Douglas Hyde (Dubhghlas de hÍde) known as An Craoibhín Aoibhinn ("The Pleasant Little Branch"), was an Irish scholar of the Irish language who served as the first President of Ireland from 1938 to 1945. He founded the Gaelic League, one of the most influential cultural organisations in Ireland at the time.
Hyde was born at Longford House in Castlerea in County Roscommon, while his mother, Elizabeth née Oldfield (1834–1886) was on a short visit there. His father, Arthur Hyde, whose family were originally from Castlehyde, Fermoy, County Cork, was Church of Ireland rector of Kilmactranny, County Sligo from 1852 to 1867, and it was here that Hyde spent his early years. Arthur Hyde and Elizabeth Oldfield married in County Roscommon in 1852 and had three other children, Arthur (1853–79 in County Leitrim), John Oldfield (1854–96 in County Dublin), and Hugh (1856) Hyde. In 1867, his father was appointed prebendary and rector of Tibohine, and the family moved to neighbouring Frenchpark, in County Roscommon. He was home schooled by his father and his aunt due to a childhood illness.
While a young man he became fascinated with hearing the old people in the locality speak the Irish language. He was influenced in particular by the gamekeeper Seamus Hart and the wife of his friend, Mrs. Connolly. He was crushed when Hart died (Douglas was 14) and his interest in the Irish language, which was the first language he began to study in any detail, and which was his own undertaking, flagged for a while. However, he visited Dublin a number of times and realised that there were groups of people, just like him, interested in Irish, 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 would 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. A medallist of The College Historical Society, he was elected its President in 1931. His passion for Irish, already a language in severe decline, led him to found the Gaelic League, or in Irish, Conradh na Gaedhilge, in the hope of saving it from extinction.
Hyde married Lucy Cometina Kurtz, a German, in 1893 and had two daughters, Nuala and Úna.
Conradh na Gaedhilge
Hyde joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language around 1880, and between 1879 and 1884 he published more than a hundred pieces of Irish verse under the pen name "An Craoibhín Aoibhinn". The Irish language movement, initially seen as eccentric, gained a mass following throughout the island. Hyde helped establish the Gaelic Journal in 1892,and in November of the same year wrote a manifesto called The necessity for the de-anglicising the Irish nation, arguing that Ireland should follow her own traditions in language, literature and even in dress.
In 1893 he helped found the Gaelic League. It was set up to encourage the preservation Irish culture, its music, dances, and language. 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, Éamon de Valera (who married his Irish teacher Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin), Michael Collins, and Ernest Blythe first became politicised and passionate about Irish independence through their involvement in Conradh na Gaedhilge or (Gaelic League).
Hyde himself, however, felt uncomfortable at the growing politicisation of his movement (which had been infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, just like the Irish Volunteers and the Gaelic Athletic Association) and resigned the presidency in 1915; he was replaced reluctantly by co-Founder Eoin MacNeill.
Hyde had no association with Sinn Féin and 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, after the creation of the new state.
However, his tenure was short-lived. 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 religious organisation, the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, 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
Despite being placed in a position to shape the office of the presidency via precedent, Hyde by and large opted for a quiet, conservative interpretation of the office. His age and (after a paralysing stroke in April 1940) deteriorating health obligated him to schedule periods of rest throughout his days, and his lack of political experience caused him to defer to his advisers on questions of policy and discretionary powers, especially to his Secretary, Michael McDunphy.
Hyde, with his handlebar mustache 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 V 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 having to use a wheelchair.
Although the role of President of Ireland was, and is, largely ceremonial, Hyde did have a small number of important decisions to make during his presidency. He was confronted 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. He granted the election.
Retirement and Death
Hyde left office on 25 June 1945, opting not to nominate himself for a second term. 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, aged 89.