Illuminations: Father Eugene O’Growney “He revived the courage of the Irish”

Illuminations:  Father Eugene O’Growney – “He revived the courage of the Irish”
By:  J. Michael Finn

It surely stands to reason that the history, language, and literature of a country are
sacred national trusts.”
Fr. O’Gowney

The Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn (pron: coo-HUL-ahn) is reported to have said, “I care not if I live but a day and a night, so long as my deeds live after me.” 

The Great Hunger not only devastated the population of Ireland, but it also dealt a severe blow to the Irish Language.  It has been estimated that at least 1.5 million native Irish speakers either emigrated or died in the decade between 1841 and 1851.  If you combine this with the outright discrimination against teaching, writing or speaking Irish imposed by the British authorities, it is a wonder that the national language survived at all. 

Many scholars in the late 1800s recognized the need for a language revival in Ireland.  One of these Irish scholars was Father Eugene O’Growney (pron. O’Grown (like Brown) nee). Although he lived only a short time, the impact of his life on the language, history and literature of Ireland was significant.

Eugene O’Growney was born September 24, 1863 in Ballyfallon Townland, Athboy, County Meath, the second among six children of James O’Growney and his wife Margaret Gavan. He received his earliest education in Athboy national school and afterwards entered St. Finian’s seminary in Navan, Co. Meath.

In September 1882, he continued his studies in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. According to his own writing, O’Growney had no contact with the Irish language until he was fourteen years of age, when he was greeted in Irish by a local workman.

Later that year he came across an old edition of a catechism written in Irish. He then set about learning as much about the language as possible, and by the time he entered Maynooth he had begun compiling a dictionary.

During his days as a student there, he promoted the Irish language at every opportunity, and founded a Gaelic society in 1886. The college granted him permission to allow copies of the Gaelic Journal to be sold there, and he urged his fellow students to become subscribers.

His summer holidays (1885-7) were spent learning Irish, mostly on the Aran Island of Inis Meáin (pron: In-ish mahn). He also spent time in the Cork, Kerry, Donegal, and Ring areas, learning as much Irish as he could.

O’Growney wrote: “Yes, it is sentimentality to long for the revival of the national language and to wish to see the national history and literature in their due place of honor; but it is true patriotism, as well. It surely stands to reason that the history, language, and literature of a country are sacred national trusts.”

He spent the academic year 1888-9 as assistant dean in St Finian’s College, Navan. His duties were light and this allowed him to spend time writing articles for the Tuam News, the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, and other papers.

He was ordained at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth on June 24, 1889.  He was briefly appointed as pastor to Ballynacargy parish, eleven miles from Mullingar, in County Westmeath.

It was during this time he first met Douglas Hyde. In 1891 he was appointed professor of Irish at Maynooth, and at about the same time became editor of the Gaelic Journal.

Simple Lessons in Irish
At the request of the Archbishop of Dublin, he began his series titled, Simple Lessons in Irish, first published in the Weekly Freeman, which did more than any other book in the last two centuries to familiarize thousands of Irish with the language of their ancestors. His lessons proved so popular that they were published in booklet form. There were five books in the series, and by 1903 the book had sold 320,000 copies.

Gaelic League Founders
Father O’Growney was one of co-founders of the Gaelic League (along with Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeil), although he was not present at the organization’s inaugural meeting in Dublin on July 31, 1893. The organization was founded “for the purpose of keeping the Irish language spoken in Ireland.” On January 25, 1894 he accompanied Douglas Hyde to Galway to found the Galway branch of the League. Later that year he became vice-president of this influential organization.

In 1894 his health began to rapidly decline. He was suffering from tuberculosis and requested permission from the college to take six months’ leave of absence from his post.  On the advice of his doctor, he moved to California in November 1894, spending time in San Francisco and Oakland. In the spring of 1895, he moved to Arizona, spending time in Tuscon, Yuma, and Flagstaff, and in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Prescott.

On July 23, 1896, Father O’Growney resigned from his post in Maynooth, and the following month advised the Gaelic League that they should appoint someone in Ireland as vice-president in his place. His offer to the Gaelic League was refused.

While living in Americ,a he continued to write articles for journals such as the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Irish World, Catholic University Bulletin, Weekly Freeman, and Donaghoe’s Magazine.  He also translated ‘The star-spangled banner’ into Irish.

He returned to Los Angeles at the end of July 1899 and died there November 18, 1899 at the age of 36. He was buried in Los Angeles, but a campaign soon began to have his remains repatriated to Ireland.  Father O’Growney’s remains were disinterred on September 2, 1903 and brought back to Ireland, accompanied by representatives of the Gaelic League in America, passing through San Francisco, Chicago, and New York on the way.

The funeral procession travelled from Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral to Maynooth on September 27, 1903. He was interred in a temporary grave in Maynooth. On February 28, 1905 he was finally interred in a new mausoleum in the cemetery at Maynooth after a private ceremony. Over the doorway of the mausoleum is the following inscription in Latin and Irish:“Pray for Eoghan O’Growney who revived the courage of the Irish. Born 1866 Died 1899.”

In addition to his mausoleum in Maynooth, in 1956, a statue of Fr. O’Growney was unveiled in front of St. James’ Roman Catholic Church in his home town of Athboy, Ireland. Father Eugene O’Growney is remembered as one of the key figures in the Irish language revival of the late 1800s.  He was an earnest and tireless worker for his county’s national language, history and literature. His deeds continue to live after him.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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