From the files of the DIB…‘Our great comic lexicographer’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), News, Volume 13

From the files of the DIB...‘Our great comic lexicographer’ 1DINNEEN, Patrick Stephen (Ó DUINNÍN, Pádraig Stiabhna) (1860–1934), was born on 25 December 1860 on a smallholding in Carn townland, near Rathmore in the Sliabh Luachra district of County Kerry, the fifth of ten children of Maitiú Ó Duinnín, farmer and livestock trader, and Máire Ní Dhonnchadha (d. 1917). His parents, who had been evicted from a more substantial farm a few years previously, were native Irish-speakers. Although Pádraig was brought up largely through English, Irish was still very much in evidence during his childhood. His ability was obvious from an early age, and he joined the Jesuits in September 1880. After completing his training in 1898, he taught in Clongowes Wood, Co. Kildare, for two years. Although much folklore surrounds his (regular and fairly amicable) parting of ways with the Jesuits (1900), it would seem that he left because his superiors thought him unsuitable for life in the Society—toisc é a bheith beagainín corr ann féin (‘because he was a little bit eccentric’), as one Jesuit put it. He wore clerical garb until his death and was allowed to continue presenting himself as a priest, but not to administer the sacraments without first being licensed to do so by a bishop. He was later offered such permission by the archbishop of Dublin but failed to take it up because this would involve showing private documentation to prove that he could support himself independently—and he was always intensely private about his personal affairs. This did not, however, stop him from accepting offerings to hear Mass for people’s intentions!
Under the influence of his friend and fellow Jesuit, the Irish scholar Fr John MacErlean, he soon plunged headlong into Irish scholarship and quickly established himself as a leading authority on Irish literature. By 1906 he had produced fairly reliable editions of the poetry of many of the most important Munster poets, and also edited Faoistin Naomh-Phádraig, the eighteenth-century prose text Me Guidhir Fhearmanach, and three of the four volumes of the highly valuable Foras feasa ar Éirinn by Seathrún Céitinn. His pioneering Irish–English dictionary was widely welcomed when it came out in 1904. Although he later claimed that most of this dictionary was compiled from material ‘stored up in my childhood’s memory’, it in fact drew heavily on published literature, on unpublished lexicons and on manuscript sources, as well as on word lists submitted from the various Gaeltacht areas. When the plates for this publication were destroyed during the 1916 rising, he embarked, with the assistance of Liam S. Gógan, on a second, much expanded edition, which appeared in 1927 and was the standard Irish–English dictionary until 1977. This is the dictionary that Myles na Gopaleen poked fun at for years in his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish Times, christening Ó Duinnín ‘our great comic lexicographer’.
An active member of Conradh na Gaeilge (1900–9), he sat on many of its most influential committees, including its Coiste Gnó—where, according to Piaras Béaslaí, he was usually in a ‘magnificent minority of one’. He came under the influence of D.P. Moran and wrote a column in the Leader (1906–29), using it to assail the Conradh’s leaders, particularly Douglas Hyde and P.H. Pearse. He thought the latter pretentious, and often referred to him with mock seriousness as ‘Pee Haitch’ and ‘BABL’. In 1906, in a celebrated letter purporting to be from a person by the name of Snag Breac (‘Magpie’) to the Irish People newspaper, he criticised a novel that Pearse had recently published under the pseudonym ‘Colm Ó Conaire’ (supposedly a western writer), saying that it ‘smacks more like the margarine of the slums than pure mountain butter’. He also poked fun at the innocent Pearse’s choice of title, Poll an phíobaire (‘The piper’s hole’), expressing the hope that ‘the Píobaire will continue to draw from the stores of his capacious and well-filled arsenal’!
From 1909 until his death Ó Duinnín devoted himself exclusively to his studies. For many years he was a permanent fixture in the National Library (where he receives mention in Joyce’s Ulysses) and in the Royal Irish Academy library, where he spent the winters. A well-known and well-liked character in Dublin, he cut a colourful figure in his tall hat and shabby coat (which he once borrowed from a friend but neglected to return), and was remembered by many not because of his great dictionary but because of his mild eccentricity: his habit of talking to himself and chewing dulse in the library, his awful puns (‘O’Neill-Lane? Ó, níl aon mhaith ann’), or his legendary miserliness (which once led him to enter a children’s writing competition and pocket the prize). He died on 29 September 1934 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.

Eoin Mac Cártaigh is a research assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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