“His knowledge of Old Irish, bardic verse and Gaelic historical records was phenomenal and no head other than his has had such a complete knowledge of traditional Gaelic society since the overthrow of that society in the 17th century”. Scríobhadh sin i Scéala Éireann i ndiaidh a bháis.

Rugadh Micheál Alphonsus Ó Briain ar 30 Iúil 1896 i gCluain Meala. Bhí a athair Máirtín ag obair mar chléireach i siopa guail agus mine ann. B’as Cúil Íseal, Cill Síoláin, Co. Phort Láirge, do Mháirtín (sin é an seoladh, dar lena mhac Tommy). Bhí gabháltas maith ag na Brianaigh i gceantar na gCumarach ach cuireadh as seilbh iad. B’as paróiste Bhaile Mhac Cairbre do Bhríd Ní Mhorónaigh, máthair Mhichíl. Cainteoirí dúchais Gaeilge an bheirt acu.

Bhí Micheál ar scoil ag na Bráithre Críostaí i gCluain Meala sular bhain sé B.A. le honóracha den chéad ghrád amach i gColáiste Ollscoile Bhaile Átha Cliath i 1916. Bhí sé ina bhall d’Arm na Poblachta agus nuair a bhuaigh sé scoláireacht taistil i 1920 bhí air cead a fháil óna oifigeach ceannais sular fhéad sé dul chun na Gearmáine. I mBerlin bhí baint aige le misean taidhleorachta na hÉireann. Rinne sé staidéar faoi Phokorny agus fuair dochtúireacht i 1924. Ceapadh é ina léachtóir Béarla in Ollscoil Leipzig. Phós sé Gearmánach agus timpeall an ama chéanna d’éirigh sé as bheith ina Chaitliceach (“... a step taken from intellectual conviction which was to weigh heavily against him on his return home”, a dúirt Dáithí Ó hUaithne i gcuntas iarbháis in Lochlann).

I 1925 ceapadh é ina léachtóir Ceiltise in Ollscoil na Banríona, Béal Feirste. Um an dtaca seo bhí staidéar déanta aige ar an Rúisis, an Eabhrais, an Bhascais, an Slaivis, ar Avestic, agus ar theangacha Ind-Eorpacha. Foilsíodh a Russian-German, German-Russian dictionary i 1930.

I mBéal Feirste dó chraoladh sé cainteanna i dtaobh logainmneacha Chúige Uladh ar an BBC. Ghlac na húdaráis oideachais leis an moladh a rinne sé gurbh í Gaeilge Thír Chonaill a bheadh mar chaighdeán i scoileanna Thuaisceart na hÉireann.

Bhí post ollaimh in Institiúid Ardléinn Bhaile Átha Cliath aige i 1942 ach d’fhill sé ar Bhéal Feirste i 1945 nuair a bunaíodh cathaoir na Ceiltise in Ollscoil na Banríona. Ansin nuair a d’éirigh Tomás Ó Rathile as a phost san Institiúid i 1947 d’iarr an rialtas air bheith ina Ollamh Sinsearach agus ina Stiúrthóir ar Scoil an Léinn Cheiltigh ina ionad.

I gcomhpháirt le Bergin agus Best chuir sé eagar ar The Book of Leinster, 1954. Scríobh Myles Dillon an méid seo in Celtica 6: “As editor he suffered from an excess of zeal for accuracy. Parts of the Book of Leinster in which he collaborated and which owes a great deal to his learning and care were collated seven times before he would pass them for press”.

Bhí sáreolas aige ar ghinealaigh, ar ainmneacha pearsanta agus ar logainmneacha agus i 1957 thug sé an Rhys Lecture ar ainmneacha pearsanta na hÉireann. Bhronn Ollscoil na hÉireann D.Litt. oinigh air i 1958. I 1962 foilsíodh an chéad imleabhar dá Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae.

Bhí aistí aige sna hirisí léannta ach ní hé an oiread sin a d’fhoilsigh sé. “His death is all the more tragic, as far as our studies are concerned, because he has committed relatively little of his knowledge to print” (Brian Ó Cuív in Éigse, Iml. X, Cuid a 3). Dúirt Myles Dillon: “O’Brien was the most learned Irish scholar of his generation, of the small group who had the good fortune to be pupils of Osborn Bergin. But he had no ambition and apparantly no desire for recognition of any kind. He published comparatively little and only those who knew him knew how learned he really was. Those of us who were his friends and were also engaged in Irish studies came to depend on him as censor of all our work and little or nothing was published by us in recent years that had not been read and re-read by O’Brien. He had an astonishing memory for language and rarely needed to use a dictionary ... It was characteristic of him that he never thought of publication ... He used to claim that he had read the whole of Irish printed literature”.

Ba chuimhin le Dáithí Ó hUaithne, nuair a fhiafraítí de cén fáth nár scríobh sé i dtaobh faidhbe a bhí réitithe aige nó i dtaobh rud éigin a bhí faighte amach aige, gurbh é an gnáthfhreagra uaidh: “Sure everyone knows that!” Ach thuairimigh D. A. Binchy sa léacht chuimhneacháin a thug sé i dtaobh an Aimhirgínigh i 1970 go ndearna a shamplasan dochar don Bhrianach sa mhéid gur bhac an ró-chúram air nithe a fhoilsiú.

D’éag Micheál Ó Briain Lá Nollag 1962. Trí lá ina dhiaidh a cailleadh a bhean Thora. Bhí beirt chlainne acu, buachaill agus cailín. Deartháir do Mhicheál ba ea Tommy O’Brien, iriseoir agus craoltóir.

Diarmuid Breathnach

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