Nic Dhonnchadha, Lil (1891–1984), Irish language scholar and language activist, was born 9 October 1891 in Belfast, one of the four surviving children of customs and excise officer Séamus Mac Donnchadha and his wife, Georgina Ffolliott L'Amie, who had trained as a teacher. Her father was of Scottish descent and her mother was of Huguenot descent. When she was a year old, the family left Belfast for Holywood, Co. Down, and moved to Coleraine, Co. Derry, when she was six and a half. She learned Irish from her father, who began to teach her when she was twelve. In an account on Irish in Ulster during her youth, she relates, however, that one day when she was four years old and lying in bed with measles, her father placed an Irish grammar book published by Cumann Buan-Choimeata na Gaeilge in her hand and despite her youth she was able to read it (An tUltach, 6). Her father taught Irish to children and adults in the local catholic national school in Coleraine, after the parish priest granted permission. The Irish author Séamas Ó Dubhall (1855–1929) (Beirt Fhear) and the timire (travelling Irish language teacher) Tomás Bán Ó Concheanainn (1870–1961) were regular visitors to her house during her childhood.
She received her earliest education in a kindergarten in Coleraine and subsequently in a private school run by the Irwin sisters, daughters of a presbyterian minister from Castlerock, Co. Derry. Afterwards she attended the girls' intermediate school in Ballymoney. When Nic Dhonnchadha was about fifteen and a half, the family moved to Dublin, settling in Rathgar. Both she and her father joined the Craobh na gCúig gCúigí branch of Conradh na Gaeilge and became active in promoting the Irish language. She attended Alexandra College and entered TCD in 1910, one of the first ten women to enter the college as undergraduates. She financed her education by means of scholarships and prizes, including the Burke memorial prize and a sizarship to study Irish. As well as Celtic studies she studied French and German, spending time in France and Germany. While in college she was active in the Elizabethan society, taking part in its debates as well as serving as a committee member. She graduated with a first class honours degree in 1914.
On leaving university, her first post was in Mercer's girls' secondary school, Castleknock, Co. Dublin, where she spent six months. Subsequently she moved to Alexandra College and to Coláiste Moibhí in 1933, where she became college principal (1934–51). Afterwards, she spent three years teaching Irish in TCD.
Nic Dhonnchadha published widely as an Irish language scholar. Her ‘Scéal na bhfathach’ appeared in Béaloideas (Dec. 1928). Her edition of a thesis on fever was published in Revue Celtique xlix (1932). She published an edition of the story ‘Altram tige da medar’ from Leabhar fhear muighe, adapting the story as a radio drama a number of years later as a result of her dissatisfaction with the version of Austin Clarke (qv), ‘The moment next to nothing’. Nic Dhonnchadha's drama was broadcast twice on Radio Éireann during July 1956. In addition she published two fasciculi (viii, xviii) of the RIA's catalogue of manuscripts. She also published a number of essays in An tUltach and contributed articles, letters and reviews in both Irish and English to a protestant journal entitled Focus between 1959 and 1963.
During the latter half of her life she was active in assisting fellow Church of Ireland members who chose worship in the Irish language. She became involved in Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise from 1936 and was later secretary of the organisation. By this time she had been working on a new version of the Book of common prayer, published by An Gúm, although the manuscript lay with them for twenty years before finally appearing in 1965. Four years prior to this her Leabhar iomann, consisting of seventy-seven hymns, was published. Although a committee had been established to work on the project, Nic Dhonnchadha was responsible for most of the work. Her next project was a new translation of the Rev. Cosslett Quin's New testament, published by the Hibernian Bible Society in 1970.
She served on a number of committees including the Radio Éireann advisory council and the Arts Council of Ireland. She appeared in several television interviews including ‘An fear agus a scéal’, ‘Trom agus éadrom’ and a special ‘Féach’ programme broadcast twice in 1979. She was presented with Gradam seachtain na Gaeilge by Conradh na Gaeilge on 20 March 1979 in recognition of life-long service to Ireland and the Irish language.
Nic Dhonnchadha remained single, believing her life to have been more interesting as a result. She injured herself in a fall in 1983 and afterwards her health declined and she eventually died 9 March 1984. She was buried at Howth cemetery.