Strong activist for Irish language and west coast communities

Sat, Mar 26, 2005, 00:00

Pól 'Báinin' Ó Foighil: Pól Ó Foighil (76), who died in Galway last weekend, was a tireless activist for Irish-speaking, coastal and island communities, and Fine Gael's sole representative in the Connemara Gaeltacht for the last two decades.

"Unparalleled" is how his party leader, Enda Kenny, has described the former senator's efforts to promote the Irish language. Ó Foighil's public life was "a demonstration of his outstanding commitment to the language; its value, its tradition and its central part in our culture", the Fine Gael leader said this week.

Named "Báinín" by deed poll after he insisted on wearing his báinín jacket to the Seanad, Ó Foighil adopted Connemara as his home half a century ago.

He was born in Thurles, Co Tipperary, and was educated at Thurles Christian Brothers' School and University College Galway (now NUI Galway). On graduation, he was offered a teaching post in the Cois Fharraige area of south Connemara and decided to settle in Inverin, where he and his wife, Chrissie Nic Eoin, reared seven children.

Ó Foighil's interest in community issues and politics, which was nurtured as a teacher, first manifested itself in his work to establish group water schemes, earning him the nickname "fear an uisce". He was also instrumental in establishing Irish-language summer colleges in Connemara. His political instincts developed further during his efforts to establish, and subsequently manage, Gaeltacht co-operatives.

He was one of a small group of west coast co-op managers which included current Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Eamon Ó Cuiv, Padraig Ó hAolain, chief executive-designate of Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Tarlach de Blacam, founder of Inis Meáin Knitwear on the Aran islands.

The group "soldiered against the odds", according to Ó Cuiv. Ó Foighil's can-do attitude - most recently with the co-op he managed on Inis Meáin - led to the construction of a controversial wind farm and desalination plant on that Aran island, and a second wind farm in Inverin. He campaigned over many years for housing for the elderly in Connemara, and a cable-car link to the mainland for the Mayo island of Inishbiggle.

Ó Cuiv remembers how he saw him carrying bunk beds in to establish Coláiste Lurgan summer college in Inverin. "It was typical of Pól to get stuck in, and he was a man of great integrity," he says.

"I remember having fierce rows with him during our time as co-op managers. I remember having a great laugh with him when we were fellow senators and the Fine Gael cathaoirleach, who will remain nameless, fell asleep while Pól was talking as Gaeilge. And I knew him as a man who was incredibly fair and never held a grudge."

Ó Foighil's first foray into politics was at national level, when he stood as an independent candidate in the 1975 Galway West byelection, caused by the death of Fianna Fáil deputy, Johnny Geoghegan.

The late deputy's daughter, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, took the seat, and four years later Ó Foighil opted to join Fine Gael and stand for the party in the 1979 local elections. In that year he took seats on Galway County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta respectively.

He served for two periods on the local authority, from 1979 to 1985 and from 1999 to 2004, while he was a member of Údarás na Gaeltachta throughout from 1979 to 2004. In 1989 he stood for the Seanad on the Labour panel and was elected on the 20th count. However, he resigned temporarily from Fine Gael in 1992, after a row the previous year over his attempt to run for Galway Corporation (now City Council).

The following year he found himself embroiled in another public dispute, this time over a breach of Oireachtas "dress protocol". He was informed by the Seanad chief of protocol that his "cóta báinín", made of wool with no lining and no lapels, was deemed unacceptable. The senator challenged the ruling, successfully, on the basis that the báinín had been the traditional jacket in Connemara for centuries and was often worn on official occasions.

His last political contest at national level was his unsuccessful bid for the Seanad on the cultural and educational panel in 1997. He sought a Fine Gael nomination in Galway West in 2002, but was informed by party strategist, Finbarr Fitzpatrick, that he was too old. As current Fine Gael TD for the constituency, Padraic McCormack, recalls, Ó Foighil challenged Fitzpatrick to 20 press-ups. At the subsequent election convention, Ó Foighil gave a rousing speech in which he declared that his hair was his own, his teeth were his own and other parts of his anatomy were working very well, too.

Ó Foighil resigned from Galway County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta last year, but had declared an interest in standing as an independent in next week's Údarás elections. He left his mark on the current Galway County Development Plan, with his proposal, subsequently compromised, that all planning permissions for housing in south Connemara be subject to a test for fluency in Irish.

Ó Foighil, his wife Chrissie and family experienced personal tragedy when one of his four sons, Eanna, who was a medical student at NUI Galway and a talented sportsman, committed suicide in 1982. Ó Foighil subsequently spoke publicly on RTÉ television about the impact of suicide on families.

At his funeral in Inverin, one of the wreaths over his coffin conferred the title "An Boss". "He was a community activist first and foremost, and no challenge was too big for him," his party colleague, McCormack, says. "He certainly left his footprints on the sands of time in Connemara."

Ó Foighil is survived by his wife, Chrissie, daughters Maire, Grainne and Niamh, and sons Sean, Diarmaid and Micheal.

Pol Ó Foighil: born June 28th, 1928; died March 21st, 2005