Hyde is born at Longford House in Castlerea, County Roscommon, on January 17, 1860. In 1867, his father is appointed prebendary and rector of Tibohine, and the family moves to neighbouring Frenchpark, in County Roscommon. He is home schooled by his father and his aunt due to a childhood illness. While a young man, he becomes fascinated with hearing the old people in the locality speak the Irish language.
Rejecting family pressure to follow previous generations with a career in the Church, Hyde instead becomes an academic. He enters Trinity College, Dublin, where he gains a great facility for languages, learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and German, but his great passion in life is the preservation of the Irish language.
After spending a year teaching modern languages in Canada, Hyde returns to Ireland. For much of the rest of his life he writes and collects hundreds of stories, poems, and folktales in Irish, and translates others. His work in Irish helps to inspire many other literary writers, such as W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory.
In 1892, Hyde helps establish the Gaelic Journal and in November of that year writes a manifesto called The necessity for de-anglicising the Irish nation, arguing that Ireland should follow her own traditions in language, literature, and even in dress.
In 1893, Hyde founds the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) along with Eoin MacNeill and Fr. Eugene O’Growney and serves as its first president. Many of the new generation of Irish leaders who play a central role in the fight for Irish independence in the early twentieth century, including Patrick Pearse, Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, and Ernest Blythe first become politicised and passionate about Irish independence through their involvement in the Gaelic League. Hyde does not want the Gaelic League to be a political entity, so when the surge of Irish nationalism that the Gaelic League helps to foster begins to take control of many in the League and politicize it in 1915, Hyde resigns as president.
Hyde takes no active part in the armed upheaval of the 1910s and 1920s, but does serve in Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Irish Free State‘s Oireachtas, as a Free State senator in 1925-26. He then returns to academia, as Professor of Irish at University College Dublin, where one of his students is future Attorney General and President of Ireland Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.
In 1938, Hyde is unanimously elected to the newly created position of President of Ireland, a post he holds until 1945. He is inaugurated on June 26, 1938, in the first inaugural ceremony in the nation’s history. He sets a precedent by reciting the Presidential Declaration of Office in Irish. His recitation, in Roscommon Irish, is one of a few recordings of a dialect of which Hyde is one of the last speakers. Upon inauguration, he moves into the long vacant Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park, since known as Áras an Uachtaráin.
Hyde’s selection and inauguration receive worldwide media attention and is covered by newspapers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Egypt. Adolf Hitler “orders” the Berlin newspapers “to splash” on the Irish presidential installation ceremony. However, the British government ignores the event. The Northern Ireland Finance Minister, John Miller Andrews, described Hyde’s inauguration as a “slight on the King” and “a deplorable tragedy.”
Despite being placed in a position to shape the office of the presidency via precedent, Hyde by and large opts for a quiet, conservative interpretation of the office.
In April 1940 Hyde suffers a massive stroke and plans are made for his lying-in-state and state funeral, but to the surprise of everyone he survives, albeit paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. One of Hyde’s last presidential acts is a visit to the German ambassador Eduard Hempel on May 3, 1945 to offer his condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler, a visit which remains a secret until 2005.
Hyde leaves office on June 25, 1945, opting not to nominate himself for a second term. He opts not return to his Roscommon home due to his ill-health, but rather moves into the former Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant’s residence in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, where he lived out the remaining four years of his life.
Hyde dies in Dublin on July 12, 1949 at age 89. As a former President of Ireland he is accorded a state funeral which, as a member of the Church of Ireland, takes place in Dublin’s Church of Ireland St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Since contemporary rules of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland at the time prohibit Roman Catholics from attending services in non-Catholic churches, all but one member of the Catholic cabinet remain outside the cathedral grounds while Hyde’s funeral takes place. Hyde is buried in Frenchpark, County Roscommon at Portahard Church.