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ON THIS DAY: 19 NOVEMBER 1916: Death of Fr Michael Patrick Hickey, Irish language activist

Michael Patrick O’Hickey was born in Carrickbeg,  Waterford on the 12th March 1861. His mother died at an early age and his father remarried. He had an older borther and a younger half brother.

He studied for the priesthood in St. Johns College Waterford and is ordainted a priest in 1884. He is an active member of Conradh na Gaeilge and studied under the noted Irish scholar Sean Plemion.

He was assigned to the Scottish Mission in the diocese of Galloway and spent nine years there working in different parishs. In 1893, he returned to Waterford continuing his work as a preist there. In 1896 he applied for the position of Professor of Irish in Maynooth College. He was supported by the former ailing Fr. Eugene O’Growney, an tAn tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire, Eoin Mac Neill, Douglas Hyde, Padraig MacPiarais and others. He was a unanimous choice.

He was appointed in 1906 and came to the position as a committed nationalist and Gaelic revivalist, well known for his articles and writings at the time.  He had a strong character with integrity but was also headstrong and uncompromising. He did not waver on the issues he felt were of utmost importance.  He continued writing and promoting the Irish language and the number of students studying Irish in Maynooth rose sharply.

His strong character brought him into conflict with the Maynooth authorities and head of the college, Dr. Mannix. He, however, had an ally in Professor of Moral Theology Walter McDonald who was controversial in his own right.

This is what happened with regard to his dismissal.  The National University of Ireland was established in 1908. Soon afterwards the Gaelic League took up a position on the necessity of compulsory Irish for the new university.

This view was opposed by others in the Church including Fr. William Delaney, a senator of the NUI and president of the Catholic University College who spoke out against the proposal.  The NUI had five clerical senators, including Dr. Mannix, and it was Fr O’Hickey’s view, and others, that the majority of them agreed with William Delaney.  He was correct.  He wanted to influence the bishops in this regard and in a number of strongly worded letters and in a lecture to the students he made the case for compulsory Irish in NUI. It was published on the 19th December, the same day the bishops were meeting, where they issued a statement on the university question opposing compulsory Irish.

The bishop of Waterford wrote to him reprimanding him. Ó hIcí  replied, defending his position, and this reply letter was taken as a further act of insubordination.

He was summoned to a hearing on 20th June 1909. Present were cardinals, two archbishops and four bishops . They read passages from his letter that they found offence too. Ó hIcí  explained that this is what he believed, was sorry that they were offended and left the room.

The governing body of Maynooth met on 22nd June and Ó hIcí  was visited that same day by the Bishop of Waterford; he threatened with resignation if he did not stand down.

He refused to resign and was summoned to the boardroom again. He refused to resign and left Maynooth. He wrote again to the bishops defending his decision and contesting their actions.

On Thursday, 24th June a statement appeared in the Irish Times that Ó hIcí  had resigned his post. He denied this in a letter to the papers. On the 29th June, the actual dismissal took place.  Within and outside the college, the Maynooth authorities and the bishops came under scrutiny and criticism. They replied that had he compromised, this would not have happened.

He appealed his dismissal to the Vatican, with the assistance of Prof McDonald, and travelled to Rome for a papal tribunal in 1910. Ó hIcí was especially hurt by allegations of disloyalty made by the Maynooth authorities considering his high value on honesty and integrity.  He wanted a legal decision and vindication. The church authorities in Ireland made every effort to have the tribunal scrapped. Unfortunately, he was met with unfavourable verdict. Rumours were spread about him back home that he was incompetent and arrogant. The case dragged on for years with delays and further delays. The bishops and Dr Mannix were to come to Rome to give evidence but they never came. They didn’t really have a case against Ó hÍcí but were offended by his non compliance. Another tribunal was suggested by the papal authorities but with no resources and very little money Ó hIcí felt he had no option and could not undertake the expense of another tribunal.

He returned to Ireland in 1916 and died later that year in his brother’s house in Waterford. He is buried in the Hickey family plot in Carrickbeg. He wrote before his death”

“I have been defeated, not because I was wanting in arguments but because I would not plead before you as you would have liked to hear me plead or appeal to you weeping and wailing, or say and do many other things which I maintain are unworthy of me but which you have been accustomed to from other men. But when I was defending myself I thought that I ought not to do anything unmanly because of the danger which I ran and I have not changed my mind now. I would very much rather to defend myself as I did and die, than as you would have me do and live”

He is known under his name An tAthair Micheál Ó hIcí but also can be found as Michael O’Hickey and Michael Hickey.

Podcast first broadcast on 8th December 1979 on Radio 1


From this book The True National Idea (1898)

“Our only possible perfection consists in the development of the Gaelic nature we have inherited from our forefathers. Centuries of real development, of true civilisation, of noble fidelity to all the ideals that men can worship, have fixed forever the national character of Ireland; and if we be not true to that character, if we be not genuine Irishmen, we can never be perfect men.”



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