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Douglas Hyde

Douglas Hyde: The Unlikely First President of Ireland

Douglas Hyde was born in Frenchpark in County Roscommon in 1860. His father was a local Church of Ireland Rector. He quickly became fascinated with the Irish language and entered Trinity College where he studied other languages including French, German, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He was determined to prevent the continuing decline of the native language however, and in 1893 he founded the Gaelic League. Douglas Hyde

The Irish language had been in decline since the seventeenth century but this decline accelerated in the years after the famine. The 'Black Death' of 1845 to 1849 resulted in over a million deaths from starvation and a further million people were lost to emigration in the decade following the famine. The effect of the famine on the Irish language was devastating.

The increased awareness in national identity that culminated in the Easter Rising in 1916 and the subsequent War of Independence and eventual declaration of an Irish Republic can be traced to events in the second half of the nineteenth century. The formation of the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde was crucial in the promotion of the idea of an independent Irish nation. Many of the iconic Irish nationalist leaders that were later to shape the course of Irish history formed their nationalistic philosophies during their membership of the Gaelic League. Pearse, deValera and Collins were all members. Hyde later became discontent with the increasing political bent that the League was displaying and resigned the presidency of the organization he had founded in 1915. He had no political affiliation either with the Home Rule movement or Sinn Fein.

He accepted a position in Seanad Eireann (the appointed Senate) but later lost the post when an election was held. It is believed that the fact that he was a Protestant counted against him, although false allegations that he supported divorce must also have damaged his chances. He returned to academic studies and became Professor of Irish at UCD.
Douglas Hyde Inauguration
Huge Crowds were drawn to the Inauguration of Douglas Hyde

Despite having retired some years earlier Eamon deValera appointed Douglas Hyde once more to Seanad Eireann. His stay in the Senate was again short-lived but this time it was because greater office beckoned. deValera and the opposition leader W.T. Cosgrove agreed that Hyde should become the first President of Ireland. Both of these leaders wanted to prove that the 'new' Ireland could be inclusive and the appointment of a Protestant would certainly demonstrate this. Recognition for the years of service Hyde had given to the Irish people through his tenure as president of the Gaelic League was also a factor. In 1938 he became the first President of Ireland and settled into Aras an Uachtarain in the Phoenix Park, which has remained the home of all Irish Presidents ever since.

Hyde was a popular President with the US President Roosevelt calling him 'a fine and scholarly old gentleman'. He suffered a massive stroke in 1940 and it appeared his demise was near. He recovered however and, although wheelchair bound, continued his presidential duties for another 5 years.

He left office in 1945 but continued to live in the Phoenix Park until his death in 1949. He was granted a state funeral and was buried in his native Roscommon.

His contribution to the cause of the Irish language, history, music and literature cannot be overstated with W.B. Yeats proclaiming him as the source of the Irish literary renaissance which continues to this day.

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