Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington and his influence on Irish language debates in the 1960s

Hugh Rowland


Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington (1909–1970) was an academic, activist and politician who championed many liberal causes during his lifetime. He campaigned against apartheid, corporal punishment and the destruction of Georgian Dublin. He also championed women’s rights and advocated separation of church and state. He was the only son of Frank and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, both prominent nationalists and members of the suffrage movement in pre-independent Ireland. Owen Sheehy Skeffington was a lecturer in French in Trinity College Dublin. He served two terms as an independent Senator in Seanad Éireann as part of the University of Dublin panel. He died in 1970.

It is the aim of this article to investigate the latter years of Sheehy Skeffington’s public life and in particular his role as a patron of the Language Freedom Movement (LFM) in the 1960s. The LFM was an urban social movement established in 1965. Its main aim was to challenge two elements of the state’s language policy, namely, the compulsory Irish requirement in order to obtain a Leaving Certificate and the compulsory language requirement in order to secure employment in the civil service. Sheehy Skeffington became a patron and a member of the LFM in March 1966, a month prior to the fifty-year commemoration of the Easter Rising. This commemoration, coupled with a new focus on economic development since 1958, inspired a re-evaluation and re-appraisal of state policy and rhetoric in various spheres including the Irish language.

Within this context of debate and questioning of the state language policy, it is the aim of this article to examine Owen Sheehy Skeffington’s opinions regarding the Irish language and the broader language policy, as it pertained to the Gaeltacht, in the late 1960s. This analysis is based on his own writings and correspondence in the Sheehy Skeffington Papers in the National Library of Ireland and in the LFM Papers in NUI, Galway. Contemporary newspaper articles, ephemera and biographical studies will also be included in the analysis, the aim of which is to elicit Sheehy Skeffington’s viewpoints on Irish in the context of his involvement and advocacy of liberal causes throughout his lifetime.

This article posits that early 20th century political nationalism, as expressed by the Irish Parliamentary Party, influenced and informed later language debates in the 1960s. It is argued that the same rational utilitarian ideology towards language, as espoused by some political nationalists and elements of the Irish Parliamentary Party, also came to the fore in the 1960s. This article highlights how that ideology manifested itself in the writings of Owen Sheehy Skeffington and in the LFM’s published materials.

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© COMHAR, 2019.
ISSN: 2009-8626