Opinion: Ireland's first President's social and emotional intelligence along with his creative personality allowed him to flourish

When you hear the name Douglas Hyde, who comes to mind? Ireland’s first President? Wasn't he the driving force behind the Gaelic League, giving us back our heritage and language? Perhaps the academics might know him as the renowned Professor of Modern Irish at University College Dublin from 1909 to 1932. Those who tread the boards might think of him as one of the "it" crowd back in the day, who excitedly socialised with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Yes, Hyde was all of the above. He was a leading figure in the Gaelic revival, no mean feat for a well to do Protestant who learned his Irish from the local workers in Tibohine, Co Roscommon, and he was our first president. But what I find even more intriguing about this strange and complex man was what made him tick.

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From RTÉ Archives, a radio clip of Douglas Hyde's speech at Dublin Castle on the occasion of his inauguration as first President of Ireland in June 1938

If I had to choose an animal to represent Hyde, it would be a chameleon. He was a shrewd character capable of adapting to any situation. He could socialise with ease with the Anglo-Irish aristocrats at Coole Park or just as easily mingle with the local workers and native Irish speakers in Tibohine. This social chameleon would even change his outfits to ensure that he blended in as one of crowd. He was sure to tog out in a three-piece suit amongst the aristocrats, but working garb amongst the local grafters.

It was this uncanny ability to adapt to social situations and the ability of putting at ease whomever was in his company that propelled Hyde’s profile onwards and upwards. The tweed-wearing professor, a voracious reader, was a bit of a social butterfly, but not solely for personal gain. He had a profound understanding of the importance of and an interest in the concept of community and was simply drawn towards others and good conversation.

This is reflected in his diaries where he documents many social outings. Hyde lectured far and wide, including in New Brunswick, Canada, where he recorded in 1891 how he would stay out till the wee hours of the morning socialising with fellow academics and friends. Yet he also managed to collect Milicete tales from the Native Americans, where he equally felt at home regaling them with stories and listening to theirs.  

His friendly nature and sociable curiosity made him a sought after guest at any function.  Behind the jovial nature however, was a pragmatic, astute man who listened to and acted on good advice wisely. When writing his autobiography Mo Thuras go hAmerice (My American Tour, 1937), he was discretely advised to conveniently omit tales of socialising and drinking Australian wine at his home in Ratra House, Co Roscommon. Hyde swiftly obliged, knowing full well that "those kinds of shenanigans" wouldn't be admired by the purists of the time. 

Cover of Mo Thuras go hAmerice (1937)

Liam Mac Mathúna and I visited Michael Carty (1918-2019), a gentleman from Tibohine who personally knew Hyde when he was a child. During Carty's recollections, the image that struck me most was his description of Hyde’s moustache. "Hyde had the biggest mustache of them all."

Hyde had a presence and you knew when he entered a room. On his passport it states that he was 5ft 10 inches in height, though Carty’s description of Hyde highlights his immense aura. He was larger than life with a magnetic aura, whose features stayed in your memory long after meeting him. "Douglas Hyde was a very big tall man about 6 ft. 4 inches", remembered Carty. "He always wore tweed suits and plus fours and long grey stockings and brown shoes about size 11".

When Hyde retired from lecturing in UCD, the students didn’t take it lightly, chanting "we want Dougie, we want Dougie." No average lecturer, Hyde captivated his students and was known to act out dramas in the lecture theatre. Hands-on learning and animated experiences were at the core of his lecturing style and ethos. The chameleon adjusted his persona whenever necessary, from full on snowball fights with students in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, to drinking mint juleps in Washington and even elegantly dining twice at the White House.

Postcard from Douglas Hyde to his daughters. Courtesy of the Aidan Heavey Collection, Athlone (Westmeath County Library Service)

Behind the impressively preened moustache, there was a want and "grá" in Hyde for an Irish Ireland. Hyde, you could say, embodied the IDA long before its establishment in 1949. On his 1905/06 American tour for the Gaelic League, he was on a fundraising and an awareness-raising mission that he took very seriously. During the eight months he spent in America, he clocked up 50 cities and 12 university campuses, along with two invites to lunch in the White House with Theodore Roosevelt. His endeavours yielded a staggering $50,000, big bucks at the time and the equivalent of more than a million dollars today.

Behind the formidable public persona however, Hyde was also a father. His daughters Nuala and Úna were only 10 and eight years of age when their parents departed for North America for nearly eight months. Their father sent his girls postcards from every city. Imagine being a little girl in Roscommon at the start of the 20th century and receiving a postcard from your daddy saying he was having dinner with the president of the United States!

Hyde was a playful father with a cracking sense of humour whose lively spirit trickles through in the postcards to his daughters, e.g. when he says "nach deas an capall é  seo" ("isn’t this a nice horse?") about an ostrich. Hyde also had a beloved cockatoo at home called Polly. The postcards to his daughters are full of fond references to dear Polly and Hyde asks the girls to give Polly a kiss from him in his absence. 

Postcard from Douglas Hyde to his daughters. Courtesy of the Aidan Heavey Collection, Athlone (Westmeath County Library Service)

Hyde’s cheeky nature, comedic quality and jovial wit was undoubtedly passed onto the next generation of Hydes. Thanks to the generosity of Hyde’s grandson Douglas Sealy (1929-2013), we saw evidence of this in a treasure chest of his grandfather’s documents.  In a Book of Limericks written by Nuala and illustrated by Úna around 1912, the same dark mischievous humour peeped out, indicating that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the Hyde family. 

READ: Douglas Hyde's inauguration - a signal of a new Ireland

There is no doubt that Hyde was an academic, but it was his social and emotional intelligence along with his creative personality that allowed him to flourish on his journey to becoming Ireland's first President. Celebrated cartoonist Isa MacNie's The Celebrity ZOO (1925) illustrates how many at the time were curious about the man behind the moustache. MacNie depicts Hyde as a walrus, marine mammals known for being sociable and rather entertaining. There is indeed a strangely stark resemblance between the walrus and the man behind the moustache.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