Sunday 19 December 2021

Mrs Gorham’s famous letter.

Mrs Maria Gorham, Conradh na Gaeilge and the Postmaster-General in London.

In 1905 a sixty five year old Cill Rónáin landlady found herself at the centre of an Irish language controversy which went all the way to the House of Commons in London. The Postmaster-General, Lord Stanley, was forced to answer questions as to why a letter addressed to Mrs Maria Gorham had remained undelivered because the address had been written in Irish. 

Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) had been founded by Roscommon man Douglas Hyde a few years earlier in 1893 and this organisation was the main driving force in what became known as the Irish Revival Movement. A non-political and non-denominational organisation initially, its aims were the revival of both the Gaelic language and Gaelic customs. 

Conradh na Gaeilge activists were a vibrant and astute bunch of men and women and were quick to recognise the value of publicity for their cause and were not shy about prodding sacred cows, whether civil or religious. 

Previous to 1905 they had caused uproar on the islands after clashing with the authoritarian Fr. Murty Farragher over the preaching of sermons in English by his curate Fr Charles White (1870-1935).

Fr. Farragher had defended his curate and turned his steely streak of determination against the Gaelic League.  A league where he himself presided as chairman, when the island’s inaugural meeting was held in Cill Rónáin schoolhouse in 1898. 

After much heated debate and some frank letters to the papers, a peace eventually broke out and Fr. White was transferred in 1902. Although Fr. Farragher exchanged some bitter words with the League initially, by 1905 he was once again on good terms and paying his contribution. The story of this controversy is for another day perhaps.

We did however do a piece on the bombing of  Fr. Farragher in 1908 which can be read HERE

In 1905, Maria Gorham was keeping guests at her house which was located at An tSean Chéibh at Cill Rónáin. This old pier had also been known as Céibh na Móna (Turf Pier). Maria had advertised her home as being very suitable for ‘Gaelic Leaguers’ and that Irish was spoken by everyone. She also describes it as a ‘Health Resort’ which is a term that can fairly be ascribed to all three Aran Islands. 

At this stage a little background on Maria Gorham is appropriate. In 1865, Maria (Mary) O’Malley had married a fisherman named Stephen O’Rourke. Maria and Stephen would have three children together but on November 22nd 1873, Stephen and his two companions, Pat Fitzmorris and James Leonard, set out to retrieve long lines they had set the day before. In all, five currachs set out that day but only four would come home. 

A sudden squall arose and all five boats battled bravely for home. Sadly, the boat Stephen was in overturned and the three occupants were lost, never to be found. 

Once again, a man who always showed great affinity with Irish fishermen and mariners in general, Thomas F Brady, Inspector of Fisheries, launched an appeal to help the three widows and over a dozen orphans. Maria was pregnant at the time and her son Thomas was born the following March. 

1874 was a good year for the people of Cill Éinne as the widow Mary Anne D’Arcy O’Malley had left a large sum in her will to be used for the benefit of the village. Mary Anne was the widow of the smuggler Martin O’Malley of Killeany Lodge and the sum she left, £482-4-10, would today be worth €67,432. The three trustees of this fund were the Parish Priest John Concannon, Coastguard Commander John Drew and Thomas Brady.

In addition to this money, Brady had by February 1874 collected £112 for the three destitute families which today would be worth about €15,700. This money Brady used to help the families and also to buy new boats for the sons old enough to use them. 

In 1876, the widow Maria O’Rourke married the baker John Gorham and they went on to have a number of children together. Her daughter Margaret O’Rourke would marry one of the Congested Districts Board subsidised Arklow fishermen, Henry Lynch, in 1892 and some of our readers may remember their daughter Mary (Cis) Lynch who lived in a small thatched house beside An tSean Chéibh restaurant. 

But back to the famous letter of 1905 which led to all the fuss. 

In an inspired move, a great Gaelic Leaguer, Thomas A Murphy of Booterstown in Dublin sent off the letter in Irish to Mrs Gorham. He had high hopes of success as failure could only happen if the letter was delivered promptly. Failure to deliver in an area where Irish was the first language would garner more attention.

The address he used according to the papers was…







The Aran letter was part of a wide scale campaign to have the native language treated on terms at least equal to how letters in other European languages were handled. To this end, the Gaelic Leaguers arrived at post offices with letters addressed in Irish and with due postage paid. When asked, they refused to provide a translation of the addresses. 

Thomas A Murphy had a distinguished career as a Civil Servant and was Secretary of the Civil Service Commission when he retired in the 1930s. He and his wife, Kathleen, were registered for the census of 1901 in English. By 1911 they were both using the Irish version of their names and Kathleen had taken the very unusual step of registering under her maiden name. 

The more outrage and derision the language actions of Conradh inspired, the better they liked it as publicity was the oxygen for their cause. 

In the case of the letter to Mrs Gorham, they hit the jackpot and it’s raising in the House of Commons got massive publicity from news outlets who supported them and even more from those who did not. 

In December 1904, Thomas Murphy had written to the papers complaining about what had happened to his letter. He pointed out that the sub-postmaster Chard did not speak Irish although his sons Richard and Samuel did, but couldn’t read it. Both brothers helped out in the post Office as their father was aged. 

Murphy wondered how Richard, who was employed as petty court clerk and acted on occasion as interpreter, could deal with written court evidence in Irish. 

It’s worth noting that Samuel Chard had been one of the founding members of the Árainn branch of Conradh na Gaeilge in August 1898, when the teenage P.H. Pearse was among the over 500 people from all three islands who attended the old schoolhouse, both inside and out. 

It was important that the matter be raised in parliament and in March 1905, the job fell to a very famous Irishman, John Mary Pius Boland, the Irish Party MP for South Kerry. It seems asking difficult questions to raise the temperature comes naturally to members representing South Kerry. 

