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A great ex-Jesuit

dineen_01This month marks the sesquicentenary not just of the Irish Province, but of Patrick Dinneen, the Irish lexicographer and historian,who was a Jesuit for twenty years. He was a Kerryman, born in 1860. There are no Jesuit houses near the boggy uplands of Sliabh Luachra, but a visiting Jesuit missioner  noticed the bright teenage Patrick, and persuaded his parents to send him to Clongowes, where he became friendly with a remarkable scholar, Fr McErlean. He joined the Jesuits at the age of twenty, but twenty years later felt his vocation was to immerse himself full-time in Irish studies, and he left the order. With 20-20 vision of his remarkably productive life, it seems a good decision, however painful – and Patrick kept some good Jesuit friends, one of whom, Aubrey Gwynn, was with him at his death. For a sense of what the Jesuits lost, read more.

His birth on Christmas Day is echoed in his second name, Stephen. While Latin countries readily avail of the Christian name Jesus, no such liberty would be taken in Kerry, and the feast of the following day, Stephen, is called into service instead.

He was educated at a nearby national school and St Brendan’s, Killarney. A Jesuit missioner persuaded him to move to Clongowes, where he became friendly with the great Fr McErlean, and was introduced by him to the riches of Maynooth College library. He joined the Jesuits in 1880, studied Classics, English and Mathematics at the Royal University, being taught by Gerard Manley Hopkins; taught Mathematics unhappily at Munget and Clongowes; joined the Gaelic League, and had a passionate love of Irish language and culture, to which he wanted to give his full energies. So in 1900 he left the Jesuits to study Irish full-time, initially living in a  caravan in Malahide.

It was a courageous decision to move from the protected environment of a Jesuit house to make his living at the age of 40 in the hurly burly of civil life. He still remained a priest, of course, but he was deprived of the privilege of saying Mass although he went to Mass every day for the rest of his life and was always known in Dublin as “Father Dinneen”. He was a leading figure in the Irish Texts Society, publishing editions of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, poems by Aogán Ó Rathaille and Piaras Feiritéar, and other works. He also wrote a novel and a play in Irish, and translated such works as Virgil’s Aeneid and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol into Irish.

His best-known work, however, is his Irish-English dictionary, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. The stock and plates of the dictionary were destroyed during the Easter Rising of 1916, so Dinneen took the opportunity to expand the dictionary, and publish a much larger second edition in 1927.  For a taste of his sharp wit, see his review of Patrick Pearse’s Poll an Phíobaire; he contrasted the author’s urban Irish with the Connemara dialect which he likened to mountain butter: ‘It may at times be over-salted and over-dosed with the water of Béarlachas, but it is genuine mountain butter all the same and not clever margarine. I am afraid the storyette about the Píobaire smacks more like the margarine of the slums than pure mountain butter.’

The Dictionary of Irish Writers characterises him as ‘one of the greatest names in the Language Movement and one of the greatest characters in Dublin. Every user of the National library in the 20s & 30s remembers the gentle, shabby, old man chewing apples and raw carrots with a pile of books around him like a rampart.”  In 1934, while working on a new edition of the Confession of St. Patrick, he collapsed on the steps of the National Library and was taken to hospital by his life-long colleague Aubrey Gwynn SJ, Dinneen protesting the while ‘take me home, hospitals are too expensive’. He died within a few days. For his requiem all was forgiven as he lay in state in Gardiner Street church, before a state funeral to Glasnevin attended by all elements of Church and State.