Éilis Ní Dhonnghaile (1857–1935) of Labby, Draperstown
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According to the information recorded on the Doegen speaker questionnaire in September 1931, Éilis Ní Chléirighean (anglicé Alice Clerkin) was born in Glengomna in 1857. Her father was a farmer from Glengomna and her mother was from Doon. In response to questions, she stated that she spent all her childhood and adult life in Glengomna — presumably, until her marriage. She attended primary school in Bancran. Her occupation was given as a farmer's wife. Irish was her mother language, and she could also speak English. She could read and write a little English but not Irish. Comments by the organising secretary included that she "had long since lost the habit of speaking Irish"; that she "acquired Irish when a child as a second language" (contrary to her own statements above), and that her intelligibility was affected by having no teeth left.
On 10/05/1896, she married John Donnelly from Labby, who was aged 33, at St Columbkille's, Straw, Ballinascreen. His father was named as John Donnelly, and her father as John Clerkin; both fathers were farmers. There were to be three children: Sarah Ann (born 1897), Thomas Joseph (born 1899) and Mary (born 25/01/1901).
The family lived in Labby in both the 1901 and 1911 censuses. In 1901, John was 38, Alice 40, Sarah A 4, Joseph 1, and Mary 2 months. In 1911, there was John 50, Alice 51, Sarahann 14, Joseph 12 and Mary 10. The marriage had lasted 15 years and there had been just the three children, all still living.
At around the same time as preparations were being made for the Doegen recordings, Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail was also planning his study of mid-Ulster Gaelic which was to result in the publication of Sgéalta Mhuintir Luinigh in 1933. Ballinascreen formed part of the area of interest,and Ó Tuathail reported in his introduction (p xiii) that he had visited south Derry in the autumn of 1931 together with Dublin-based local man Dr Séamus Ó Ceallaigh in search of Gaelic speakers, but had found "only one person able to converse in Irish" in the district. He reveals on p xxiii that this speaker came from Labby. There is no doubt that Éilis Ní Dhonnghaile was the speaker in question.
It is true that the best-known native speakers of Derry Irish had passed away by 1931: Paddy Traynor, Fallagloon (1903?); Pronn McCloskey, Moneyneena (1908); Pat Cassidy, Moneyneena (1912); the James Manus Ban McCloskeys, Cluntygeeragh (all before 1914); Rose Murray, Doon — Séamus Ó Ceallaigh's aunt-by-marriage — born c 1837; Annie McGuigan, Glengomna (1918); Matthew Murray, Moneyneena (1921); James Clerkin, Glengomna (1921); Betty McCloskey (Phaidí), Cluntygeeragh (1922); Kate Clerkin, Glengomna (1925). The last-named of these needs to be carefully distinguished from our present speaker, to whom she was unrelated. She was the principal informant of Fr Patrick Heron, see Aodh Ó Canainn, Teacht den tSliabh Tráthnóna, 2006. She was born Katie John Shéamuis Bradley, Sixtowns, around 1835, and married Francis Clerkin of Glengomna in 1859. They had no family. Francis died in 1919 and Kate on 10/01/1925.
But with hindsight, there were other native speakers in 1931; in particular, the Murray sisters in Moneyneena, Hannah James (1947) and Peig James; Matthew Regan, Draperstown (1942); Mary Anne Doherty, Moneyneena and Antrim (1965); James McGillion, Glengomna.
To return to the present speaker, her son, Joseph, married Mary Kelly (Jim James Micky Owen) from Doon, and they had seven of a family. A daughter of the speaker (Mary?) married a Thomas Toner and lived in Dublin.
On 24/09/1935, Éilis Ní Dhonnghaile died in Dublin at the home of her son-in-law Thomas Toner, at the age of 78, and is buried at Straw. The gravestone tells us that her husband, John Donnelly, died in 1949 aged 90; their daughter Sally died in 1990 aged 93; and the youngest of Joseph's family, Michael Kieran, died in infancy in 1948. Joseph and his wife Mary, both of whom died in 1965, are buried elsewhere in the cemetery.
Recent references to Éilis Ní Dhonnghaile include:
Colm J O'Boyle, Phonetic texts of East Ulster Irish, MA thesis QUB, 1962, pp 17–20, 48, 107–17, 214.
Heinrich Wagner and Colm Ó Baoill, Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects, Vol IV, 1969, pp 285–6.
Róise Ní Bhaoill, Ulster Gaelic Voices, 2010, at pp 334–45.
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