Saturday, August 25, 2018


I'm doing this post in English though many might feel it should be in Irish, the language in which Nollaig expressed himself at every available opportunity.

I knew Nollaig, but not well. And it was purely through Irish language circles and activities that I knew him, though I have a vague memory of once coming across him at an Eisteddfod.

Nollaig died in 2008, aged 65, and his daughter has edited a book in his honour. It consists of short essays about him by people who knew him, many of them close friends. The book is in Irish and is titled Nollaig Ó Gadhra - Cuimhní Cairde (remembered by friends).

It was only in reading the book that I realised Nollaig's full influence across a wide range of Irish life, both through Irish and English, and the wide range of his friends and those he influenced or who were an inspiration to him from right around the world.

And that's why this post is in English. Whatever about Nollaig's high profile across the Irish language community, he had no similar public profile in the English language community generally. Yet his opinions and advice were both given and sought by many in positions of power and influence.

I'll just give a flavour of some of the contributions. But first the image at the head of this post, and which appears on the cover of the book.

John McDonagh is a New York taxi driver who has presented a radio programme Radio Free Éireann for the last thirty years. Nollaig was a regular contributor. John explains, in his contribution, that a co-presenter on the programme, the famous Irish-American artist, Brian Mór Ó Baoighill, drew Nollaig as Willie Loman, portraying him as a travelling salesman for the Irish language, with his case full of books and a newspaper to hand. The original Willie Loman is the central character in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman.

While its a great illustration, we have to be careful not to draw the parallel too far. Willie was a loser, Nollaig was not.

There are twenty one contributors to this book from all walks of life, and the content is a tribute to Nollaig's life's work. I'm just going to hit a few remarks from some of them.

Seán Duignan was Government Press Secretary and Nollaig was on to him daily with his own analysis of what was going on and recommendations of how to deal with it. And lest you think Nollaig was just a pest, Albert Reynolds, then Taoiseach, had great respect for his views. He specifically instructed Duignan to stay in touch with Nollaig, saying that he was a true republican on a par with his own Northern Ireland advisor, Martin Mansergh and Seán Ó hUiginn from the Deparment of Foreign Affairs.

One bit of Nollaig's advice that Albert didn't manage to put sufficiently into practice ended up costing him his career. "Now, what's Bertie up to? Albert needs to keep an eye on him. Tell him I told you that."

Máire Geoghegan Quinn is a Fianna Fáil politician. She held a number of Ministerial positions before becoming Ireland's member of the EU Court of Auditors and then an EU Commissioner. She was at one stage in contention for the leadership of Fianna Fáil. She also records receiving ongoing advice from Nollaig and marvels at his command of so many of the areas she was dealing with over the years.

Nollaig was advising Geoghan Quinn when she was setting up the legislative and financial underpinnings for Irish language television. It was around then that she realised that Nollaig was also advising her advisor!

Maolsheachlainn Ó Caollaí is described as an Irish language enthusiast and former President of Conradh na Gaeilge. He describes Nollaig as a man in a hurry. He comments that Nollaig would ring the Pope himself if he thought the situation called for it. I don't think he ever did though, so we'll never know if he would have been put through.

He did take a call from Cardinal Daly after he had corrected some statement the Cardinal had put out. I don't think the Cardinal was at all pleased. But then Nollaig would always correct people to their face if he thought they were in the wrong. Ó Caollaí remarks that it was amazing the range of people who were prepared to take calls from Nollaig, whether out of respect or out of fear.

Seán Ó Cuirreáin worked in Raidió na Gaeltachta and was also a recipient of ongoing advice from Nollaig. He remarks on some of the people Nollaig was in correspondence with: J K Galbraith, J Bowyer Bell, Noam Chomsky, and Reg Hindley, author of The Death of the Irish Language. Ó Cuirreáin became the first Irish Language Commissioner in 2004 but resigned in protest at the State's language policy in 2013.

Éamon Ó Cuív, who was also a friend, comments on Nollaig's capability and professionalism as a journalist. Éamon is Dev's grandson and has held a number of Ministerial posts. He recounts a story from Daonscoil na Mumhan (Munster Folk School). Éamon was making the point that in a United Ireland some recognition would have to be given to the identity of Northern Unionists. By way of example, he said he would have no objection to Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. Nollaig seized on this remark and included it in a press release from the meeting (with Éamon's agreement). There was no end to the publicity this generated, all of which was very much to the benefit of the Daonscoil. Éamon also remarks on Nollaig's diligence as a gatherer of information and on the wide spread of his sources.

Pádraic Ó Gaora who many people may recognise from his long association with RTÉ has a story about Nollaig and Paddy Malone (Pádraig Ua Maoileoin - grandson of the islander Tomás Ó Criomhthain). Nollaig used to pester Paddy when he got stuck on some obscure Irish phrase in the newsroom. Now Paddy could be moody and one afternoon Nollaig hit him at just the wrong time. There followed an RTFM moment with Paddy expleting "Here Nollaig, tis all here" as he shoved a pile of dictionaries in Nollaig's direction. Nollaig quickly got over it and next day they were back bosom buddies.

Regina Uí Chollatáin heads up the school of Irish in UCC. I have never met her but I see her name all over the place and know she is held in high regard by people whose opinions I respect. I have to say this in advance of commenting on the magnificent peroration she has written to this book. While she may not always have agreed with Nollaig's views one hundred per cent, she is unqualified in her praise of his personal qualities, his role as an intellectual journalist - operating on a level above most others, and his abilities as a researcher, historian and motivator. Above all she sees him devoting his life to his vision of an Ireland where the Irish language would be woven into the fabric of society.

I'll finish on a personal anecdote. In 1971 I won a competition in Oireachtas na Gaeilge. It was for a radio programme and mine was a comparison between the state of the protest song in Ireland and Welsh Wales at the time. The emotional value of the prize for me increased enormously when I found out that Nollaig had also been in the competition. Had he not been so good it wouldn't have mattered.

Máirín deserves great credit for getting this wonderful tribute together in this book. Her own seventeen page overview of her father is a great read.

Tig leat Máirín a chloisteáil faoi agallamh ag Máirín Hurdall ar Raidió Fáilte ag caint faoina hathair Nollaig.

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