Thursday 21 November 2019

Poetry: Great man unloved by GAA and Church

Douglas Hyde
Douglas Hyde
Douglas Hyde

Ulick O’Connor

This year is the 155th anniversary of the birth of Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland. Hyde was a man of such achievements that it is hard to choose what to mention here.

First of all, he was the founder of the Gaelic League, which Michael Collins thought was "the most important event in Ireland in 200 years".

He also created the first Abbey type play, Casadh an tSugain (The Twisting of the Rope), and opened the door for literary giants like Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory to create the elements of a spoken-verse tradition that was unique in Europe.

For example, JM Synge undoubtedly took the character of his playboy, Christy Mahon, from Hyde's play. Then, too, the rhythms and assonances of Yeats's poems were influenced by Hyde's perfect translations from the Gaelic.

Hyde excelled at everything he tried his hand at. He was the best rifle shot in Galway, and at Trinity College he took four doctorates in Music, Modern Languages, Classical Studies and Divinity. What a man to have as President. Yet the GAA struck him off in 1939 because he attended a soccer match between Ireland and Poland.

Catholics were forbidden to go to Hyde's funeral because of a Vatican rule that forbad them to attend Protestant services. Noel Browne was the only government minister to attend

Hyde's funeral service in St Patrick's Cathedral. What a crowd we were!

Have a look at the poem below, 'I Shall Not Die for Thee', one of Hyde's translations from the language he loved. It seems simple but in fact it jingles with internal word music. For instance "die" - the last word in the first line - rhyming with "high", the middle of second line and so on...

I shall not die for thee

For thee, I shall not die,

Woman of high fame and name;

Foolish men thou mayest slay,

I and they are not the same.

Why should I expire

For the fire of an eye,

Slender waist or swan-like limb,

Is't for them that I should die?

The round breasts, the fresh skin,

Cheeks crimson, hair so long and rich;

Indeed, indeed, I shall not die,

Please God, not I, for any such.

Woman, graceful as the swan,

A wise man did nurture me.

Little palm, white neck, bright eye,

I shall not die for thee.

Douglas Hyde, 1860-1949

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