Ó Buachalla, Breandán (1936–2010), scholar and critic, was born in Cork city on 15 January 1936, the fourth of the seven children of Joseph and Bridget Buckley (née de Courcy). He attended St Nessan's CBS, O'Sullivan's Quay, and later studied at UCC, where he was awarded a BA in Celtic studies in 1957 and an MA the following year. He subsequently won a travelling scholarship to the University of Munich where he studied linguistics under the famous Czech-Austrian scholar Julius Pokorny (qv).
From 1960 to 1962, he held the post of assistant lecturer at the Queen's University of Belfast. While in Belfast, he was encouraged by the incumbent professor, Heinrich Wagner (qv), to study the Irish of Cape Clear, Co. Cork, an undertaking that remained a passion with him his whole life, during which he spent many of his summers there. In the year of his arrival in Belfast, he published an article in Comhar on the island; in 2003, he wrote a short volume entitled Gaeilge Chléire in the series An Teanga Bheo, published by Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann and designed to provide short introductions to the language as spoken in the various dialect areas of the country. He was planning a fuller monograph on the language of Cape Clear at the time of his death.
In an article which appeared in the Irish Times (25 April 1998), almost forty years after his arrival in Belfast, Ó Buachalla credited Wagner with helping him develop that questioning mentality which was to become the hallmark of his own scholarship. He also described the transformative effect of discovering a cache of Irish-language manuscripts in the Ulster Museum; having done his BA and MA in Cork, he described this moment as something of a revelation, discovering the existence of a literary culture in Irish of which he had hitherto been largely unaware. In 1962 he published a catalogue of Irish-language manuscripts in the Belfast Public Library (Clár lámhscríbhinní Gaeilge sa Leabharlann Phoiblí i mBéal Feirste). Six years later I mBéal Feirste cois cuain appeared, a book which examines the history of the Irish language in Belfast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in terms of the strong, presbyterian-led revival movement and its links with the native scribal tradition in Belfast's hinterlands. The time that Ó Buachalla spent in Belfast developed his interest in the poets and poetry of Ulster. Under the auspices of Éigse Oirialla, Ó Buachalla edited and published collections of the songs of Ó Doirnín (qv) (Peadar Ó Doirnín: amhráin (1969)), and Mac Giolla Ghunna (qv) (Cathal Buí: amhráin (1975)).
In 1962 he became a lecturer in Irish at University College Dublin, and that year was also awarded his doctorate. He remained at UCD until 1973, after which he became professor of Modern Irish in the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (1973–8). While at the DIAS, in collaboration with Pádraig de Brún (qv) and Tomás Ó Concheanainn, he published an anthology of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry, Nua-dhuanaire I (DIAS, 1971); he edited a second volume in 1976. It was also during this period that he conceived of the idea that would culminate in Aisling ghéar: a full-length study of the eighteenth-century political aisling. In characteristic fashion, Ó Buachalla had been dissatisfied with what he perceived as a prevailing, unquestioned orthodoxy, that for most of the eighteenth century the aisling was an empty, clichéd, literary genre: repetitive, ad nauseam and devoid of real-world content (Ir. Times, 25 March 1998).
