Father Dinneen – his dictionary and the Gaelic Revival
Lecture by Noel O’Connell

Mr Noel O’Connell was Honorary Secretary of the Irish Texts Society from 1967 to 1991. He delivered this lecture in the Irish Club, London, on September 29 1984 in the presence of H. E. The Irish Ambassador Mr Noel Dorr to mark the 50th Anniversary of the death of Fr Dinneen on September 29 1934.

Cover of Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. Portrait of Fr Dinneen by John Butler Yeats.

In coming together to honour the memory of Fr. Dinneen, I am inclined not to any mood of sadness but rather to follow the line advocated by G. B. Shaw on the death of another famous Irishman when he advised 'put out your brightest colours.' Although the name of Fr. Dinneen is likely to endure especially because of his Dictionary, I hope to show also some of his brightest colours which ranged widely over Irish scholarship. His memory is still green in his native parish where he is recalled simply as 'The Dictionary Man'.

His native parish was Rathmore near the Cork / Kerry border about 10 miles from Killarney where he was born on Christmas Day 1860. Mention of Killarney is misleading at a time when we associate the town with tourism and affluence. Although only a few miles away, Rathmore was a different world in the dampish, brownish uplands of the area we know as Sliabh Luachra. Recourse to Dinneen’s own Dictionary points to "Sliabh" in this context not as the expected high mountains so common in Kerry but as the high moorlands which retain to this day a sense of peace and isolation.

Patrick Stephen Dinneen was the fifth child of his parents who had married in 1850 in the worst of the post-famine depression and had moved three times in the decade, settling ultimately on a piece of commonage at Carn near Rathmore shared with a few other families. That he was born on Christmas Day is recalled from his second name, Stephen. While Latin countries readily avail of the Christian name Jesus no such liberty would be taken in Kerry and the feast of the following day Stephen is called into service instead.

Physical life was hard in post-famine Kerry but there were other dimensions to the society of the time with two especially dominant – religion and the Gaelic Culture. For Fr. Dinneen was born no more than a mile from the birthplace of Eoghan Rua Ó Suilleabháin and a mile or so in another direction from where Aodhagán Ó Rathaille had been born. This small area, Sliabh Luachra, was (and is) a veritable power house of creativity with so many poets in the district, some from Dinneen’s own family, and all recited in the nightly ceilidhes in the modest house. Patrick’s father was a sheep dealer and often took Patrick with him droving to Killarney, Millstreet or even Tralee, using the time to retail stories and poems. Interestingly, it was a time when English was replacing Irish because of its utilitarian value but Patrick had a knowledge of both from an early age.

His mother was in stark contrast to the down-to-earth character of his father as she was devout to excess perhaps. Her maternal piety pervaded the whole family in the traditional country way in Ireland and can be seen in the subsequent career of Patrick. He went to school – not to the nearest school but to one several miles away which was taught by his uncle (family loyalties are strong in Kerry) – where he was clearly a bright pupil with a special aptitude for mathematics. The Parish Priest in Rathmore took it on himself to teach Patrick Latin at an early age and he served Mass in due course. During one annual Retreat, the visiting preacher noticed the potential of his altar server. While most Retreats (or 'missions' as they are also called) were conducted by Passionist Fathers, Redemptorists or Capuchins, the preacher in question was, unusually, a Jesuit and encouraged Patrick to seek secondary education in the Jesuit College at Clongowes in Kildare. How strange a change that must have been for the country boy from a village near Rathmore to find himself in one of Ireland's most expensive schools catering largely for the children of the urban middle class. But Patrick was his own boy as he later proved to be is own man, and enjoyed his time at Clongowes and grew into its ambience to the point that he joined the Jesuit Order in 1880 as a novice starting on the exceedingly arduous training to become a Jesuit priest.

