Thursday 22 February 2018

Renowned Irish scholar and diplomat whose output was staggering

Biography: The Lives of Daniel Binchy - Irish Scholar, Diplomat, Public Intellectual, Tom Garvin, Irish Academic Press, pbk, 212 pages, €22.50

Intellectual: Daniel Binchy was made the first Irish ambassador to Germany
Intellectual: Daniel Binchy was made the first Irish ambassador to Germany

Frank McGabhann

Many Irish nationalists and republicans believed that the eventual Irish State that they were seeking to establish was in a continuum with a lost Celtic proto-democratic polity where peace reigned and poets recited. There had been, in Eoin MacNeill's view, a type of Celtic rule of law prevailing in pre-Roman Britain and Gaul where the Celts lived in harmony with one another. It was convenient (and very politically useful) for many of the politically-minded of the Gaelic League to make the leap from Brian Boru to Hugh O'Neil to the new Ireland in vitro, passing, of course, through the Hill of Tara.

Among the Celtic scholars following the lead of the great German scholar, Kuno Meyer, was Daniel Binchy, born in Charleville, Co Cork, in 1900.

They applied scientific methods to the study of medieval and ancient Irish texts and debunked many of the cherished beliefs about pre-Kinsale Gaelic civilisation.

The author, historian Tom Garvin, has introduced to a new generation one of Ireland's forgotten scholars. There are dozens of wonderful vignettes of the intellectual life of Dublin during the last century. One of the treats of the book is the story of the great friendship between Binchy and Michael O'Donovan (Frank O'Connor), two Corkmen who met in George Russell's house in 1927 and nearly came to blows arguing about everything from poetry to the recent civil war.

Binchy's output was staggering. His magnum opus was the Corpus Iuris Hibernici, a seven-volume monumental compendium of the early Irish legal texts which took him 30 years to complete. He was "reconstructing the sociology of a dead, half-forgotten and ridiculously romanticised civilisation". He needed to master the legal jargon of the different dialects of written Irish over a thousand years as well as medieval Latin.

Binchy was Ireland's first ambassador to Germany in 1929. In 1921, while in Munich, he had heard Hitler make a speech. His dispatches to Dublin reveal his awareness of the Nazi threat. The British Foreign Office asked Binchy in 1937 to undertake a study on Italian fascism, which was to be the basis of a 774-page book published in 1941.

Binchy, the author tells us, was a Catholic intellectual utterly opposed to totalitarianism, both of the left and right. Binchy argued that "democracy offered the (Catholic) Church a better deal that any other form of government". However, the author fails to see through Binchy's point - it speaks volumes of the Church's lack of political morality that Binchy had even to make that argument. What Binchy ignored was that the Church, in states where it was persecuted, asked for religious toleration. But where it formed the majority in state (such as in the Irish Free State), it required that state to incorporate its moral teachings into law. Binchy was publicly silent in the face of the governments of Cosgrave, de Valera and Costello caving in to the Catholic Church. Inasmuch as this book treats Binchy's role as "Public Intellectual", the author is remiss in not dealing with this public silence.

It is also surprising that no mention is made of Binchy's attitude towards the War of Independence that was raging all around him in the centre of Dublin where he was studying. Especially since two of his fellow students, whom Binchy may have known personally, Kevin Barry and Frank Flood, were executed for their actions against British forces.

This book is a welcome window into a group of scholars who knew that they were the last generation that would be able to visit a true Gaeltacht that was still the repository of the language that they treasured.

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