Douglas Hyde, the low-key Protestant who was appointed Eire’s first head of state

Douglas Hyde's inauguration as president of Eire in June 1938
Douglas Hyde's inauguration as president of Eire in June 1938
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Historian GORDON LUCY marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Gaelic League founder Douglas Hyde

Last year marked the 125th anniversary of the formation of the Gaelic League and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the death one of the league’s principal founders and the first President of Eire, Douglas Hyde.

Douglas Hyde in the grounds of �ras an Uachtar�in in 1944 after ill health had taken hold and he was confined to a wheelchair

Douglas Hyde in the grounds of �ras an Uachtar�in in 1944 after ill health had taken hold and he was confined to a wheelchair

Between 1915, when he resigned the presidency of the Gaelic League, and 1925, when he was elected at a by-election to the Irish Senate, Douglas Hyde maintained a fairly low public profile.

He was a member of the Senate for only 10 months. In the Senate elections of 1925 he failed to secure re-election. He was certainly targeted by the ‘Catholic Truth Society’ on account of his Protestantism and his alleged support for divorce (which he denied).

As none of the candidates endorsed by the Gaelic League was elected, it is possible to argue that the CTS’s campaign was not the critical factor in his defeat. Hyde returned to academia as Professor of Irish at UCD.

In March 1938 Eamon de Valera plucked Hyde out of retirement, appointing him to the reconstituted Senate provided for in his 1937 Constitution. His membership was briefer than it had been in 1925 because he was singled out for even greater things: the agreed Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael choice for the presidency.

Since Eamon de Valera and W T Cosgrave agreed on remarkably little, how was this possible? Both men admired Hyde, not least for his role in the formation and work of the Gaelic League. They were embarrassed by Hyde’s humiliating non-election in 1925. They believed he would bring prestige to the office.

Finally, although Eire was, to all intents and purposes, a confessional state, the choice of a Protestant head of state would make it appear less sectarian and more inclusive than it actually was.

Hyde was inaugurated as president on June 26 1938. Just months after his inauguration Hyde attended a football match between Eire and Poland. The GAA viewed this as a breach of the GAA’s ban on ‘foreign games’ and stripped Hyde of his position as a patron of the GAA, a distinction he had enjoyed since 1902.

In April 1940 Hyde suffered a massive stroke. Plans were drawn up for his funeral but he partially recovered. However, he was now paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.

Hyde’s term coincided with the Second World War (or ‘The Emergency’ as it is euphemistically called in the South) in which Eire chose to remain neutral. Brian Murphy in his study of Douglas Hyde and the Irish presidency contends that ‘the office of president played an integral part in the national effort to keep Ireland out of the Second World War’ but this seems like a somewhat inflated claim.

The claim reminded Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, of Patrick Kavanagh’s witticism that neutral Eire would have been ‘hard-pressed to protect a field of potatoes from an invasion of crows’.

On May 3 1945, the day after reports of Hitler’s death reached Dublin, Michael McDunphy, Hyde’s secretary, visited Eduard Hempel, the German minister in Dublin, at the German legation, to convey Hyde’s condolences on the death of the führer.

Hyde did not send an official letter of condolence to Berlin because the city was under siege and ‘no successor had been appointed’. While the first point is correct, strictly speaking the latter is not.  Großadmiral Dönitz, Hitler’s designated successor, became German head of state on April 30.

Reports in 2005 that Hyde himself visited Dr Hempel are based on a misreading of the presidential records but Dr Hempel did visit Áras an Uachtaráin on May 3.

Hyde left office on June 25 1945, declining to serve a second term due to the state of his health. He chose not to return to his Roscommon home but moved into a residence in the grounds of the Áras which was previously the official residence of the private secretary to the lord lieutenant. There he died ‘after a prolonged illness’ on July 12 1949.

As the first president of Eire, Hyde was accorded a state funeral. As a member of the Church of Ireland, Hyde’s funeral service took place in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

As it was a ‘reserved sin’ for Roman Catholics to attend services in ‘non-Catholic churches’ in that era, all the members of the Irish Cabinet (except Noel Browne) remained outside in the cathedral grounds and only joined the funeral cortege when the coffin left the cathedral.

None of this could be construed as compelling evidence of the non-sectarian character of the 26-county state. Maurice Dockerell, a Protestant Fine Gael TD, represented John A Costello, the taoiseach. Eamon de Valera, who at this stage was leader of the opposition, was represented by Erskine H Childers, Fianna Fáil’s most prominent Church of Ireland member.

Hyde was buried alongside his wife Lucy, his daughter Nuala, his sister Annette, mother Elizabeth and father Arthur, at Tybohine Church of Ireland cemetery, a short distance from Frenchpark where he had spent much of his childhood.

The church, built in 1740, was extensively renovated by Roscommon County Council in 1988 and now functions as an interpretive centre devoted to the parish’s most famous son.

Finally, an obvious question: how successful was Hyde in restoring Irish as the language of everyday speech? A month after Hyde’s death Brian Mac Giolla Phádraig, headmaster of Dublin Central Model schools, addressed this question in a speech to the Celtic Congress in Bangor, north Wales.

Mac Giolla Phádraig observed that of all the Celtic nations, Eire was the only one fortunate in having a national government. All political parties in the state shared the same desire to see Irish restored as a spoken language in the country but, despite excellent Irish tuition, pupils made little attempt to use the language outside school.

While the public seemed to favour revival, they exhibited no enthusiasm for it. In spite of the intensive teaching of Irish, he said Eire remained an English-speaking country. To what extent have things changed in the intervening 70 years?