Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde in Irish) (17 January 1860 - 12 July 1949) was a Gaelic scholar who served as the first President of Ireland between 1938 and 1945.
Hyde was born in Frenchpark in County Roscommon, where his father, Arthur Hyde was the local Church of Ireland rector. While a young man he became fascinated with hearing the old people in the locality speak the Irish language, a language looked down on at the time by many and seen as "backward" and "old fashioned". Rejecting family pressure that like past generations of Hydes he follow a career in the Church, Hyde instead became an academic. He entered Trinity College, Dublin where he became fluent in French, Latin, German, Greek and Hebrew. His passion for Irish, already a language in severe decline, led him to found the Gaelic League, or in Irish, Conradh na nGaeilge, in the hope of saving it from extinction.
Conradh na nGaeilge
Hyde's Irish language movement, initially seen as eccentric, gained a mass following throughout the island. He published a pamphlet called The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland, arguing that Ireland should follow her own traditions in language, literature and even in dress. (Hyde began wearing knee-length breeches rather than trousers, in the mistaken belief that they were a traditional Irish outfit.) Many of the new generation of Irish leaders who played a central role in the fight for Irish independence in the early twentieth century, including Patrick Pearse, Eamon de Valera (who married his Irish teacher Sinead Flanagan), Michael Collins, and Ernest Blythe first became politicised and passionate about Irish independence through their involvement in Conradh na nGaeilge (Gaelic League). Hyde himself however felt uncomfortable at the growing politicisation of his movement and resigned the presidency in 1915.
Senator, then hounded from politics by extremists
Hyde had no association with Sinn Féin and with the Independence movement. He did however accept appointment to Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Irish Free State's Oireachtas (parliament) from his friend, the President of the Executive Council W.T. Cosgrave. However his tenure was shortlived. In November 1925 the house moved from being an appointed to an elected body. Hyde contested the election, which was based on one state-wide constituency, but a smear by a far right wing organisation, the Catholic Truth Society , based on his supposed support for divorce (in fact he was anti-divorce) and his Protestantism, and promoted by the CTS secretary in the letters column of the Irish Independent, fatally damaged his chances and he lost his seat. He returned to academia, as Professor of Irish at University College Dublin, where one of his students was future Attorney-General and President of Ireland Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.
President of Ireland
In April 1938, by now retired from academia, Douglas was plucked from retirement by Taoiseach Eamon de Valera and appointed to the new Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the new Éire which had replaced the Irish Free State. Again his tenure proved short, even shorter than before. But this time it was because, on the suggestion of Fine Gael in inter-party negotiations to choose a first President of Ireland, Hyde had been chosen to take on the office. He was selected for a number of reasons.
- Both wanted to purge the humiliation that had occurred when after an extremist smear he had lost his Senate seat in 1925;
- Both wanted a president who would prove that there was no danger that the new president would become an authoritarian dictator in Ireland, a widespread fear when the new constitution was being discussed in 1937;
- Both wanted to pay tribute to Hyde's Conradh na nGaeilge role in achieving Irish independence.
- Both wanted to choose a non-Catholic to disprove the claim that the State was a Catholic state.1
Hyde was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland in June 1938. He moved into the long vacant Viceregal Lodge (former residence of the Governors-General of the Irish Free State and before that the Lords Lieutenant of Ireland), now renamed Áras an Uachtaráin (sometimes spelt Árus an Uachtaráin). Ironically, Hyde's recitation of the Presidential Declaration of Office in his native Roscommon Irish dialect, remains one of the few recordings of a dialect that has long disappeared and of which Hyde himself was one of the last users.
