O'Hickey, Michael (Ó Hiceadha, Micheál) (1861–1916), catholic priest and Gaelic Leaguer, was born 12 November 1861 at Carrickbeg, Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Waterford. O'Hickey's father had been active locally in nationalist movements from the Young Irelanders of 1848 to the Land League. O'Hickey was not a native speaker of Irish but developed an interest in the language after reading an essay by Thomas Davis (qv). He was educated at the CBS, Carrick-on-Suir, at privately run schools in the town, and at St John's College, Waterford (1878–84), where he had a distinguished academic career. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1884. O'Hickey then spent nine years on the Scottish mission, serving in the isolated parishes of Kilmarnock, Dumfries, and Auchinleck. These experiences imbued him with a sense of the value of intellectual pursuits in the lonely life of a priest.
O'Hickey was a member of the Gaelic Union, learning Irish from John Fleming (qv) and contributing some Irish-language poems to the Gaelic Journal under the pen-name ‘Seamrog’. He also wrote English-language verse for the Nation, the Waterford News, the Munster Express, the Nationalist (Clonmel), the Glasgow Observer, and other newspapers, signing himself ‘MPH’, ‘Viator’, ‘LKY’, and ‘An Irish Priest’. He devoted considerable effort to collecting information on Waterford poets, publishing a series of articles on the subject in the Waterford Star. He corresponded extensively on literary matters with Edmund Downey (qv) and D. J. O'Donoghue (qv), and assisted the latter in compiling his Dictionary of Irish poets. In 1892 he became a member of the London Irish Literary Society.
Two events in O'Hickey's early career presaged what was to come. In 1890 he delivered a lecture at Dumfries entitled (and published as) The golden age of the Irish church (covering the period 489–795). Although based on romantic and pre-critical works of catholic ecclesiastical history, this is notable for its insistence that accounts of the period must be based on scholarly research rather than vague eulogies. (O'Hickey frequently lamented that so few priests were active in antiquarian societies and that the study of early Irish history was disproportionately dominated by protestants and unionists.) Secondly, O'Hickey supported the role of T. M. Healy (qv) during the Parnell ‘split’, arguing that while his methods might have been ‘a little rough’ his single-handed bravery ‘prevented Parnell from ruining the country’.
In 1893 O'Hickey returned from Scotland to the diocese of Waterford and Lismore. After spending a year and a half as curate of Kill, he was appointed diocesan inspector of schools. He used this position to promote the use of the Irish language (especially in Irish-speaking areas of the diocese). At this time he first made the acquaintance of Douglas Hyde (qv). He was asked by the bishop to write a history of the diocese, but never got beyond collecting materials, for in October 1896 he was appointed professor of Irish at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, having sought the position from fear that the bishops might suppress the chair or appoint an uncommitted professor; in the same year he was made a doctor of divinity by the pope.
O'Hickey was a stiff though forceful lecturer; despite scholarly limitations he played a considerable role in promoting enthusiasm for the language among seminarians. His lectures combined Hyde's view of Irish identity as fundamentally Gaelic with a specifically catholic–nationalist view of the language as repository of an ancient and fundamentally catholic civilisation and as bulwark against ‘the realism of Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand and Emile Zola; the realism of the Penny Dreadfuls; the realism of the Divorce Court proceedings, the realism of the gutter literature of London’. He also expressed acute regret that nineteenth-century priests had not merely acquiesced in but actively encouraged the destruction of the language. In 1897 O'Hickey became a member of the RIA and a fellow of the RSAI. In this period he published a number of works supporting the preservation and promulgation of the Irish language: The true national idea (1898), Irish in the schools (1900; with others), and The Irish language movement: its genesis, growth and progress (1902).
