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 lack of teeth.

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 (1897–1990), Thomas Joseph (1899–1965) and Mary (1901–1953).

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. Kate 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, Peig James (1943) and Hannah James (1947); Matthew Regan, Draperstown (1942); Mary Anne Doherty, Moneyneena and Antrim (1965); James McGillion, Glengomna.

To return to the present speaker, her parents were John Clerkin and Anne Hagan, who lived in Glengamna. A list of their children, compiled from the parish baptismal register and submitted by Rev James McGlinchey in support of Éilis' application for the old age pension in 1926, reads:
      Mary Clerkin, Dec 18, 1846
      Ellen and Rose Clerkin (twins), March 20, 1849
      Patrick Clerkin, Aug 6, 1850
      Sarah Clerkin, May 12, 1852
      Michael Clerkin, April 2, 1854
      Alice Clerkin, no record
      Brigid Clerkin, March 4, 1858
A separate communication adds that Éilis (Alice) was "2 years and a month, at least, older than Brigid".

The speaker's son, Joseph, married Mary Kelly (Jim James Micky Owen) from Doon in 1938, and they had six of a family. The speaker's daughter Mary married Thomas Toner from Straw in 1933, and they lived in Dublin. They had five children.

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 reads:

      Pray for the souls of
      John Donnelly died 23rd June 1949
      aged 90 years
      His wife
      Eilis died 24th Sept 1935 aged 78 years
      Their daughter
      Sally died 9th Nov 1990 aged 93 years
      and their grandson
      Michael Kieran died 11th Feb 1948
      aged 6 months

Michael Kieran was the youngest of Joseph's family. Joseph and his wife Mary both died in 1965, and are buried elsewhere in the cemetery.

Thanks are due to the Donnelly family for information and photographs.

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.

The Donnelly home, Labby.
(Photograph: Donnelly family).

Reilig an tSratha, Baile na Scríne.
(Photograph © www.discovereverafter.com).
Speaker's recordings Ulster Doegen index

Speculative family tree:

     John Donnelly-------            John Clerkin------Anne Hagan
                   Labby             Glengamna     |   Doon
                     |                             |
                   John-----------------------ALICE (EILIS)
                   c1859–1949   pós 1896      1857–1935
          |                     |                                        |
     Sarah Ann (Sally)       Joseph---------Mary Kelly                  Mary--------Thomas Toner
     1897–1990               1899–1965 |    (Jim James Micky Owen)      1901–1953
                                       |      –1965                      m 1933
                                       |                                 Pádraig
                                       |                                 Thomas 1935– (twin)
                                       |                                 Máire 1935– (twin)
                                       |                                 Jody
                                       | m 1938                          Éilis
     |               |                 |              |                  |                 |
   Seán Columba    Séamus Brendan    Joseph          Anne             Máire Éilis     Michael Kieran
    –2009           –2009            1942–                                            1947–1948
   Canada          Labby             Omagh, Derry    Canada           Maghera
   m Chris         m Eithne          priest          m Frank          m Joe Diamond
                    O'Kane                             de Bartolo

Ciarán Ó Duibhín
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