He was helped by attributes such as a photographic memory that greatly aided his study of English literature for which he had an abiding love and respect. His Jesuit training included a University degree from what is now University College Dublin but then effectively staffed and run by the Jesuits, including for a time Gerard Manley Hopkins. His degree subjects were English, Classics and Mathematics. There was no sign of any special interest in Irish and the intensity of the novitiate cut him off from much of what was happening in Ireland. He missed out on such movements as the Gaelic Athletic Association (1884) and even the foundation of the Gaelic League (1893) passed by as he was approaching his ordination in 1894.

After ordination he returned to teach in Clongowes, adding Irish to his own specialist subjects. The experience of teaching quickly opened out his perspective on the education system later described by Pearse as a 'murder machine'. During his time at Clongowes he was befriended by a Jesuit from the Co. Antrim, Fr. McErlean whose Sunday recreation was to walk to Maynooth and back for a few hours research in the library. Fr. Dinneen began to go with him, talking and chatting the miles away. Despite his own knowledge of the poems of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille from round the fires of his childhood he was quite unprepared for the riches in the Maynooth Library to which Fr. McErlean directed him and he fell on them with affection and energy and quickly decided that he was virtually obligated ('fé geasa') to reveal this hoard to an unsuspecting and unknowing country.

About this time his interest in the Gaelic League was sharpening and his teaching experience led him to take an interest in the proceedings of the 1898 Commission of Inquiry into Secondary Education which came to be a famous Irish battlefield strangely overlooked in most of our history books but crucial to Ireland's development.

The battle lines were as crisp as Contarf, Mahaffy the Provost of Trinity leading the attack on Irish which he felt had nothing 'that was not either pornographic or blasphemous'. He was supported by Professor Atkinson, Professor of Sanscrit and already the editor of several old Irish Mss.

The defence rested primarily on the young Douglas Hyde who drew to his support virtually all the great Celtic scholars of Europe - Windisch of Leipzig, Zimmer of Greifswald, Stern of Berlin, Kuno Meyer of Liverpool, Pedersen of Copenhagen, Dottin of Rennes, Owen Edwards of Oxford and York Powell of Oxford (who chaired the inaugural meeting of the Irish Texts Society). They dealt capably with Mahaffy as far as the Irish language was concerned. But Fr. Dinneen then entered his first public controversy. It seems to me that Fr. Dinneen was provoked by Mahaffy’s attitude to Irish and took it as an insult to his mother. He weighed in not so much as an expert in Irish, which he was not, but using his Jesuit Biblical training and great knowledge of English Literature to show that if Mahaffy was to be consistent he could not uphold either English Literature or Biblical studies in Trinity for fear of his Victorian prudery and narrow-mindedness. Dinneen proved to be a crushing protagonist. The battle proved a Pyrrhic victory for the required reforms were delayed and only grudgingly conceded over a decade.

As the century closed Fr. Dinneen was in a ferment of zeal and activity for the Irish language to the point where he made a traumatic and dramatic decision. He resigned from the Jesuit Order in 1900. Much speculation has occurred about such an unusual event but I feel happy to accept the tradition in his family that he simply wished to devote himself full time to the Irish language but his superiors would not permit it. For Jesuits to take such a course would not have been all that unusual (then or now). Many of his friends and colleagues in the Jesuits were virtually full-time Professors. He was never a one for compromise and took a tremendously courageous decision to move from the protected environment of a Jesuit House to make his living at the age of 40 in the hurly burly of civil life. He still remained a priest, of course, but because of his disobedience he was deprived of the privilege of saying Mass although he went to Mass every day for the rest of his life and was always known in Dublin as "Fr. Dinneen" in a city rejoicing at the time in many men and women of genius and eccentricity.

