Amhlaoibh O’Súilleabháin’s diary covers the period 1827 – 1835 and is a fascinating social commentary on the period covered. By jotting down notes on daily activities he has left us a lively and frank account of life in a small town during a particularly turbulent and important period in Irish history. O’Sullivan has left us with a remarkable contribution to the social history of Ireland as seen from the inside by a man of wide interests and deep understanding, writes JIM REES
Ireland boasts no fewer than four Noble laureates for Literature, and a list of our ground-breaking novelists and poets reads like a Who’s Who of the world’s greatest literary talents.
A few years ago, a study showed that as many as one-in-ten of us feel the compulsion to write, whether it’s entering short story competitions, writing poetry, or on-line blogging.
What makes us do it?
The chances of earning a living from writing are even worse than the odds of winning the Lotto, but for most writers that’s of secondary importance. For many it is enough just to see their thoughts in print.
That’s why the vast majority of writers are diarists.
Keeping a diary can be an immensely private occupation. It isn’t meant for anyone else’s eyes. But sometimes, diaries do come into the public domain either because the writer wants to publish them as memoirs – an increasingly popular literary genre – or because enough time has elapsed to make a diary an important historical document.
Such was the case with ‘Cín Lae Amhlaoibh’, written in Irish by a county Kilkenny school teacher (among his many other professions and talents) and published many years later in English translation under the title ‘The Diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan’.
Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, or Humphrey O’Sullivan, was born in Killarney on 1 May 1780. His father, Donncha, was a hedge-school master who decided that the family might fare better in Waterford. Amhlaoibh was about nine years old at that time and, for some reason, they were soon on the move again, this time headed to the County Kilkenny town of Callan.
Amhlaoibh followed his father into the teaching profession and they ran a small school outside the town. When Donncha died in 1808, Amhlaoibh decided to move into Callan itself, where he set up his own very successful establishment.
He taught mathematics, English, geography and, given his love of the Irish language, it is probable that he also taught Gaeilge in an effort to instil an appreciation of native culture in his students.
He also introduced aspects of the natural world into his lessons.
Despite the success of his school, at one time numbering 120 pupils, Amhlaoibh seems to have called a halt to his teaching days sometime before 1824. He was then forty-four and had several strings to his bow.
Unfortunately, this was in the period before he started keeping a diary, so it’s difficult to say why he changed direction.
Here’s what we do know:-
In 1825, the government published a report on the state of education in Ireland. Amhlaoibh’s brother’s school, which was also in Callan, is listed, but Amhlaoibh’s school, or even his name as a teacher, does not appear in the record, although it is possible that he was teaching in his brother’s school.
What makes this unlikely, however, is the fact that he was listed as a linen draper in a trade directory of 1824.
In fact, he was listed as a draper who also sold meal. It’s an odd combination, but it is indicative of the nature of this extraordinary man. Here was someone who didn’t feel trammelled by labels. He saw nothing wrong in diversification. If it worked, it worked.
Today, there is a tendency to be ‘one thing or the other’. Businesses are told to specialise, and finance companies frown on anyone whose business plan is not strait-jacketed to one thing and one thing only.
This would not have suited Amhlaoibh at all. He loved trying new ventures, changing courses at various times in his life. Being an urban entrepreneur suited him, but at the same time he sowed crops and kept pigs.
Yet, he missed teaching. The proof of this is that he re-opened his school in May 1829. Soon, he had thirty students, but it was short-lived and he closed the school for the last time in 1831.
Why he went back to teaching is anyone’s guess, because his other business interests were thriving. Not only that, he was becoming increasingly aware of his rising position in local society and his conscience was often pricked by the deprivation that surrounded him.
English and continental tourists to Ireland often remarked on the extreme poverty that plagued the country. Many of the descriptions are harrowing, and Callan was deemed to be one of the poorest towns anywhere in Ireland.
Amhlaoibh was only too conscious of this desperate situation. He had started keeping a diary in January 1827 and references to the horrific living conditions of many of the townspeople crop up time and time again.
He was not content with merely recording their sufferings, he wanted to do something to alleviate them.
When the local landlord, Lord Clifden, tried to clear the commonage of hovels in which the poor lived, Amhlaoibh was a member of a group who opposed him.
He distributed yellow meal to the hungry on a regular basis, and even went bail for a young out-of-work labourer who had found himself on the wrong side of the law.
When an old beggar died without the means of obtaining a decent burial, Amhlaoibh started a collection to give the woman a proper funeral.
His personal charisma allowed him to cross social and religious barriers, and he used this affability to collect signatures in support of Catholic Emancipation – even getting non-Catholic friends to add their names to ‘The Protestant Declaration in favour of Catholic Emancipation’.
He also collected the Catholic Rent (a fund for Daniel O’Connell’s campaign), and spoke in Irish at a ‘monster meeting’ at Ballyhale not far from his home.
Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin was certainly a man of many parts, but he is now best remembered for his diaries. Through their pages modern readers can be transported back to a time and way of life long gone. He recorded the insignificant details as well as the wider picture and it is this simple style that makes the content spring to life.
He refers to the weather: ‘dark dour January … no flowers to be seen except the daisy and the furze blossom’. He tells of going for walks with friends to places of historical interest. In fact, several times he refers to himself as a historian, so it is possible that he realised that someday his diaries would be of great interest to social historians.
This raises an important point.
Ó Súilleabháin was greatly saddened by the inescapable fact that his beloved Irish language was rapidly in decline. Yet, he chose to keep his diaries in Irish.
Were there times when he wondered if they would be read and understood a century or two into the future? If the language was doomed, the historian in him must have questioned what value they would be as historical records.
The diaries, which he wrote in copybooks and old account ledgers, show that his business went from strength to strength and Amhlaoibh travelled widely for the time. Transactions took him to Dublin, Clonmel and Waterford.
His entries about Bianconi cars and other aspects of travelling in Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s make fascinating reading.
He also describes local hurling matches, political meetings, rowdyism and faction-fighting. He collected pieces of folklore and constantly bemoaned the fact that Irish culture was being eroded on a daily basis.
He amassed an impressive collection of manuscripts and books in both Irish and English. He composed poetry, wrote stories and sketched the world around him. Perhaps he burnt himself out, because he died in Callan in November 1838, at the age of fifty-eight.
The importance of his collection was soon realised and many of the manuscripts were bought by Hodges Figgis, the Dublin booksellers. These were later acquired by the Royal Irish Academy, where they are still preserved.
It was the diaries covering the period from January 1827 to July 1838, those scrap books in which he wrote of wakes and weddings, feasts and famines, music, dance and devilment, that are deemed as being of paramount importance.
Most accounts of everyday life in Ireland at that time were written by foreign tourists and other outsiders who were keen to impose their own agendas on what they saw and heard. Amhlaoibh’s accounts were written by a shrewd observer who was part and parcel of the life he recorded.
He covered major events such as the campaign for Catholic Emancipation, the Tithe Wars, secret societies, sports, drunkenness, faction fighting and a host of other activities. The important thing is, he covered them as only someone on the ground could cover them.
Fr Michael MacCraith edited the accounts for the Irish Texts Society. The results appeared in four volumes published between 1928 and 1931under the collective title of ‘Cinn-lae Amblaoibh Uí Súilleabháin’.
A modern edition by Tomás de Bhaldraithe was published in 1970 by Mercier Press as ‘Cín Lae Amhlaoibh’. Nine years later, the same editor translated it into English under the title ‘The Diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan’.
Hold on to your old diaries, they are potential time machines.