Popular Derry Journal Irish teacher celebrated in new book

Brian Ó Cianaigh was a prominent Irish language teacher, poet, actor, singer and campaigner in the late 19th and early 20th century but he has slipped under the radar since his death in 1943.

That all changed when Brian’s grandson, Séamus Ó Cinnéide, started looking into the life of his grandfather and found a wealth of writings and lessons his grandad completed in his lifetime, including ten years worth of Irish language lessons in the Derry Journal.

Séamus started collecting everything he could find by and about his grandfather and he recently published the first of two books on Brian Ó Cianaigh’s life and literary work, with editor Nollaig Mac Congáil. The book, titled Brian Ó Cianaigh: Ceannródaí Ildánach Gaeilge as Ard An Rátha, is predominantly in Irish with clippings from the ‘Journal’ and other publications throughout Ó Cianaigh’s life. The second book, which is yet to be published, will be in English and feature Ó Cianaigh’s English works.

Séamus said: “I’ve been fascinated by my grandfather since I was a child. We only knew he was an Irish teacher and that he was at the forefront of Irish language things but that was it. My granda was 66 when he died in 1943 and left my granny with seven children. With emigration in those days, I think my granny just kept quiet about everything. All her children had to speak English to leave and I think a lot of families were the same. When you’re in poverty, the language doesn’t mean a lot to you.

Séamus Ó Cinnéide with the recently published book about his grandfather Brian Ó Cianaigh. Brian was a pioneer of the Irish language whis his dramas and books and he also wrote Irish lessons for the Derry Journal in the mid 1930s and 1940s. Séamus' top is also embroidered with his grandfathers signature from a letter he wrote to Pádraig Mac Piarais.

“I had always been collecting information about my grandad but I started researching properly in 2016. I interviewed my auntie Kathleen a few years ago, she died just three weeks short of her hundredth birthday, and she was delighted that I had started working on this because she was so fond of her father. Kathleen remembers acting in dramas and plays with her sisters when they were younger which was obviously influenced by their father.

“I wrote an essay about my grandfather a few years ago and I gave that to Michael D. Higgins. I then went as far back as I could and found the first newspaper clippings from or about my grandad. I would spend every morning typing away with the birds singing and I loved it! I would take a picture of the clipping then type it up from my phone.

“In the Derry Journal, my granda’s column was called ‘Are You Learning Irish’. He would meet with his friend Dan by the fire and they would chat about the weather or the war and my granda would write it word for word, just as they spoke it. When I was typing it up, I realised that he documented every week of what life was like in that period. I then created a book on Amazon, self published, called ‘Pull up a chair’ and it’s a perfect snapshot of life in the 1930s.

“I was a bit stuck as to where to go with the book but Nollaig Mac Congáil gave a lecture in Galway and said that Brian Ó Cianaigh was someone who should be researched more because of the work he did. I had so much work done on my grandfather already so I was delighted! Nollaig got in touch with me and we got to work on the book.

Séamus Ó Cinnéide, owner of Abbey Guest House in the Bogside. Séamus wrote a book on his grandfather Brian Ó Cianaigh, who wrote Irish lessons for the Derry Journalup until his death in March 1943.

“My grandfather gave me the passion for the language. He was like the missing link in my life. He was there all along and no one knew anything about him. My mother is 85 now and she’s the only surviving child of his. She was the youngest and was only five when he died so she had little memory of her father.

“I left school at 15 and I never thought I would end up writing books myself but I have five written now, some yet to be published, and that’s all because of my granda.

“I’m so proud of him. It’s amazing how you can get to know someone just by reading about them and the things they wrote.

“Now with the Derry Journal turning 250 this year, I thought it would be a sin to let the year go by without mentioning one of the first Irish columnists.”

Brian Ó Cianaigh by Derry artist Aodhain Curran.

When Ó Cianaigh died, his lessons were so extensive and thorough that the ‘Journal’ republished every lesson from the start with the message: “With last Monday’s instalment Brian O’Keeney, the noted Gaelic teacher, author, playwright and poet, completed ten years of this Students’ Column. The next day this great and distinguished Gael passed to his reward. No feature in the ‘Journal’ was more popular or more deeply appreciated. Again and again we have received tributes to its value from both teachers and students. Very many of those who began their study of Gaelic with the first conversation lessons ten years ago are today fluent speakers and writers of the language.”

Brian Ó Cianaigh was the forefront of Irish language and culture both at home and in America. Although he was from Ardara, he taught Irish in a loft in Strabane to 1,500 people and he organised the Gaelic Feis in Strabane 1903, where over 7,000 people attended. This then became known as ‘Ulsters Greatest Feis’.

Séamus said: “In 1902, he wrote Easy Lessons in Modern Irish. This was commissioned for National Schools but would have been used in schools in Derry, such as St Columb’s College. He won many national prizes in his lifetime and in 1931 he won the All Ireland Ulster Feis with his standalone play ‘Life in Donegal’. Douglas Hyde came second and another Ulster Gael came third. He was an actor in the first ever Irish stage drama in New York and he produced and acted in the second one, Seaghan Ruadh. Thousands of people were reported to have come to the Turn Verein Hall to see his shows in America.

“On St Patrick’s Day weekend in 2002, some family members of mines were going to New York with their piping band but I couldn’t afford to go. I met an American here at home who told me I could stay in his apartment there so myself, my brother and sister-in-law all went together. In 2018, again on St Patrick’s Day, a woman called Dr Síofra Aiken told me she saw something about my granda so she sent me some snippets about him. There was a cutting about his play on March 13, the day I flew to America, in the Turn Verein Hall in 1903. I looked into that theatre and it turns out that the cafe where I picked up my key in 2002 was the spot where the theatre stood before it was demolished. So 99 years later, on the same date, I stand on the spot where my granda had performed!

'Are You Learning Irish?' was Brian Ó Cianaigh/O'Kenney's Irish lesson in the Derry Journal which spanned ten years. Brian died on March 16 1943, the day after his last Irish lesson was published. His lessons were then repeated in the 'Journal'.

“My grandads two loves were his country and his language. I couldn’t bring the English book out first because it wouldn’t be right. We have a whole new volume of lectures for the English book and I’m just so proud of him. You can see from the next book that he was a revolutionary.

“If I wasn’t interested in him, all this would be lost forever. It’s brought me closer to my grandad and to my language. I think every person should learn Irish. You don’t have to be fluent, just learn wee bits and throw it about like confetti!”

Séamus and Nollaig’s book, Brian Ó Cianaigh: Ceannródaí Ildánach Gaeilge as Ard An Rátha, is available online and in local bookstores.

The first of Brian's Irish lessons was republished with his death notice.
'Are You Learning Irish?' one of Brian Ó Cianaigh's Irish lessons in the 'Journal'.
One of Brian Ó Cianaigh's Irish lessons in the Derry Journal in 1943.
An original copy of 'Easy Lessons in Modern Irish' a book made by Brian Ó Cianaigh in 1903. There were three other parts which came after.