Our first President was a man for all the people

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

DURING Christmas I read Brian Murphy’s impressive book on Douglas Hyde and the Irish Presidency. Hyde was a major cultural figure in Ireland for well over a half a century. Born in Castlerea in 1860, he was the son of a Church of Ireland rector. Visiting families with his father, he developed an interest in the Irish language. He wandered through the west of Ireland and rescued from seemingly inevitable oblivion the stories and poems he found among ordinary people. He compiled his researches in important collections, most notably the love and religious songs of Connacht. He was convinced that ‘it is our Gaelic past which is really the bottom of the Irish heart’. His commitment to the retrieval of the glories of the oral Gaelic culture influenced the Irish literary renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yeats wrote of his books: “That they were to me, as they were to many others, the coming of a new power into literature.” He was the founder of the Gaelic League in 1893 and its first president. Its aim was to preserve Irish as a spoken language in the country as census returns indicated that the number of native speakers was in rapid decline due to high emigration and the pragmatic economic desertion of the language in favour of English. He resigned the presidency of the league in 1915. Irish Republican Brotherhood activists infiltrated the orgiansation and sought to bend it to their revolutionary aims. It was not to be the last time that Hyde was a victim of narrow nationalism. He took no part in the 1916 Rising or the War of Independence. He confined his nationalism to cultural expression. Hyde became the first professor of Irish in UCD in 1908, a post he held until 1932. He served briefly in the Senate in 1937 before accepting the unanimous invitation to the political parties to become the first President of Ireland in 1938. Though he suffered a stroke in 1940, which confined him to a wheelchair, he served with quiet distinction until the end of his term in 1945.

For all people
Shortly after he became President he was embroiled in a controversy when he attended an Ireland versus Poland soccer match in Dalymount Park. He had been patron of the GAA since 1902. GAA rules then forbade its members to attend what it deemed ‘foreign games’. By his attendance he wanted to make the point that he was president for all sectors of Irish society.
The GAA expelled Hyde from the organisation. It was also made clear that he would not be invited again to attend All-Ireland finals. The decision provoked an angry reaction. The Irish Press newspaper, in an editorial, criticised the GAA stating: “The President is the head of the whole state and not of any section in it. He owes an equal duty to all citizens whatever views they may hold, or whatever form of recreation they may indulge in.” The Irish Times called it ‘cant of the worst kind’.
Hyde’s local newspaper, The Roscommon Herald, thundered: “Hitler and Mussolini might do that sort of thing, the GAA should not try to do it.” The serfs of the dictators have no choice but to obey, but the people of Ireland have fought to free themselves from serfdom. We say that the GAA has covered itself with ridicule by banning the president of Éire.”
In order to protect the dignity of the presidency, Hyde refused to comment on his expulsion and exclusion. The Taoiseach, Eamon deValera was angry at the GAA action but Hyde prevailed upon him to remain silent.
The affair had a sequel when Seán T O’Kelly was elected president to succeed Hyde in 1945, the GAA asked to meet him at Áras an Uachtaráin. Instead they were summoned to Government Buildings where deValera told them that the GAA must understand that ‘the President is president of all sections of the community and cannot in any circumstances put  himself in such a position as to seem by implication or otherwise, to discriminate against any section of the community’.
The Hyde expulsion is now a weary far off thing, a battle long ago. Recently, when Irish rugby officials drew up their proposal for Ireland to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, they included several GAA grounds as possible venues.

3011 MPU