He was professor of modern Irish language and literature at UCD (1978–96), and in the early 1980s served as dean of the arts faculty. It was early in his second tenure at UCD that the first major works towards the re-evaluation of the aisling appeared. Given the scope and range of these essays, it was quickly obvious that nothing less than a complete re-contextualisation of Irish-language sources in the early modern period was being envisaged: the relationship between the Irish intelligentsia and James I (RIA Proc. (1983)), between the works of Seathrún Céitinn (qv) and Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (qv) on the one hand and the new renaissance humanist historiography on the other (Studia Hibernica (1982/1983)), as well as between the aisling as a genre and the universal functional categories of messianism, millennialism and political prophecy (Folia Gadelica (1983)). The culmination of Ó Buachalla's effort in this area duly arrived in 1996, the year he retired from UCD: Aisling ghéar: na Stíobhartaigh agus an t-aos léinn, 1603–1788, his greatest single achievement in scholarship. In an article reviewing the work (1998), Mícheál Mac Craith highlighted the staggering nature and extent of the scholarship that had engendered it, including as it does citations from and discussions of more than 600 poems, both in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, many of them not in print, as well as numerous English and European sources of the time. This represented an exhaustive trawl of the archives over a twenty-year period between the mid-seventies and mid-nineties. Aisling ghéar is a work which not only establishes once and for all the considerable value of Gaelic poetry, in both its Irish and Scottish varieties, as a historical source, but also enriches our understanding of Jacobitism as an international movement. This book provides the best of both worlds: meticulous and painstaking in its extensive use of hitherto unpublished Gaelic materials as well as a capacity to extract the maximum from those same sources because of the author's deep knowledge of Jacobitism in all its international dimensions. By re-interpreting the aisling genre in its messianic and millennial contexts, as Mac Craith notes, Ó Buachalla demonstrates that it is as rich and as relevant a historical source in its own terms as any broadsheet ballad, political tract or collection of state papers. Shorn of its accretion of clichés and stereotypes, the aisling emerges from Ó Buachalla's reappraisal as a principal instrument of eighteenth-century political thought in Irish and a vehicle for the politicisation of Irish speakers into the nineteenth century.
For all that he complained of the inability or unwillingness of many historians of Ireland to engage with Irish-language sources, Ó Buachalla was not blind to the fact that the fault did not lie entirely in the one direction and that many Irish-language scholars for their part had been too inward-looking in their attitudes. Speaking of Corkery's thesis that one of the defining features of Irish literature was its development independent of the European renaissance, he noted the failure of many scholars of the language to accommodate the work of historians like Edmund Curtis (qv) in reassessing the impact of that movement in Ireland (this was a few years before the publication of Mícheál Mac Craith's 1990 essay on the same topic). In assessing the nature and importance of Irish-language historiography in the seventeenth century, in particular that of Céitinn and Ó Cléirigh, Ó Buachalla stressed the need to apprehend that historiography in terms of its internal and external contexts, socio-political change in Ireland itself as well as the European intellectual background. This was to become a leitmotiv of his scholarship in this area of literature and political ideology: that the history of Ireland could only be written properly from the entirety of its sources but, equally, that the sum total of this evidence could only be properly appraised in its contemporary European contexts. If this approach was not entirely new perhaps, what set Ó Buachalla's scholarship apart was the sheer rigour with which he applied this philosophy to the Irish-language archives. His insistence on the importance of this conjuncture between Ireland and Europe, and indeed the world beyond, led to his debunking of more than one piece of received wisdom on the nature of Irish-language sources, Foras feasa and the aisling included.
But Aisling ghéar is not simply a work of the highest scholarship; much of its greatness lies in the distinctiveness of its contribution to Irish intellectual life. The new historiography of the renaissance humanists, with its insistence on the need to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, must have appealed to him given his own emphasis on the primacy of the former in their original language. As Éamonn Ó Ciardha has noted (2016), Ó Buachalla's general (though not entirely exclusive) insistence on producing his major work in Irish has perhaps dismayed some people, but the two reasons that he himself sets forth (Ir. Times, 25 March 1998) are entirely principled: the first reason (and, again, Céitinn would surely have approved) is that Irish is the language that most clearly and conveniently provides the lexicon and the framework for the explication of primary source material written in that language; the second, striking perhaps a more revivalist but also stridently contemporary note, is that the language itself must be cultivated at all levels, the critical-scholarly as well as the literary and colloquial, if it is to survive and prosper. It is entirely typical of Ó Buachalla as both scholar and advocate that the intellectual concerns of his scholarly output were also at the service of an urgently practical question: the necessity of promoting literacy levels and public debate in Irish at all levels of usage.
