Patrick Joseph Conroy (Pádraic Ó Conaire) was born in Galway City in 1882 to middle-class Catholic publicans. Following the untimely deaths of his parents (his father in 1887 and his mother in 1894), he was reared by extended family members in the Connemara Gaeltacht and Co Clare. He attended Rockwell College, County Tipperary, before transferring to Blackrock College in Dublin. In 1899, he finished school without completing his final exams and took a lowly position in the Civil Service in London. There, Ó Conaire joined the London Branch of the Gaelic League and flourished as an Irish-language teacher and writer, publishing his first short story, An t-Iascaire agus an File (‘The Fisherman and the Poet’), in An Claidheamh Soluis in 1901. Widely read and influenced by European literary models, Ó Conaire wrote in simple, direct Irish about the grim reality of life in contemporary Ireland, dealing with themes such as poverty, emigration, isolation, vagrancy, alcoholism, despair and mental illness.
In 1906, he won an Oireachtas award for short fiction for his stark story Nora Mhárcais Bhig (‘Nora, Daughter of Little Marcus’) about a poor Connemara girl who falls into a life of drink and prostitution when she emigrates to London, and is eventually disowned by her father. Though not a native speaker in the strict sense, he became the most innovative Irish-language writer to emerge from the Gaelic Revival, publishing his novella Deoraíocht (‘Exile’) in 1910 and his collection of short stories An Chéad Chloch (‘The First Stone’) in 1914 to great acclaim.
Described as Ó Conaire’s ‘last important creative work’, each of the seven stories – a novella and six short stories – deals with the way the Rising intervenes in the lives of Irish men and women. Typically, Ó Conaire wrote about: ordinary people, living ordinary lives, of fishermen, domestics, married women and spinsters, country and small town types, that is to say of the life and of the people he knew. He wrote largely of people whose lives were not very happy, who made mistakes, did the wrong thing at the crucial time, that is to say he wrote of life realistically. For him, there are no sinners, only unlucky ones and unfortunates.
He died on a visit to Dublin on 6 October 1928 after complaining of internal pains while at the head office of the Gaelic League. He was 46.
A statue of Ó Conaire was unveiled in 1935 by Éamon de Valera in Eyre Square in the heart of Galway City. It was popular with tourists until it was decapitated by four Co Armagh men in 1999. It was repaired at a cost of £50,000 and moved to Galway City Museum in 2004. Galway City Council investigated installing a replica at the Eyre Square site.
Featured Image | Pádraic Ó Conaire grave | Bohermore cemetery, Co Galway
Image | Pádraic Ó Conaire statue | Eyre Square, Co Galway | Galway City Museum