An Appreciation: Tomás Ó Con Cheanainn

An appreciation


Tomás Ó Con Cheanainn who died on June 13th was an Irish scholar of exceptional learning and achievements, and a cultured gentleman with a winning generous spirit who will be sadly missed by his many friends.

He held the chair of Classical Irish at University College Dublin, retiring in 1986, and was a distinguished editor (1975-86) of Éigse: A Journal of Irish Studies, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. For a quarter of a century following his retirement he continued to research and publish, with the last of his many articles written in his 90th year. With characteristic mastery of the evidence, he used that final article to trace the origins of the Uí Dhiarmada sept and their later surname Ua Con Cheanainn through 1,000 years of history.

Born in 1921 in Baile an tSagairt, Cois Fhairrge, Co Galway, Tomás won a scholarship in 1940 to University College Galway (as it then was) and studied for the BA in Irish and Classics. He wrote his MA thesis on a hagiographical text in the Leabhar Breac. Later that important early 15th-century codex became the subject of a palaeographical study, which marked the commencement of a virtual reinvention, wrought single-handedly in his lifetime, of scholarly knowledge concerning the culture and traditions of Connacht.

On moving to Dublin he taught Irish at Carysfort College being appointed to a lectureship in UCD, where he was made professor of Classical and Modern Irish Literature in 1969. His earliest publications show the twin influences of his background in the Connemara Gaeltacht and his philological training. He would later compile the standard collection of 18th- and 19th-century Connacht and Munster song texts from manuscript, Nua-Dhuanaire Cuid III (1978). During the 1970s he turned his attention to problems of transmission posed by earlier texts, including the Táin Bó Cuailnge.

Tomás had an unrivalled knowledge of the literary and historical content of Irish manuscripts, medieval and modern. But he was also a palaeographical “natural”, possessed of a wonderfully keen eye for the salient features of a scribal hand. Long before digital imagery and databases, he showed a capacity to recall and associate such features in manuscripts from different collections, and to fix an identity previously unrecognised. He mastered the art of describing styles of handwriting with clarity and exactness, regardless of whether he was writing in English or, as he did almost exclusively in later years, in Irish.

His wife Caitlín Ní Ghoinnte, originally from Co Sligo, whom he met while they were students, and who became a teacher, passed away while he was still at UCD. On retirement Tomás moved to Delgany, Co Wicklow, close to their children and grandchildren who survive him. Go mba slán sábháilte thú, a Thomáis! PAB