Authority and author on early modern Irish


Breandán Ó Buachalla:BREANDÁN Ó Buachalla, who has died aged 74, was professor of modern Irish language and literature at University College Dublin.

Previously he had been professor in the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and latterly held the Thomas J and Kathleen O’Donnell chair of Irish language and literature at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

A leading authority on the literature and ideology of early modern Ireland, he was the author of numerous books and articles on the impact of the Counter-Reformation on Irish political thought, early modern Irish historiography, linguistics, Gaelic poetry and the cult of the Stuarts in Irish literature.

Aisling Ghéar: na Stiobhartaigh agus an tAos Léinn(1996) is his magnum opus. Ó Buachalla’s achievement was applauded by The Irish Times: “A monumental undertaking, the book is an amazing feat of scholarship, but is also highly diverting and has much for the lay reader as well as the professional historian.”

An early book , I mBéal Feirste Cois Cuain(1968), examines the history of the Irish language in Belfast, particularly the strong revival movement there at the turn of the 19th century.

Born in Co Cork, Breandán Ó Buachalla was the fourth child of Joseph and Bridget Buckley (née de Courcy). He attended St Nessan’s CBS and later studied at University College Cork, where he secured a BA in Celtic studies. He subsequently obtained an MA from the University of Munich.

After three years as an assistant lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in 1962 he became a lecturer in Irish at UCD. He was appointed professor of Irish in 1978 and retired in 1995.

In recent years, he founded the first modern Irish language department to be established outside Ireland, at Notre Dame.

Described as “determined, ambitious and fiercely disciplined”, he was a committed Irish language revivalist. He led by example, speaking the best of Munster Irish.

As president of Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge in 1969, he said that the revival movement was neither right nor left of centre but would have to remain all things to all men – a microcosm of the whole community.

“Indeed, this is the only basis on which it can serve the community and on which it can appeal to the people as a whole for their unqualified support.”

He was an unqualified supporter of the campaign to keep Dún Chaoin national school in the Kerry Gaeltacht open after its formal closure by the Department of Education in 1970. A regular visitor to Corca Dhuibhne, he had a close affinity with the area.

The closure was the “result of 50 years of neglect, hypocrisy and inaction”, he said, pupil numbers having fallen from 100 in 1921 to only 21 in 1970.

He resigned from Comhairle na Gaeilge because of his dissatisfaction with its reaction to the closure.

Parents and supporters ensured that the school continued to function and, in 1973, it was formally reopened by the Fine Gael minister for education, Dick Burke.

Ó Buachalla, an authority on Aogán Ó Rathaille, also was attracted to the Ulster poets, including Peadar Ó Doirnin, the “bard of Louth”, and Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna.

He had a keen interest in Ulster’s history. At the Merriman winter school in 1973, he said the Ulster Protestants had been led down a cultural wilderness by the slogan “Ulster is British”.

The wonder was, he added, that so many Ulster Protestants recognised where their cultural allegiance was.

In 1977, he said, if there never had been a Plantation there would still be a Scottish element in Ulster. For centuries before it, Scots had come across, people with the same language and the same religion.

Gaelic Ulster accepted Scotland as an extension of itself. The Scots who came in the 17th century were different; they had accepted the Reformation.

Turning his attention to issues of the day, he said at a meeting in Dublin in 1980 that the “barbaric tearing asunder” of Wood Quay was indicative of a certain attitude and mentality in Irish public life which, if unchecked, would make this island the archetypal mid-Atlantic “banana republic”.

That episode highlighted one of the greatest challenges facing the Irish people: to evolve again for their own day, in their own terms, a new vision of Irish life; to evolve a cultural consensus, a corpus of ideals, values, of hopes to which all could give allegiance.

Other publications include Clár Lámhscríbhíní Gaeilge sa Leabharlann Phoiblí i mBéal Feirste (1962), Nua-Dhuanaire 1, with Tomás Ó Concheannain and Pádraig de Brún (1972), and An Caoine agus an Chaointeoireacht(1998). He contributed to journals such as Zeitschrift fur Celtische Phiologie, Lochlann, Ériuand Celticaas well as periodicals including Comharand Feasta.

Most recently, he was engaged in editing a new Field Day series on the works of 18th-century poets.

He received the Butler Irish American Foundation Literary Award in 1968 and, in 1969, he was awarded an American Council of Learning Fellowship.

A member of the Royal Irish Academy, he held the Parnell Fellowship at Cambridge University as well as visiting professorships at New York University and Boston College.

He relaxed by listening to music, by reading and by fishing.

He was married in 1960 to Aingeal Ní Cháinte who, with their daughters Brídóg and Clíona and son Traolach, survives him.

Breandán Ó Buachalla: born January 15th, 1936; died May 20th, 2010.