'Fine and scholarly old gentleman' says Roosevelt
Hyde, with his handlebar moustache and warm personality was a popular president. United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt called President Hyde a "fine and scholarly old gentleman", while President Hyde and King George VI (who still was legally 'King of Ireland' and would remain so until 1 April 1949) corresponded about stamp collecting. However in April 1940 he suffered a massive stroke. Plans were made for his lying-in-state and state funeral, but to the surprise of everyone he survived, albeit paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
He remained mentally alert and capable during his remaining five years in office, but relatively out of sight. However untrue rumours spread suggesting that Hyde was now senile, and that, as had been the case in his younger days, he had developed an eye for the ladies, specifically his young nurse (whom he was rumoured to have asked him to marry him, his wife having died early in his term) and household staff. Though untrue, the rumours reached such a level that Myles Na Gopaleen, the famed satirist, wrote an obscene limerick about the President's rumoured condition:
There once was a man called an t-Uachtaráin2
who lived in Áras an Uachtaráin,
He was fond of his nookie,
he had a go at the cookie,
And there is the couch that he f-uchtaráin. (pronounced 'fucked her on.')
Though not exactly one of Na nGopaleen's best limericks, it gained widespread currency, adding to rumours about the mental and physical state of the elderly, wheelchair-bound president. In fact all the documentary evidence in the archives suggests that Hyde was not senile (and, confined to a wheelchair, was hardly likely, even if he wanted to, to be engaging in sexual activity with staff). Hyde was sufficiently capable to deal with a crisis in 1944 when de Valera's government unexpectedly collapsed in a vote on the Transport Bill and the President had to decide whether or not to grant an election to de Valera.3 (He granted the election.)
Retirement and death
Hyde left office on 24 June 1945. Due to his ill-health he did not return to his Roscommon home Ratra, which had lain empty since the death of his wife early in his term. Instead he was moved into the former Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant's residence in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, which he renamed Little Ratra and where he lived out the remaining four years of his life. He died quietly at 10pm on 12 July 1949.
As a former President of Ireland he was accorded a state funeral. One protocol problem arose; as an Anglican his funeral service took place in Dublin's Church of Ireland St. Patrick's Cathedral. However contemporary religious rules prohibited Roman Catholics from attending services in Protestant churches. As a result the entirely Catholic cabinet had to remain outside the cathedral while Hyde's funeral took place, they then joined the cortegé when his coffin left the cathedral. Eamon de Valera, by now Leader of the Opposition, was represented by a senior Fianna Fáil figure who was a member of the Church of Ireland, Erskine Childers, a future President of Ireland himself.
Hyde Museum in Roscommon
Hyde was buried in his native Roscommon. His father's old church is now a museum dedicated to showing memorabilia about Douglas Hyde, the Anglican squire who took up the cause of the Irish language and when ended up as the first President of Ireland.
1 Critics accused de Valera of introducing a 'Catholic constitution' that discriminated against non-Catholics. In fact his constitution gave Catholicism a legally meaningless "special position" while 'recognising' the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and others including - most controversially for the mid 1930s - the Jewish Community. This recognition and the failure of de Valera to make Catholicism in Ireland the established church (akin to the established Church of England in England) infuriated right wing Catholic groups, specifically those who had hounded Hyde in 1925. Even de Valera's controversial ban on divorce was publicly applauded by the Church of Ireland hierarchy.
2 An tUachtarán means simply The President in Irish.
3 Under the 1937 constitution the President of Ireland may grant or refuse a dissolution to a Taoiseach who has "ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann". If a dissolution is granted, a general election is proclaimed to fill the seats now vacated by the dissolution. However this means that for four to six weeks, until the new Dáil assembles, there is no Dáil in existence. Fearing that this gap might facilitate a German invasion during World War II (called The Emergency in Ireland), they knowing that no parliament could be called to deal with the invasion, de Valera passed an emergency extra-constitutional measure which allowed an election to be called separate from a dissolution, with the Dáil only being dissolved just before new Dáil would assemble, so ensuring the gap between Dála (plural of Dáil) would be too short to facilitate an invasion. Under the Emergency Powers Act the President could "refuse to proclaim a general election on the advice of a Taoiseach who had ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann". Hyde had that option, but after considering it with his senior advisor, Michael McDunphy, he opted to grant de Valera his election request.