Short lives, sharp minds

Townland tales

The contributions of William Rooney and Mícheál Breathnach

In this year of commemorations, I would like to remember two young Irishmen who made a strong impact nationally, around the turn of the last century. The tragedy is they did not live long enough to realise their full potential and both died of tuberculosis in their 28th year. They were William Rooney from Dublin and Mícheál Breathnach from Connemara.
William Rooney (1873-1901) was a founding member of the Celtic Literary Society, along with Arthur Griffith, and he was a political activist who contributed articles on a variety of cultural topics to Griffith’s United Irishman newspaper. He was described by Griffith as ‘the Thomas Davis of the new movement’. However, James Joyce gave Rooney’s book of poems, published posthumously in 1902, an unfavourable review in the Daily Express.
One essay that caught my eye was ‘Irish Topography’, written around 1900, in which Rooney criticises the geography syllabus in Irish schools for its over-emphasis on the features of the British Empire. He advocated the reinstatement of Irish names of villages, parishes and electoral divisions as a means of disseminating our local history. Seeing our history and topography as being interwoven, he stated:
‘The natural features of our land, its hills and hollows, its woods and morasses, its riverheads and estuaries; all these are plain to the man who can read our topography. Though he has never seen a certain place, its name will disclose to him, as certainly as if he were native to it, what manner of place it is.’
This holds true today and was used to great effect by the late Tim Robinson in his writings on Connemara, Árainn and the Burren. Robinson is on record as stating that his restoration of our original Irish logainmneacha had ‘an element of post-colonial reparation’ to it.
After the 1916 Rising, some Irish placenames were reinstated, such as Cobh and Dún Laoghaire, formerly Queenstown and Kingstown. In 1946 a branch of the Ordnance Survey – An Coimisiún Logainmneacha – was established to research Irish placenames in order to provide authoritative Irish language forms of these names. Today, there is a website,, for the same purpose. A slowly evolving discipline that had its genesis over 100 years ago prior to the instigation of our state by forward-thinking people like William Rooney. May he rest in peace.
Mícheál Breathnach, was born at Cois Fharraige, Contae na Gaillimhe, in 1881, and died in 1908. He worked for some time as a Secretary of the London Branch of the Gaelic League. He later became the first headmaster of Coláiste Chonnacht (later Coláiste Muire/Tourmakeady College) in Toormakeady, in 1905, when the college was initially established as a summer school for learning Irish.
After finishing his work at the Irish college, he became the Chair of Irish at Coláiste Iarfhlatha (St Jarlath’s College) in Tuam. The Western People reported it like this at the time: ‘No better professor could have been found […] Mícheál Breathnach is one of the leading Irish-language writers. He is the Goldsmith of the Irish language. We congratulate the people of the town of Seán Mhic Éil (Archbishop John McHale) for announcing that this famous young Professor is to be working amongst them in the future.’
During the period 1905 to 1908, he spent time in sanitoriums in Switzerland to try and improve his health, and his accounts of that country were first published in ‘An Claidheamh Soluis’, a magazine founded by Douglas Hyde, and later in book form as ‘Seilig i Measc na nAlp’. This book is a wonderful read and the Irish is very easy to understand. He translated the novel, ‘Knocknagow’, by Charles Kickham, into Irish. His name is commemorated in the name of Inverin-based GAA club, Míchael Breathnach CLG.
The photograph of him reproduced here shows the front cover of the 2009 edition of ‘Scríbhinní Mícheal Breathnach’, a combined biography of the young writer by Bohola-born Tomás Mac Domhnaill together with an anthology of his writings: prose, poetry, plays and letters, that Mac Domhnaill and Seán Mac Énrí first published in 1913. The most recent edition appeared in 2009, published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta, Indreabhán, Co. na Gallimhe.
There is evidence that Breathnach’s writing and teaching style greatly influenced other people. In ‘An Claidheamh Soluis’ after his death, Pádraig Pearse was effusive in his praise of his personality and teaching skills. His proponents, long after his death, imagined that he would have been one of the great leaders of 1916 had he survived. Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.
John O’Callaghan MA MBA PhD is a mountain walk leader and has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.