A life lived in books, culture and the Irish language

Caoimhín Ó Marcaigh: August 18th, 1933 - March 24th, 2014


Caoimhín Ó Marcaigh, who has died aged 80 after a short illness, was a proud Dubliner who made a major contribution to cultural life through his writing, editing and publishing, in Irish and in English.

Born to Barney and Winnie Markey in Dublin, he grew up in Glasnevin in a house filled with music. His father, manager of the Capitol playhouse in Prince’s Street, loved music. Caoimhín and his siblings Una, Eily and the late Máirín learned to play instruments. He was educated at St Vincent’s, Glasnevin, and the Irish-language secondary school Coláiste Mhuire in Parnell Square.

In both schools he played Gaelic football and also played with Kickhams and later Na Fianna, of which he was a founder member. He turned out for Dublin at minor level.

A UCD degree in Irish and Italian and a diploma in education prepared him for a teaching career. It also put him in contact with An Comhchaidreamh, an intervarsity society for language activists. The society and linked organisations shaped his interests for many years, and yielded lifelong friendships.

The late 1950s and the 1960s were a time of great optimism for the Irish language. Ó Marcaigh was in the thick of this, running weekly céilís that filled the Mansion House, writing for and editing Comhar and working on Gael Linn’s radio programmes.

He managed An Damer, the Irish-language theatre in the basement of the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green. The Damer was an important part of Dublin theatre, showcasing the work of leading playwrights and actors.

During this time he met and married Angela (Aingeal) Callaghan, from Dungloe in Donegal, a fellow student at UCD. She taught by day and worked front of house in the theatre by night. After they married in 1961, he returned to work as a teacher to the greeting, “Sir, sir, I heard you married an usherette out of the Damer.”

He began teaching in Dundalk and then moved to St Joseph’s in Fairview. His subjects included art, encouraging students to pursue careers in graphics and printing. From teaching, he joined the Educational Company of Ireland as an editor of educational books.

When he moved to Mercier Press, managing the Dublin office, the output broadened to include new, non-fiction titles and work long out of print by writers such as Patrick Pearse. As well as editing, he managed design and illustration, often using his own artwork and drawings.

On taking up the post of senior editor at An Gúm, then the publications arm of the Department of Education, textbooks were again a major part of his work, this time in Irish. He wanted students learning through Irish to have textbooks that were up to the best international standards.

An Gúm also produced dictionaries, and the Foclóir Póca (1986) was his bestseller. Using strong, thin paper allowed an enormous amount of vocabulary to be packed into something truly pocket-sized.

However, the books that engaged him most were for children: Irish-language editions of the best international titles, many sourced at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna where he also promoted books he had commissioned from Irish authors.

In parallel, he and Aingeal took on Sáirséal agus Dill, the Irish-language publisher. As well as the backlist, Ó Marcaigh published new work by Breandán Ó hEithir, Máire Mhac an tSaoi and others. He relished the physical business of making books, taking up bookbinding as a hobby.

Similarly, initial classes with master potters Peter and Helena Brennan led to many hours of pottery experimentation. His greatest hobby, however, was fishing. By marrying Aingeal he came to know the Rosses, the beautiful corner of west Donegal between the Gweebarra and Gweedore, and it became his second home.

And he wrote. All sorts of things – articles, editorials, poems, tendentious letters to companies and memos to the Department of Education, illustrated postcards to grandchildren, long letters about not very much to those who were unwell or who for other reasons might be glad of a letter.

He won prizes at the Oireachtas literary festival for writing in Irish. A high-point was the Prix Italia award for the 1971 RTÉ drama A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton , realised with director Briain Mac Lochlainn, tracing the return of a boy from an industrial school to his home city environment.

Caoimhín Ó Marcaigh’s people were from Dublin’s north inner city and this grounded his view of the world. He was a “Dub” who knew his city and the pulses that run through it.

He is survived by Aingeal, his children Fiachra, Aengus and Sinéad, and his sisters Una Markey and Eily Fitzgerald.