1919, 1933), The Ó Cléirigh family of Tír Conaill (1938), and a number of posthumously published works, The Four Masters and their work (1944), Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill (2 vols, 1948, 1957), and The placenames of Westmeath (1957).
In matters of detail, Walsh was not invariably correct – often appearing to place excessive reliance on his prodigious memory, and sometimes, frustratingly, neglecting to give precise references to his sources. But he never claimed infallibility; indeed, he was forever reassessing and emending things he had earlier committed to print. But again and again he was entirely right, and often his conclusions are characterised by clarity, sound common sense, and even cleverness. On the whole, it is difficult to disagree with Colm Ó Lochlainn's assessment of Paul Walsh (from the jacket of Irish chiefs and leaders): ‘There never lived any Irish historian who had fuller or more intimate knowledge of the history of Ireland during the years from the Norman conquest to the Williamite wars.’
The most detailed study to date of Walsh's life and work is N. Ó Muraíle, ‘ “Prince of Irish historians” – a great Meath scholar, Fr Paul Walsh (1885–1941)’, Ríocht na Midhe, xviii (2007), 184–219. This is an expanded and updated translation of Ó Muraíle, ‘Pól Breathnach (1885–1941), sagart, saoi is seanchaí’, in Maigh Nuad agus an Ghaeilge (Léachtaí Cholm Cille, xxiii (1993), ed. P. Ó Fiannachta), 89–120. An abridged version of this work – largely devoid of annotation – will be found in the introduction to Ó Muraile (ed.), Irish leaders and learning through the ages. Paul Walsh: essays (2003), 11–27.