In October 1898 O'Hickey was elected to the Coiste Gnotha of the Gaelic League. In 1899 he became a vice-president of the league, proving a popular and vigorous propagandist and devoting almost his entire professorial salary to the movement. He resigned in 1903, feeling that he had received insufficient support in quarrels with members of the Keating branch (whom he compared to ‘footpads and South Sea Islanders’). At Maynooth, personal bitterness developed between O'Hickey and the president, Daniel Mannix (qv), over what O'Hickey saw as the college authorities' excessive willingness to dispense students from studying Irish (which was theoretically compulsory); O'Hickey was widely (possibly inaccurately) blamed for leaking details of college decisions on the subject to nationalist papers in order that public opinion might be brought to bear on the college authorities.
In 1908–9 the Gaelic League launched a widespread agitation in favour of making Irish compulsory for matriculation in the newly founded NUI; their demands received a major rebuff when Dr William Delany (qv), recently Jesuit president of UCD, made a statement (widely believed to have the support of the bishops) that such a measure would injure the faith by driving some catholics into TCD. When asked for support by Gaelic League activists, O'Hickey embarked on a campaign reminiscent of Healy's onslaught against Parnell. In aggressive, populist letters to public meetings he declared that the issue was whether the university was to be Irish or ‘West British’, denounced opponents of compulsion as materialists and utilitarians, and excluded them (explicitly) from the Irish nation and (implicitly) from the catholic church. The flavour of his campaigning is represented in An Irish university – or else (1909). On 13 December 1908 when addressing the Maynooth debating society he compared four of the five clerical members of the university senate (including Daniel Mannix and Archbishop John Healy (qv)) to MPs bribed to pass the act of union ‘as Judas sold his God’, adding ‘I can only recommend them to your earnest prayers’. After the bishops issued a statement declaring the matter one for open discussion (though inclining towards opposition to compulsion), O'Hickey refrained from further open statements, but issued an anonymous pamphlet, The Irish bishops and an Irish university (1909), ‘in the interests of faith and fatherland’, which recalled the long record of episcopal blunders and association with ‘Whig politicians’, calling their statement ‘a dagger aimed at the heart of the Irish nation’, and describing Bishop Patrick O'Donnell (qv) as the ‘degenerate bearer of a great name’.
O'Hickey refused to apologise for his statements when ordered to do so by the Maynooth authorities, and was deprived of his chair in July 1909. This decision was publicly denounced by many Gaelic Leaguers (including Eoin MacNeill (qv) and P. H. Pearse (qv)) and an O'Hickey testimonial was launched (with limited success). It was widely felt that his punishment was excessive (in light of the vitriolic language habitually used by clerical controversialists and the abuse of power by such opponents of compulsory Irish as Archbishop Healy). At the instigation of Walter MacDonald (qv), O'Hickey appealed to the tribunals of the holy see, without realising the time and expense entailed and the ways in which procedures in Rome differed from those in common-law courts. (O'Hickey's costs were met from the testimonial and from loans by friends and relations, who were repaid by the posthumous sale of his library.) After proceedings marked by O'Hickey's complaints about withheld evidence and foot-dragging, his case was dismissed on a technicality in 1912; his attempts to reopen it dragged on until 1914. MacDonald complained, plausibly, that potential character witnesses were silenced by fear of episcopal reprisals, and that bishops attempted to prevent O'Hickey from receiving a fair hearing by maintaining that to open their decisions to questioning would undermine their authority and encourage anti-clericals.
O'Hickey returned to Co. Waterford, where he lived in reduced circumstances with his brother's family while awaiting an appointment in the diocese. He died at Portlaw on 19 November 1916 of blood poisoning brought on by an intestinal complaint; friends held that he died of a broken heart. O'Hickey is commemorated in MacDonald's memoirs and Drums under the windows by Sean O'Casey (qv) as an upholder of free expression martyred by clerical authoritarianism – though it may be questioned whether he would have been merciful to his opponents had their positions been reversed. O'Hickey's papers are held at Mount Melleray abbey, Co. Waterford. Some material relating to his case is in the Maynooth College Archives.