Sat. Jul 20th, 2024

Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh: The forgotten heroine who shaped the lives of generations of Irish women

Kate O'Farrelly and Cliona O'Farrelly with the painting of Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh

Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh was the first woman to write a novel in the Irish language, one of the first female scholars of Celtic studies and the first female Professor of Irish at UCD.

She was a leading member of the Gaelic League, an ardent campaigner for women’s rights in education and presided over the inaugural meeting of Cumann na mBan.

Úna was one of only two life Presidents of the Camogie Association and was the founder of the prestigious Ashbourne Cup tournament, a national university third-level camogie competition.

But how many people have heard of Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh today?

In a new film by Macha Media for TG4, Clíodhna Ní Chorráin explores the life and legacy of one of Ulster’s forgotten heroines – Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh.

The programme takes its title from the pen name used by Ní Fhaircheallaigh, Uan Uladh (the Lamb of Ulster), but the Cavan woman was no lamb in her campaigning for women’s rights, education and the restoration of the Irish language.

Professor Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh was born Agnes Winifred Farrelly in 1874 near Virginia in east Cavan. Úna counted Douglas Hyde, Roger Casement, Eoin Mac Néill and Pádraig Pearse among her closest friends, yet while they became household names, very little has been heard about this pioneering woman, until now.

Clíodhna Ní Chorráin uncovers the story behind a remarkable visionary who strove to realise a utopian vision for Ireland.

A Gael, a feminist, an idealist, and a woman whose legacy has impacted the lives of generations of Irish women, Úna’s activism has shaped the development of education, politics and sport across the island of Ireland.

As well as her work with the Gaelic League, Úna left an indelible mark on Gaeltacht communities. On Inis Meáin, off the coast of Galway, she promoted female literacy at a time when most women were illiterate.

In Gort a’ Choirce in County Donegal, she was the principal of Ulster’s first Irish college. She impacted the lives of many emerging Ulster writers of the Irish Revival as well as impressing on the locals to cherish their language and heritage.

Úna also inspired hundreds of students at University College Dublin, where she was a lecturer and then professor of Irish language for 38 years.

Clíodhna Ní Chorráin is a young Irish language activist from Armagh, who, like her fellow Ulsterwoman, spends summers teaching Irish in the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Úna Ní Fharcheallaigh had a radical vision. She believed that Irish independence should lead to proper equality for women and the restoration of the Irish language, and that society would be fairer for everyone.

Perhaps she was a little naïve, especially when dealing with clerics and professional politicians who had lost their idealism, if they ever had it in the first place. But she never stopped struggling throughout her life for people who had no power, especially women.

Clíodhna Ní Chorráin

Clíodhna is also a member of the current executive committee of Conradh na Gaeilge. In this documentary, Clíodhna follows in Úna’s footsteps, meeting relatives, academics and historians, to discover why history has neglected her and what we can learn from her story.

She was honorary life president of the Camogie Association, an active member of the Celtic Congress and was a Professor of Irish at UCD until her retirement in 1947. In 1937 Ní Fhaircheallaigh was actively involved in the National University Women Graduates’ Association campaign against the new Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann.

The NUWGA were seeking the deletion of articles which they believed discriminated against women. Their efforts were met with disappointment when An Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, chose not to amend the offending articles. 

Úna died in 1951 and her funeral was attended by the President of Ireland, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, An Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, as well as by many other dignitaries of the era.

Uan Uladh: Scéal Úna Ní Fhaircheallaigh is on TG4 on Friday, 15th March, 8 pm.


I'm a freelance content creator, author, and journalist who has a strong desire to share interesting content about Irish people and things about Ireland at home and abroad. I am constantly curious.

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