Brian O’Higgins – An Uncompromising Patriot

A native of Co. Meath, Brian went to Dublin as a teenager to work in a shop. In June, 1901 he joined the O’Growney branch of the Gaelic League and from that day he never ceased his endeavours for the national ideal of Ireland, Gaelic and free.

Even in bad health or in prison, he continued writing songs, poems, and stories – thousands of them. Invariably, there was some specific reason for everything which he wrote, but all was aimed at awakening and strengthening the national consciousness of the Irish people.

He knew that no one section of the national ideal – the language, the native games, the sale of Irish goods or the national question itself – could be advanced without the motivation and inclusion of the people of Ireland.

Brian sought to help the Irish people regain their sense of nationhood by providing them with writings which they understood. His writings took numerous forms – historical and satirical stories; moving poems or at times funny ones; and splendid songs.

In those days there was an enormous demand for his writings from Gaelic League branches, county committees, feis committees, teachers and organisers. For years his songs and poems were recited at feiseanna and concerts all over Ireland.

Inspiring

Much of what he wrote about Ireland’s history was aimed at inspiring – at urging the people along the road to an Irish speaking self-respecting Ireland. More than any other writer of his era, he sought to speak for an enslaved but unconquered people.

He wrote of and in defence of the Irish language, Irish games, distinct Irish nationality and against laws, customs and culture of the alien invader.

To Brian and those who shared his ideals, Anglicisation was anathema. With a great sense of satire, he singled out the seoinín and highlighted the anti-national tactics of such people.

One of his earlier songs, the Cause of Roísín Dubh, was praised by the Slane poet Francis Ledwidge who asked Brian for an autographed copy and told him that he would have loved to have written it.

Other examples of Brian’s songs and poems in the early 20th century are: The Road to Hell, a poem condemning emigration; Irish Ireland, a poem that won a prize in 1902; Welcome Oh Gaelic Tounge; and Ar d’Teanga Abú.

When Dublin Castle prohibited the playing of hurling in Phoenix Park, Brian wrote The Laws of the Stranger which was a great favourite of Michael Cusack, the founder of the GAA, who asked Brian to write a song for the GAA. The result was Ireland’s Hurling Men. Cusack was delighted with it. Incidentally, Brian often said that Cusack, a native of Carron, Co. Clare, was a great teacher of Irish.

Dedicated

Brian’s branch of the Gaelic League was unique because all its members were grocers’ assistants who worked from 7.00 a.m. to 11.00 p.m. six days a week and even on Sundays from 2.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m.

These young men were so dedicated to Irish, so determined to learn it, that they gave up their one free evening a week to the task of studying Irish at branch meetings.

Brian not only became a fluent Irish speaker but an accomplished Irish teacher who taught ten classes a week for seven Gaelic League branches in his native Co. Meath.

Later, when back in Dublin, he was working with the great Father Aloysious in Church Street and taught Irish to hundreds of young people, which, as he said, kept him ‘as busy as three men’.

But no matter how overworked Brian was, he continued to use his powerful pen for Ireland. No friend ever asked for help in the form of a song, poem or speech who wasn’t assisted.

Through his writings, Brian was involved in every campaign waged by the Gaelic League in the first decade of the 20th century. In the same way, through his writings, he supported the Republican cause all throughout his life. As well as being a great propagandist, he was a great patriot and revolutionary and as such he fought in the Rising of 1916.

As such too, he worked for the election of de Valera in the historic East Clare by-election of 1917 and soon afterwards he himself was elected TD for West Clare to partake in the revolutionary Dáil Éireann.

It is worthwhile recalling that it was he and others in West Clare that began the great work of the Republic Courts which were to play a huge part in the successful defiance of the colonial system.

Imprisoned

As a principled Republican, Brian opposed the Treaty in 1921 and spent the rest of his life advocating against participation of the two usurping partitionist assemblies which it spawned.

He spent three periods in prison – the first after the 1916 Rising when he was in Stafford Jail. While there, he wrote a prayer book in Irish.

He was in jail again in 1918 and for the last time in 1923 when he took part in the great hunger strike in the Curragh.

It was while he was in prison, recovering from the hunger strike, that he thought of producing Irish-made Christmas cards. On his release, he started his own publishing business which became world famous.

As well as Christmas cards, Brian produced cards in Irish and English for all the great feasts of the Catholic Church, as well as house blessings and many small hooks about Ireland and her saints.

At one time, he has no less than nine columns in various newspapers in which he preached the gospel of a Gaelic Ireland.

Brian Ó hUiginn was a devout Catholic. For him, Dia, Tir agus Teanga were interwoven like the Holy Trinity.

But devout Catholic that he was, he did not hesitate to criticise the Irish bishops when they urged acceptance of the Treaty before it has been discussed in the Dáil, and again when, in 1922, the bishops issued what they called a ‘joint pastoral’ in which they condemned Republicanism.

Brian was an eloquent speaker and he lectured or made speeches in every one of the 32 counties of Ireland. He delivered the graveside orations at many historic Republican funerals including those of Austin Stack in 1929, Seán MacNeela who died on hunger strike in 1940, and Paddy McGrath who was executed in 1940 and reburied in 1948.

In 1942, Brian spoke at the funeral of Mary MacSwiney. Several years before, he had given a lecture of her brother, Terence MacSwiney, at Cork Opera House. Mary told him: “The highest praise I can give your lecture is that it was worthy of him”.

Achievements

In 1937, Brian and his old comrade Joe Clarke began publishing a new newspaper, the Wolfe Tone Weekly, it survived for two years until it was banned by the de Valera government. Through the 1940’s Brian supported the Republican prisoners who were interned and jailed throughout the country. Those who were executed he paid tribute to with a series of leaflets.

Undoubtedly, one of Brian’s greatest achievements was the publication of the Wolfe Tone Annual, which he singlehandedly researched, wrote, edited and produced for thirty years from 1932. He told the true facts of Irish history, dealing with a separate period in each annual.

The 1944 issue, which dealt with Irish Nationality and the story of Father Eoghan Ó Gramhnaigh, the language revivalist, was banned by the Free State government and was not published until the following year.

In the last page of the Wolfe Tone Annual of 1962, Brian addressed the youth of Ireland: “Learn Ireland’s language, her story, learn to know her and to love her”, he said.

His very last words of that issue were: “There can be no self-respect between us and our neighbours until every sod of Irish soil is free of British occupation. Until that day comes, there will always be suffering and martyrdom”.

Throughout his long life, Brian Ó hUiginn remained remarkably consistent to the ideals he accepted in his youth. Time may have changed, political parties may have come and gone, but Ireland was still neither free nor Gaelic. So for him, the task remained.

Consistency

His attitude towards the Irish language illustrates this consistency. He was not content to learn Irish, to teach it, to write it, to urge other to learn and speak it. He brought his family up as Irish speakers and never spoke English to them. For him that was the logical and honourable way for an Irish teacher to behave.

Brian died while praying in church in Clontarf in 1963.

His teaching for a free, Gaelic, self-reliant Ireland are just as relevant and just as necessary today as they were one hundred years ago.

Those great ideals for which Brian and his comrades worked so hard and for so long are now under the greatest threat yet. It will eventually take people like Brian to win the day.

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