Credit: Seán O'Sullivan 1930 held by UCC

ON THIS DAY: 13 OCTOBER 1889: Birth of Pádraig De Brún, priest, mathematician, poet, professor, Gaelic revivalist

Msgr. Pádraig de Brún was born in Grangemockler, Tipperary in October 1889. His father was a school teacher and the young Pádraig was an excellent student, talented with many natural gifts. He was especially interested in the history of Ireland and the Gaelic language. He was particularly good and excelled at maths and studied it at Clonliffe College under Éamonn De Valera. After finishing a BA and MA, he won a travelling scholarship in mathematics and mathematical physics, enabling him to embark on further studies in Paris. There he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1913 and in the same year he earned a DSc in mathematics from the Sorbonne under Emile Picard.

On return to Ireland he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at St Patricks College, Maynooth and was later elected to the senate of the National University of Ireland. He published works on advanced mathematics which he became to be most known for and celebrated for academically. He understood the most advanced theories and how to apply them in practical significance, both technically and philosophically. He was a distinguished figure in the academic world and at congresses on such matters and won accolades as far as Oslo, Rome and Cambridge.

As well as excelling in maths, he was a prolific writer of poetry in both languages but notably in Irish. He translated many classical works into Irish. Msgr. de Brún worked on Gaelic literature and education whilst simultaneously gaining influence and respect with his fellow Catholic clergymen. He authored religious works such as The Life of Jesus Christ, and translated Greek philosophies into Irish. Msgr. de Brún was a lifelong leader in the Gaelic Revivalist movement and was a regular visitor to and spending time in Gaeltacht areas. He envisioned a 20th century renaissance for Irish culture, not unlike the Italian renaissance, and embarked on a plan for education completely through the Irish language. It was his dream to enrich Gaelic Irelands cultural heritage which were abandoned due to colonization and brutality.

As a priest, he was involved on the military side of the nationalist movement; he was a close friend of the executed 1916 leader Seán Mac Diarmada, and visited him before his execution to give him solace and comfort. He was grief-stricken over the deaths of the leaders of the Easter Rising; a reader of Pádraig Pearse, Msgr. de Brún canvassed for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election.

He was convinced that Ireland needed to make a “heroic effort to smash the chains that bound her in bondage to retain her nationhood.”

He continued his clerical duties during the War of Independence, as his childhood neighbour, Dan Hogan, fought with the IRA. He took the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil war and in 1923 he was arrested by the Free State for carrying Anti-Treaty documents. He wrote religious elegies for fallen IRA leaders.

A man of great intellect, he had a massive capacity to appreciate and understand maths, physics, language, art, literature and spoke fluently Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, English and of course Irish which he had set about early in life to master. A “scintillating conversationalist, his friend group ranged from De Valera to Erwin Schrödinger.

He died on 5th June 1960. His brother was Cardinal Michael Browne and his sister Margaret married Seán McEntee and they had a daughter, the noted Irish language scholar, Máire Mhac an tSaoi.

At the time of his death, the president of the day noted:

“An unrivalled student career was finally crowned by his winning, with his Master’s Degree in Mathematical Science, the National University’s premier award, the Travelling Studentship. A couple of years later, after studies at the Sorbonne, he secured with the highest distinction a Doctorate of Science in the University of Paris . He then continued his studies at Göttingen, after which he became Professor of Mathematics at Maynooth College.”


Dr Pádraig De Brún by Seán O’Sullivan, painted in 1930. Image credit: Estate of Aloys Fleischmann


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