For Ó Buachalla, the Irish language itself was never incidental to his scholarship, at a profound level it was its guiding principle: he realised the futility of advocating and promoting a language if the linguistic resources needed to sustain its speech community at every level of its experience were not provided. From this perspective, to have written Aisling ghéar in any language other than Irish would have been a contradiction in terms. This principle also animated the series Filí, published by Field Day Publications, the first volume of which, Aogán Ó Rathaille, edited by Ó Buachalla himself, was published in 2007: the provision of materials in the primary language but in a guise that serves the needs of students of the language today. The aim of this series was to do for the poets of Munster what the Éigse Oirialla series had done for Ulster poets almost thirty years previously.
Another much shorter, but in its way just as notable a volume as Aisling ghéar, appeared a couple of years later, An caoine agus an chaointeoireacht (1998), a reappraisal of the most celebrated example of the genre, 'Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire', in its literary and cultural contexts. This study again shows the author's characteristic defiance of received wisdom and orthodoxy through the careful presentation and re-evaluation of evidence: among other things, it questions the tendency to read literary texts as if they must depict actual events as well as the assumption that a literary work reflects directly the social practice to which it is related.
While the work that he did on Irish Jacobitism will undoubtedly be remembered as his most enduring scholarly legacy, Ó Buachalla had a life-long interest in the linguistics of Irish. His writings on language are a model of rigour and lucidity and show a keen awareness of linguistic theory and practice, but a knowledge which is never deployed for its own sake and is always at the service of the issue at hand. Two paradigm examples are his treatment of the ní versus cha distinction in Ulster (1977) and his re-analysis of the f-future (1985). Both of these articles typify the Ó Buachalla approach: the explication of apparently haphazard synchronic surface phenomena by means of painstaking diachronic analysis. Again, there is the unwillingness to accept received wisdom but to subject it to thorough reinvestigation. To take one of the instances furnished here, negation of the finite verb in Gaelic: in Scotland it is cha, in Ireland outside Ulster it is ní, in Ulster both forms occur. The received wisdom was that this must be due to Scottish influence in Ulster, except that Ó Buachalla shows, again by a historically informed reading of the sources, that the distinction is a reflex of certain patterns of the distribution of verb categories and their markers already present in Early Irish.
Ó Buachalla published widely and extensively in a host of academic journals: Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Lochlann, Ériu, Celtica, UCC Record, Éigse, Studia Hibernica, Léachtaí Cholm Cille, Scríobh, Galvia, Seanchas Ard Mhacha, Ulster Local Studies, the Irish Review and Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy; he also regularly featured essays and reviews in periodicals like Comhar and Feasta, which catered to a more broadly based Irish-speaking audience. Other books apart from those mentioned include Dánta Aodhagáin Uí Rathaille: reassessments (2004) and The crown of Ireland (2006).
As the foregoing has already suggested, for Ó Buachalla Irish was much more than a matter of academic scholarship. In 1965 Comhairle na Gaeilge was established to advise the government on Irish-language policy, and three years later Ó Buachalla was appointed to it. He resigned in 1970, however, following the government's closure of the Irish-medium school Scoil Dhún Chaoin without consultation with Comhairle. Ó Buachalla remained a public advocate for the school, and in 1973 it was reopened. Later in the 1970s, he joined with a number of his academic colleagues in an attempt to save Dublin's viking heritage: at meeting in Dublin in 1980 he lamented the 'barbaric tearing asunder' of Wood Quay and the drift of the country towards what he perceived as a mid-Atlantic 'banana republic' (Ir. Times, 5 June 2010). While professor at Notre Dame he signed the petition against the plans to construct a motorway through Tara.
Ó Buachalla was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1979. He was also a visiting professor at New York University (1997); Parnell fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge University (1998); Burns scholar at Boston College (2001); a French government fellow at the Sorbonne; and a Folger Library fellow in Washington, DC.
At the time of his death, he held the Thomas J. and Kathleen O'Donnell chair of Irish language and literature at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, to which he had been appointed in 2003. He was coordinating a major project to catalogue Irish-language manuscripts in the United States, as well as being general editor of the aforementioned series Filí.
Breandán Ó Buachalla died in St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin on 20 May 2010. He was survived by his wife Aingeal (née Ní Cháinte), whom he married in 1960, as well as by two daughters, Brídóg and Clíona, and a son, Traolach.