Sigerson book reveals genius of young Irish state

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Ken McGilloway with his book on George Sigerson Pic: Davy Ralston, Strabane Chronicle

For thousands of Irish people, the name Sigerson is forever associated with the Gaelic Football trophy, the Sigerson Cup - one of the oldest sporting awards in Irish history.

But George Sigerson was much more than a name on a champions' cup. He was a giant of the Irish state in its infancy.

He was a poet, patriot, scientist and scholar - considered a genius by Ireland's first president Douglas Hyde.

Yet the mention of his name often prompts the question: "Who is he?"

It was for that reason that Derry historian and writer Ken McGilloway set out on a journey 25 years ago to shed light on an eminent doctor and medical expert; the man who presided over the first historic meeting of the Irish senate in 1922; a linguist and, above all, a lover of the Irish language.

Sigerson was also a man who got letters from Charles Darwin, who was recommended as a doctor by writer James Joyce to his love, Nora Barnacle.

He was a man who counted Maud Gonne - the muse for WB Yeats' lyrical poetry - among his patients.

For Ken McGilloway, the book proved a revelation and a labour of love. It began with a chance conversation in a Dublin bookshop nearly 25 years ago.

"My wife Helen joined me and she happened to ask if they had anything by George Sigerson.

"I wanted to know who Sigerson was. She said he was the brother of her great grandmother Jane McGinnis. He was famous in his day, but that was all she knew about him."

Jane Sigerson McGinnis went to Dublin in 1897 after the death of her husband Patrick in Strabane.

She was invited by her brother George to help look after the house and act as a companion for George's wife who was ill at that time.

She stayed there until her death in 1913.

Image caption,
George Sigerson was a poet, patriot, scientist and scholar

The information sparked Ken McGilloway's interest and set him on a journey to find out more about the mysterious Sigerson.

Sigerson was born in 1836 near Strabane, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland and was educated in Paris and at University College, Cork, where he studied medicine.

He spent much of his life in Dublin, where he was a professor at Dublin's National University. He was one of the foremost authorities on diseases of the nervous system and a prolific writer on scientific topics.

But he was also an outstanding linguist who played an important role in the Irish literary revival with his translations of poetry from Irish into English .

His home at Clare Street, Dublin was a meeting place for more than 40 years for the literary leaders of the Gaelic revival.

He was a close friend of Charles Kickham, John O'Leary and other Fenian leaders. He also knew the poet and 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh.

One of his greatest ambitions was to save the Irish language from "a slow but certain death".

"Once I started to research, it became addictive," said Mr McGilloway.

"There was this love of Ireland, this love of culture. He had taught himself Irish by the age of just nine years. He had even walked into Strabane from Artigarvan to collect a copy of a translation of Homer's Iliad.

"His main ambition in life was to save the Irish language. He published his first book at 24 years of age."

Ireland's first president, Douglas Hyde, wrote of Sigerson: "His mind was so broad and his genius so varied and the elements so kindly mixed that science, economics, history and poetry all through his life appealed to him with almost equal force.

"I have a suspicion that the appeal of poetry was strongest."

The president's hope was that the Irish people would never forget this great man whose pen was never idle in the cause of his country.

Ken McGilloway set out to write the book that would do just that.

Ireland's National Library provided a wealth of information about the man. The researcher found a letter from Charles Darwin to Dr Sigerson and a booklet by him on the treatment of political prisoners that was published by the Suffragettes.

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A scrawled manuscript by Hester Sigerson proved an invaluable source of information

But the true turning point was a meeting with Sigerson's grand daughter, Eibhlin Humphreys, who produced photographs and letters and an old scrawled manuscript written by her mother, Hester Sigerson, full of childhood memories that put flesh on the bones of the man.

"Those 20 pages of badly-typed text became the core that I worked on.

"The book started with my curiosity. I wanted to pass the information on to the family. But then I told his granddaughter, Eibhlin, I would do something to remember him."

Ken McGilloway's brother, Olly - a nature lover, writer and television presenter who has since died - also helped bring the book to fruition.

"I wrote 20 A4 pages a week and he took them and went through them for me. In this way the first draft was hammered out."

Over the years, Ken McGilloway has amassed "a better collection of Sigerson books than the National Library".

Writers and historians Joe Martin, John Dooher and Donal McAnallen helped him put his book together, contributing information and editing.

It is a book about a life lived to the full - a genius of a man who gave so much.

It was fitting that, at the age of 86, Sigerson should preside at the very first meeting of the Irish Senate.

It is equally fitting that he played a part in choosing what would become Ireland's national symbol, the harp.

"The harp is the outstanding symbol of the nation - A symbol recognised throughout the world. It is on every passport and on every government paper and Sigerson's hand was on that," said Mr McGilloway.

But the book is also about the small details - uncovered over the years of painstaking research.

Like the note written by James Joyce to his future wife, Nora Barnacle: "I hope you haven't that horrible pain this morning. Go out and see old Dr Sigerson and get him to prescribe for you."

Ken McGilloway's book, "George Sigerson, Poet, Patriot, Scientist and Scholar," from the Ulster Historical Foundation is published by Stair Uladh. Book launches will be held at the Council Offices, Strabane, at 1900 GMT on 28 February; Cardinal O' Fiach Library, Armagh at 1930 GMT on Tuesday 1 March; National Library, Dublin, on Wednesday 2 March at 1530 GMT and at the Verbal Arts Centre, Bishop Street, Derry at 1900 GMT on Friday 4 March.