The polyglot Irishman who valued the language of others

Extraordinary Emigrants: Richard Henry Geoghegan loved the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake

In 1941, Fredericka Martin, an American medic, arrived on the remote Pribilof islands in the Bering sea with her physician husband. The couple had been brought to the islands by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. On St Paul Island, located in the sea between Alaska and Siberia, they would provide medical services to the indigenous population, the Aleut people.

Martin’s sympathies, notes scholar Raymond Hudson, were wholly with this community, whose history was interlaced with hardship. Although Martin’s social justice worldview brought her closer to the Aleut people, there was something that kept her apart from them: language.

To learn the Aleut language, Martin initiated a correspondence with an Alaska-based linguist with Irish roots, Richard Henry Geoghegan. Writing from his home in Fairbanks, Alaska, Geoghegan provided long-distance tutoring to Martin while living with a physical impairment. She discovered that his knowledge of languages ranged from "his own native Gaelic," to "Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian through the modern European tongues to obscure Oriental dialects".

For Martin, her language training from Geoghegan was more than an education. It was a transformative encounter. “Life became more spacious, more invigorating,” she wrote, “because an elderly scholar handicapped by a physical disability, had so wholeheartedly poured out his knowledge for unknown people at the cost of long hours of painful exertion.”


But who was this polyglot Irishman? And how had he found his way not only to Alaska, but towards an intimate knowledge of so many languages, many rarely-spoken?

Geoghegan remains important in the languages he translated, the remote places he lived and the people whose lives he impacted

Richard Henry Geoghegan was born in January 1866 in Cheshire, in England, the son of an Irish doctor. Although Geoghegan was English-born, his biographer David Richardson describes him as having a "resolutely Celtic" soul. "All his life he would claim the paternal land as his own," Richardson wrote. Geoghegan recalled spending much of his youth in Ireland and even claimed a childhood friendship with a young J M Synge. Later in his life, Geoghegan would write of early years partly spent "on the banks of the Shannon".

Cultivating an Irish identity was seemingly one of Geoghegan’s lifelong pursuits, but language learning was his ultimate priority. Geoghegan initially attended Oxford, where he studied for two years on a scholarship, learning Chinese. An encounter with a fellow Oxford student in his apartment on an autumn day in 1887 would have a profound impact on his life. On that day, Geoghegan’s friend told him about a new language that had been invented by an ophthalmologist living in Poland by the name of L L Zamenhof. The language, known as Esperanto, is designed to be easily comprehended and learned. The grand dream of its inventor and adherents was that Esperanto, harnessed by the people of the world to overcome the linguistic barriers that divided them, would usher in a more harmonious future.

Geoghegan was immediately intrigued by the language and became one of Esperanto’s earliest adopters. “My official number as an Esperantist is 264,” he later wrote, “indicating that I was the 264th person who signified his adhesion to the language, and I was the first English speaker to do so.” Geoghegan corresponded with Zamenhof and became an important ally for Esperanto’s inventor. The history of the Esperanto Association of Ireland notes that the adoption of the colour green by the Esperanto movement can be linked to Geoghegan, who associated green with his ancestral Ireland.

After Oxford, Geoghegan's attempts to make his way as a teacher of Chinese and Esperanto in London proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile, members of his family were making their way to the US, settling in Orcas Island in Washington State. In 1891, Geoghegan joined them and emigrated to Washington. Geoghegan worked in various parts of the Pacific Northwest before eventually relocating to Alaska in 1902, where he would remain until his death. Working in clerical jobs, his skills were legendary. Historian Linde Lunny notes that Geoghegan could allegedly take down notes using two different shorthand systems at once, "using both hands".

In 1916, Geoghegan married Ella Joseph-de-Saccrist a woman of dual heritage living in Alaska whom Lunney describes as a “prostitute, madam, bootlegger, and businesswoman, who was charged in 1915 with wounding a client, and in 1921 with shooting a pimp”. For Geoghegan, she was simply the love of his life. She died in 1936, a few years before Geoghegan died in 1943. They are buried together in the Clay Street Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Geoghegan, although an obscure figure, remains an important recurring character in the histories of the languages he translated, the remote places where he lived and the people whose lives he impacted. Among the great projects of his life in Alaska was his work with the Aleut language. His studies of the language resulted in the first dictionary and grammar of Aleut in English, published after his death in 1944. The dictionary was edited by his friend Fredericka Martin, who noted in the dictionary that its author was a man who loved “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.”

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world