The making of his great decision released him from constraints and triggered off a veritable flood of diverse creative writing that few can have approached. Inevitably his most important first work was the 'Poems of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille for the Irish Texts Society (1900) and then the 'Poems of Eogan Rua Ó Suilleabháin' (1901) for the Gaelic League of which he was now a vigorous supporter. He also wrote the first novel in Irish 'Cormac Ó Conaill', a historical novel designed to counteract the prejudices inherent in much of the material he had experienced at Clongowes. It is interesting to note that 80 years ago books could be produced from manuscript to hardback at a much greater speed than we can achieve in the present day. He also wrote a play 'Creideamh Agus Gorta', part of his initiative to make Irish available in all branches of literature. He even translated Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' (Duan na Nollag) in furtherance of the same aim.

He was now a professional writer living on his royalties and established the severe routine of diligent research and systematic timekeeping that he never subsequently lost. Indeed he laid claim to a prime seat in the National Library from which he would evict anyone who did not know it was 'his'. He also proved to be capable of hard bargains on such mundane matters as royalties. He next turned to his much loved poems of Seaffrai Ó Donnchada A' Gleanna and a 'Life of Eoghan Ruadh'. The poems of Tadgh Gaelac Ó Suilleabhain and of Piaras Feritéir followed quickly in 1903 so that already he had made available to the enthusiasts of the Gaelic League a considerable volume of material for them to study and emulate.

All this work was being pushed through while he was also working on his first Dictionary. Even before the foundation of the Irish Texts Society a sub-committee of the Irish Literary Society and the London Gaelic League had taken in hand the preparation of a 'Pocket Irish-English Dictionary' to supply an obvious need. David Comyn and An tAthair Peadar initiated the project but were unable to continue in 1900. The work was entrusted to Fr. Dinneen with their consent (Comyn died a few weeks later) and he was set to work seeking words and word lists from all over Ireland. The response was generous and almost overwhelming as Fr. Dinneen hoarded all words jealously against a time when they might be useful again. He seemed to accept a responsibility to save for Ireland every word of its heritage so that future generations would not be deprived of them.

But his Dictionary is not merely a compendium of words and their meanings. He gives examples of usage and idiom that have seduced the reader over the years into many fascinating byways. As his was the first modern dictionary he had to wrestle with problems of spelling and standardisation of a language in the doldrums for two centuries and split into three main dialects. His rigorous training revealed itself in his capacity to make firm sound decisions on these major matters so that his book would be the virtual cornerstone of the Gaelic Revival. The Dictionary appeared in 1904 and made an immediate impact. It was not accepted uncritically by any means and he had to defend his work against severe critics. His critics may not have noticed that in the Secondary Education Commission debate Dinneen had carefully selected his own ground on which to fight and he was ever so. He did not shirk controversy but rather enjoyed a fight, but woe betide the 'enemy' who had not done his homework. Fr. Dinneen's main critic proved to be Fr. Hickey, Professor of Irish at Maynooth, who launched a virulent attack on Dinneen in the 'Irish Ecclesiastical Record' in what developed into a quite unholy row. Six months later Dinneen responded in his own vigorous style and Fr. Hickey suffered the fate of Mahaffy. Even so, Dinneen's opponents rarely held grudges against him as he was always careful to demolish arguments rather than people. Indeed, over the years he built up in Dublin a wide circle of friends who were devoted to him.

The Dictionary finished, Fr. Dinneen continued his writings, poetry as ever his main preoccupation but giving time to such areas as sample essays for children and business letters transferring into Irish the Victorian finesse of 'yours of the 10th inst.' and the like, so that no one could say that Irish could not take its place in commercial life.

His capacity for concentrated hard work was evident again in 1908 when he took over the completion of another great Irish Texts Society enterprise – the four volumes of 'Foras Feasa Ar Erinn' (Keating’s History). David Comyn had edited the first volume and the project languished after his death until Dinneen took it up and produced volumes two and three in one year. Greater involvement in the Gaelic League delayed Volume four until 1914. The completion of 'Foras Feasa' meant that the backward span of over 200 years had been bridged and readers now had access to Keating’s fine prose, the epitome of good Irish writing before the decline which followed the Flight of the Earls and Cromwell. This must remain, perhaps as much as the Dictionary, his greatest contribution to Irish studies.