The Postmaster-General at the time was the honourable member for Westhoughton, Lord Edward Stanley (1865-1948). When it came to batting questions back and forth in the Commons, Lord Stanley was at a disadvantage as the man batting back at him was a double Olympic tennis gold medalist from the Athens games of 1896. 

Dubliner John Pius Boland had been orphaned as a youngster and his uncle, the Roman Catholic auxiliary Bishop, Nicholas Donnelly, had become guardian for him and his siblings. John’s father was one of the Bolands Mills family but John was sent to England for his education and his Dublin connections weakened. 

Attending the Olympic Games as a spectator, he was persuaded to enter for the tennis competitions. He went on to win the singles and later the doubles when he partnered a German, Herr Friedrich Traun.

It was only after these games, when he took exception to being described as ‘English’, that John Pius began to take a greater interest in his Irish roots and went on to become a very dogged supporter of the Gaelic League and a fluent Irish speaker. 

And so on the 7th of March 1905, John Pius rose to speak in the House of Commons and questioned Lord Stanley as to why a letter for Mrs Gorham had lain for four days in Kilronan post office, when the recipient lived just a couple of hundred yards away at the Old Pier.

The Postmaster-General replied that while the officials at the post office could speak Irish, reading it was a problem. Lord Stanley would have been wise to leave it at that but after further questions by John Pius Boland, declared that the address had been improperly written by Thomas Murphy. 

This of course gave Boland the equivalent of an overhead smash when he asked who had told him that it was improperly written. 

The matter was left with Lord Stanley declaring that he had been informed by “those in whom I have implicit confidence”.

Of course two days later the matter was raised again as Thomas A Murphy, being an ex-Blackrock college man and, more importantly, a Corkman, took fierce offence at the slight on his language skills. He had a number of languages and in his later years as head of the Vincent de Paul, could correspond with society officials in Paris in perfect French. 

Boland informed the house that Thomas Murphy would like to know who the linguist was that had judged his letter to be incorrectly addressed. 

As Lord Stanley had already admitted that the Kilronan Postmaster couldn’t read Irish text, he had to find another scapegoat. He was aware that some suspected he had made the whole thing up about Murphy’s incompetence and misled the house.  

In those days, misleading the House of Commons was deemed a great offence and making things up (lying), a terrible slur on one’s character. In true political expediency, he now threw the postmaster of Galway Town under the omnibus. 

The Galway Postmaster at the time was William Cornwall (1848-1923) and as William was a Methodist from Belfast, it’s unlikely (but not impossible) the verification of Murphy’s poor language skills came from him. William had left the ‘proficiency in Irish’ column blank in his census returns. 

And here the matter rested although Boland warned that there would be further questions. 

The records of the House of Commons give an accurate account of the questions and answers but the newspapers also recorded the heckling and derision from the benches. 

Not surprisingly, the main contributor was the honourable member for North Antrim, the Right Honourable William Moore KC, who would venture that even the addressee couldn’t read the address ‘himself’. William would go on to be Chief Justice for Northern Ireland. Not the last time a member for North Antrim would take on the role of cutting edge comedian. 

Many English papers had great fun with the whole affair and treated the attempt to have ‘Erse’ recognised as a frivolous distraction. 

As in military battles, the advantage is always with those who can pick and choose the time and location for a row. One of the most famous Conradh engagements that same year was the case of the Donegal poet, writer and musician, Niall Mac Giolla Bhrighde (1861-1942, Neil McBride) who was prosecuted for having an Irish language ‘illegible’ and therefore illegal nameplate, on his ass-cart. 

The name plate can be viewed at Donegal County Museum in Letterkenny. 

(Niall is also said to have composed the tragic song of emigration and death, Noreen Bawn).

Just a few days after Lord Stanley having been asked questions about Mrs Gorham’s letter, Níall was confronted by a policeman as he and his ass-cart were going about their business. Fined a shilling, he refused to pay and at a subsequent court in Dunfanaghy again refused when the fine was doubled.

Pádraig Pearse was a junior barrister and volunteered to be part of the team to represent Neil at the court of appeal in Dublin. Of course they lost the case but won the publicity contest.  There is some debate as to whether this was the only occasion Pearse practised as a barrister. His last court appearance would be at his own court-martial in 1916.

In 1912 the letter writer Thomá Ó Murchada was back in the news. This time he was reigniting a controversial topic from 1901 about sermons in English in an Irish speaking district. 

The whole controversy about her missing letter probably brought a lot of Gaelic League business to Mrs Gorham and in 1906 she was advertising her home in Pearse’s paper, An Claidheamh Soluis (the Sword of Light).

In 1906 the great photographer Jane Shackleton made one of her photographic expeditions to Aran and with the controversy the year before still fresh, it’s no great surprise that Maria Gorham featured.

The book of photographs is called Jane W Shackleton’s Ireland, compiled by Christiaan Corlett and published by Collins Press. 

Mrs Gorham on the right of doorway. 

The house where John and Maria Gorham lived is now part of the extensive Carraig Donn empire, the late Pádraic and Maura Hughes of Westport having started up a very successful family craft and sweater shop there in the 1960s. 

The Gorham name has died out on the island, but some of our followers may recognise the name from a piece we did some years ago about the heroic part Maria’s son, Willie Gorham, played in rescuing two islanders who were stranded on Oileán Dá Bhranóg in 1926. You can read that HERE

The story of the Aran postal controversy was one of the opening battles in the fight to have the Irish language given fair play and treated with respect. 

Níl an troid thart. 

Many thanks to all those who helped in the writing of this article. 


Nollaig 2021.

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