The Irish language has largely retreated from Meath when O’Growney is born, and neither of his parents speak it. He becomes interested in the language when he chances upon the Irish lessons in the nationalist newspaper Young Ireland. He has help at first from a few old people who speak the language, and while at Maynooth, where he continues his studies for the priesthood from the year 1882, he spends his holidays in Irish-speaking areas in the north, west and south. He gets to know the Aran Islands and writes about them in the bilingual Gaelic Journal (Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge), which he is later to edit. He is ordained in 1888. His proficiency in the language leads him to be appointed in the re-established Chair of Irish at Maynooth in 1891. He is editor of the Gaelic Journal between 1894 and 1899 and during his tenure ensures that more material is published in Irish.
For O’Growney language, nationality and religion are closely linked. In 1890, writing in the Irish Ecclesiastical Review, he describes literature in Irish as “the most Catholic literature in the world.” He is aware, however, of its other aspects, adding that “even if Irish were to perish as a spoken language, it would remain valuable from the pure literature point of view.”
His Simple Lessons in Irish, first published in the newspaper The Weekly Freeman, proves so popular that they are published in booklet form. There are five books in the series and 320,000 copies have been sold by 1903. In a foreword he states:
“The following course of simple lessons in Irish has been drawn up chiefly for the use of those who wish to learn the old language of Ireland, but who are discouraged by what they have heard of its difficulties… But the difficulties of Irish pronunciation and construction have always been exaggerated. A I myself was obliged to study Irish as a foreign language, and as I have been placed in circumstances which have made me rather familiar with the language as now spoken, I have at least a knowledge of the difficulties of those who, like myself, have no teacher.”
In 1894, failing health causes him to go to Arizona and California, where he dies in Los Angeles on October 18, 1899. Some years later, with the aid of Irish sympathisers in the United States, his body is returned to Ireland. His funeral, held on September 26, 1903 at the St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, is attended by 6,000 people, including members of the trade guilds, clerics, politicians, members of the nationalist Gaelic Athletic Association and students. He is buried at Maynooth.
(Pictured: Statue of Fr. Eugene O’Growney on the grounds of St. James’ Church in Athboy, courtesy of http://www.athboyparish.ie)