Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh and the founding of “An tUltach” (The Ulsterman) in 1924

Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh, also known as Larry Murray.
Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh (source: Carlingford Heritage Centre).

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Dr Dubhán Ó Longáin, from the CARTLANN project, explores the impact of the Irish-language journal An tUltach, founded by Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh 100 years ago, on preserving Ulster Irish and promoting Gaelicism. He stresses the journal’s present-day relevance in shaping discussions on the Irish language and identity, particularly in Northern Ireland.

In a decade that has seen the centenary of the Easter Rising, Anglo-Irish Treaty and Civil War, as well as the deaths of many important historical figures in Ireland, on top of World War 1 on a global level, it would be easy to overlook the publishing of a simple, typically eight-page, newspaper. This journal, founded by a Louth-born priest, would, however, give a valuable insight into how the “Gael of Ulster” perceived these events.

The first edition of the Irish-language journal An tUltach (The Ulsterman) was published in January 1924 and was founded and edited by Catholic priest, language activist, folklore collector and all-round Gael, Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh.

Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh

Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh, also known as Larry Murray, was born in 1883, his father, James Murray (an RIC constable from Monaghan), having moved to Louth where he married a local woman, Julia McGrath. The family moved to Mayo shortly after Lorcán, the oldest of eight, was born and would stay there until James retired from the RIC and moved his family back to Louth in 1891.

Having succeeded exceptionally well in secondary school, Ó Muireadhaigh made the move to Maynooth in 1901 with the intention of becoming a priest. While academically gifted, and having won several awards across multiple subjects in Maynooth, Ó Muireadhaigh was stubborn and frequently found himself crossing paths with university authorities. Such was his inability to display sufficient humility (according to the university authorities, at least) that he was compelled to finish his studies in America.

While a devout and vigorous priest, Ó Muireadhaigh gave the Irish language and Gaelicism an equal amount of his attention and endeavour. It is interesting that it was in September 1901, the same month that he started studying towards the priesthood, that Ó Muireadhaigh met the folklore collector, historian and writer Énrí Ó Muirgheasa.

Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh was from the Omeath area.
The nearest Gaeltacht for Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh was in Omeath, Co. Louth, where he spent much time teaching and collecting lore (pic: looking across Carlingford Lough to Omeath, © Henry Clark, via Geograph.ie, CC BY-SA 2.0).

While Ó Muireadhaigh was already proving himself to have an academic aptitude, it was Énrí Ó Muirgheasa who seems to have inspired him into Gaelicism as a way of life. Ó Muirgheasa (only around 10 years older than Ó Muireadhaigh) took the young student under his wing and spent much time with him, bringing him along when meeting with informants to collect folklore and so forth.

In later years, Ó Muireadhaigh himself would frequently be observed heading off to collect songs, stories or turns of phrase from the remaining Irish speakers of south Ulster or, during his summers working at Colaiste Bhríde in Rann na Feirste, heading off, after a day of teaching, to collect from the native speakers of Donegal. Quite often, some of the older, and “better”, students were brought along.

Shrine in Rann na Feirste (Rinnafarset), Co. Donegal.
Fr Lorcán Ó Muireadhaigh taught in Rann na Feirste, Co. Donegal (pic: shrine, Rinnafarset, © Kenneth Allen, via Geograph.ie, CC BY-SA 2.0).

An tUltach

This tireless work ethic and desire to record the Irish of Ulster led to Ó Muireadhaigh founding An tUltach in 1924. The editorial from the first issue reads (translated from Irish):

“In the name of God, let us start. We publish this paper for the glory of God and honour of Ireland, and for the good of Irish.”

In the same issue, he states that his aim is to “save Ulster Irish” and see it recorded on paper. Dr Niall Comer, of Ulster University and co-principal investigator on the CARTLANN project, is currently working on an edited volume of the editorials up until the end of 1929.

Not only did Ó Muireadhaigh publish much of the folklore and songs that he himself collected, but he also provided a medium for other collectors and writers. Records of Tyrone Irish and Antrim Irish, for example, are contained in this journal. Many Irish-language authors were also given a stage.

Famous writers such as Seosamh Mac Grianna, Séamus Ó Grianna, Seán Mac Meanman, Seán Mac Maoláin and many more were published. For example, Seán Mac Maoláin, while working on his 1933 publication Cora Cainte as Tír Chonaill (Phrases from Donegal), published drafts in An tUltach many years earlier. There is little doubt that Ó Muireadhaigh’s journal provided these writers with inspiration and allowed them to drum up interest in their publications.

Predicting present-day issues

Ó Muireadhaigh did not shy away from politics and brought up many issues as he saw fit. He realized that Ulster Irish (with most of Ulster remaining under British control after the Anglo-Irish Agreement) would require particular attention in revival attempts. Furthermore, he realized that the Unionist government in Northern Ireland would attempt to hinder that revival. He foresaw problems that could arise and predicted issues that we still discuss today.

In May of 1924, for example, Ó Muireadhaigh, speaking of postage delays, wrote that “prejudiced people” in post offices could perhaps delay the delivery of letters addressed in Irish. Less than a fortnight ago, 99 years and 10 months from Ó Muireadhaigh’s warning, this issue came to light again.

Ó Muireadhaigh, above all else, worked tirelessly to promote the cause of Gaelicism in Ulster, seeing the results of animosity towards the language first-hand. The fact that we are still, a century later, discussing an issue that he raised shows us the importance of his journal. While language rights in Ireland, and especially in Northern Ireland, must still be championed, we would be worse off in 2024 had Ó Muireadhaigh not, 100 years ago, started pushing some of these issues.

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Dr Dubhán Ó Longáin earned his PhD from Ulster University, having focused his doctoral research on the poetry of the Fenian cycle. He is interested in folklore, literature and the manuscript tradition, with a particular interest in how creative writers draw inspiration from folklore. He is currently working with the Fionn Folklore Database, creating learning materials to accompany the database, and with the CARTLANN project, researching portrayals of the Irish language in the media. Read more from Dubhán here.

The CARTLANN project investigates the role of the media, as a platform for disseminating information and as campaigning material, in the work of Conradh na Gaeilge. It is funded by the Shared Island project and is a joint endeavour between the University of Galway and Ulster University.

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