While he was finishing Volume Four of Keating he was a key figure in the 'Keating Branch' of the League, comprised mainly of Dublin-based Kerrymen and regarded, by themselves at least, as the intellectual focus of the League. To this company Dinneen added his great energy and enthusiasm which also led to more than one unhappy controversy at a time when the theory of the Gaelic Revival was being accepted but the practical ways of achieving it and reinforcing it were seen differently by the factions, leading to confrontations and wasteful meetings. Many a possible compromise foundered on the rock of Dinneen's intransigence as he seems to have been virtually impossible to shift from his fixed views. This quality is clear from his dealings with this Society which were frequently stormy and he more than once threatened to stop altogether if he did not get his way. We owe much to the founding secretary Eleanor Hull who had a gift for coaxing him back to work, subtly, impressing on him that his duties were more to his heritage and to the future than to the Council. He was fiery and argumentative certainly, but in a strange way he was also easily led so long as it was towards his scholarly goals. Indeed, politics as such did not seem to interest him as he had 'missed' the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893, he virtually 'missed' 1916 as well, as he had no part in that second level of activity which Pearse and the others were pursuing.

The destruction of Dublin in 1916 meant that the stock and plates of the Dictionary went up in flames. Long conscious of deficiencies in his earlier work Dinneen started at once – even without the prompting or consent of the Society – on a new revised edition of the Dictionary which occupied him virtually full-time for ten years until the appearance of the Larger Irish-English Dictionary in 1927. It is daunting to compare his efforts with the resources devoted to the new Irish-English Dictionary of Ó Donaill which took some 20 people nearly 30 years in the making. Dinneen's dedication to his work suggest a Benedictine rather than a Jesuit motivation 'labore est orare'. When his Dictionary finally appeared he was 67, a time when he might well have excused further travail but that was never his way and in 1929 he was back among his beloved Kerry poets with new editions of their works. He relaxed with essays on classical literature and as the new State was finding its feet he looked to the future and began a series of Heritage Guides for the children of Ireland, thus anticipating by generations the need for an appreciation of environment and civics among the young.

In 1930 the breach with the Jesuits was more or less healed by the Archbishop of Dublin but characteristically Dinneen declined to accept the offer and carried on in his own way. In 1934, while working on a new edition of the 'Confession of St. Patrick' he was taken ill in the National Library and was taken to hospital by his life-long colleague Aubrey Gwynn S.J., Dinneen protesting the while 'take me home, hospitals are too expensive'. He died within a few days. For his requiem all was forgiven as he lay in state in the Jesuit church before a state funeral to Glasnevin attended by all elements of Church and State.

We recall his memory today for several reasons. In his preface to the 1927 Dictionary he paid generous tribute to all who had helped him and then paid the Society this tribute which so obviously inspired the Council and many others over the years:

'This will in all likelihood be my last work for the Irish Texts Society. In this respect I may consider myself as “donatum jam rude”. I sometimes think of that Society as a distinctive University unchartered and unendowed, in which though unworthy, I have been filling a “Chair” since 1900. On the volumes edited for the Society, I reckon that led by the lure and prompted by the pathos of unfinished or underdeveloped undertakings I have expended 20 years of severe labour, ten continuous years to the present volume and fourteen in all to lexicographical work. But in stimulating alumni to follow up or surpass my efforts I have been favoured.'

It was his last work for the Society. He could never have expected it to be in demand today not only in Ireland but all over the world from America to Japan. We celebrate him then, because his dedication to the Irish language has helped Ireland to take a rightful, respected and self-respecting place in the family of nations. Let me conclude by a few words for him from charming, homely Eoghan Ruadh:

'Níl agam ach guidhe le hIntinn Éagnaig
Comhaingil agus Naoimh bheith síor dá aodhaireacht'
('I can only pray with a broken heart
that Saints and Angels will always guard him')