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Saturday 21 September 2019

Epic achievement lays milestone for Irish scholarship

Any criticisms of the new Dictionary of Irish Biography pale beside the scale of its success, insists Charles Lysaght

Charles Lysaght

The production by the Royal Irish Academy of this magnificent nine-volume dictionary of Irish biography from the earliest times to the year 2002, outlining the careers of prominent Irishmen and Irishwomen, is a milestone in Irish historical scholarship.

James McGuire and James Quinn ed

Cambridge University Press, £650 until February 28; thereafter £775

It is modelled on the Dictionary of National Biography, first published in London under the editorship of Leslie Stephen at the end of the 19th Century and then updated with new volumes every 10 years covering those who had died subsequently. It was then overtaken in 2000 with the publication by Oxford University Press of a comprehensive new 60-volume dictionary.

The original Dictionary of National Biography had a good coverage of Irish subjects, reflecting the then status of the whole island of Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The Oxford dictionary is much less comprehensive in its coverage of more recent Irish figures, even those from Northern Ireland.

That gap is more than filled by these nine volumes. The subjects (more than 9,000 in number) include artists, architects, scientists, lawyers, journalists, actors, musicians, composers, bankers, sports heroes, religious figures, pop stars, writers in Irish and English, engineers, criminals, public servants, politicians, philanthropists and other more alarming categories such as informers, prostitutes, paedophiles and murderers. The entries range in length from 200 words to 14,000 on Eamon de Valera (with James Joyce by Father Bruce Bradley SJ running second).

Persons not born in Ireland are included if they spent part of their life in Ireland and had a significant impact on Irish life. Persons born in Ireland are excluded where their birth in Ireland was fortuitous and had little influence on their career.

The editors acknowledge their debt to the recent broadening of historical interest into new fields of study and instance women's history. Even so, only about one in 10 entries relates to females -- there are more for recent decades. It is amazing how many achieving Irish women were educated at Alexandra or were nuns.

The majority of the entries are written by an in-house team of about 80. They would have come to most of their topics without specialist knowledge of their subject's life. It might be thought that this would preclude any great originality or insight. But this is not necessarily so. While not all of these entries are sufficiently researched and some suffer because the author has insufficient background in the speciality of the subject, in-house contributors such as Patrick Maume and Bridget Hourican display exceptional knowledge and insight over a remarkable number of diverse subjects.

It is understandable that multiple contributors would have had to take on faith previous writings on a subject rather than go back to the primary sources. This has been productive of error in some cases. However, all is not lost. We are promised that the on-line edition of the dictionary will correct errors and omissions that are pointed out.

Some of the entries, including most of the longer ones, are the work of outside contributors who have specialist knowledge of their subjects and have in some cases written biographies of them. These have the merit of being comprehensive. However, it may be indicative of literary egocentricity that some biographers include no work other than their own among the sources, which are appended to all entries as a guide for further reading and are a valuable feature of the dictionary.

The editors entrusted some entries to a friend of the subject. Obviously personal knowledge is a help, especially for those who have not lived in the public eye or left papers. But some such entries may be faulted for tending to eulogy rather than balanced appraisal and omit uncongenial facts. In other cases friends seem to have relied totally on their personal knowledge and not researched other facets of the subject's life.

In the case of some major historical figures, who have had several biographies, the editors have commissioned leading historians in the area to supply a fresh perspective. Professor Ronan Fanning, a lifelong student of the history of independent Ireland but never a biographer of any of its leaders, has contributed insightful full-length entries on Eamon de Valera, Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch. Owen Dudley Edwards has written stylishly on Oscar Wilde and his remarkable parents. The originality of these pieces is at the level of evaluation and assessment rather than factual disclosure.

Important as these major entries are, the main value of the dictionary is in its account of figures who have not had biographies, even brief biographies, and who might otherwise have vanished from view. The amount of information on such figures made accessible by the dictionary is staggering.

Hitherto the main source of material in such cases has been obituaries in newspapers or in professional or institutional journals. These vary enormously in quality. Some professions, such as the medical one, are meticulous in recording the lives of their deceased members in this way. This may explain why doctors are so generously represented in the dictionary, although it may be regretted that Dr Louis Courtney of Nenagh and Dr Joe McGinley of Letterkenny, both immense figures in their locality as well as their profession over a long period in the 20th Century, have not been included.

Obituaries are a valuable source, albeit one to be treated with caution. It is a criticism of many entries that no reference has been made to them. Insufficient use has been made of the online archives of newspapers that have become available in recent years. In some cases missing information on parentage could have been ascertained by looking up the registry of births.

Many eminent names among our biographical writers and academic community have made little or no contribution to this dictionary. Entries that they were best qualified to write have been left to the in-house team, whose lack of specialist background has sometimes taken from the end product. It is not clear whether those most qualified were not invited to contribute or were insufficiently moved by a sense of noblesse oblige to overlook the absence of payment to outside contributors and support what is a flagship of Irish scholarship.

Few entries are by journalists; perhaps, like Dr Johnson, they reflected that nobody, except a blockhead, writes other than for money. But journalists, and indeed all writers, are well covered; generally it was conducive to inclusion, if not necessarily to objective appraisal, to have published one's memoirs.

Independent Newspapers will rejoice in the coverage given to its over-maligned proprietor William Martin Murphy, his worthy son Dr William Lombard Murphy and its long-serving editors Tim Harrington, Frank Geary, Michael Rooney and Hector Legge as well as notable journalists such as John D Hickey, Arthur McWeeney and Stanley Bergin, the cricketer.

The editors confess that the decision who to include was one of their most difficult tasks. It was not just a question of choosing the most interesting subjects. They had to contend with the reality that the quantity and quality of material available on different people is not necessarily proportionate to the relative significance of their life's work.

Individual readers will inevitably find fault with some inclusions and some omissions, not to mention the relative length of different entries. Ordinary civil servants, who have long viewed the airs and graces of our diplomats with a jaundiced eye, may wonder why rather insignificant Irish ambassadors are included but not men of the significance of Edward McCarron, head of the Department of Local Government from 1922 until his controversial dismissal in 1936, or Padraig O Cinneide, the first head of the Department of Health based in the Custom House, who as Patrick Kennedy had written in 1921 of the burning of the building by the IRA from the viewpoint of a British civil servant.

If diplomats are over-represented, Irish Christian Brothers are probably under-represented given their crucial role in the advancement of the less privileged in Irish society.

There may be scope for an extra volume along the lines of that published with the old Dictionary of National Biography entitled "missing persons" in addition to the supplementary volumes promised for those who died since 2002.

At the end of the day any criticisms pale beside the magnitude of the achievement. The heroes of this wonderful enterprise, which has been almost two decades brewing, are the editors James McGuire and James Quinn. Not alone have they marshalled the work of a range of contributors -- many of them doughty individualists unlikely to have been amenable to much direction -- but McGuire's piece rehabilitating the Jacobite Duke of Tyrconnell, who lost the Battle of the Boyne, and Quinn's one on that most proudly Irish of all British Army generals, Sir William Butler, rank with the best in the whole dictionary.

Last week the Dictionary of Irish Biography was honoured with the 2009 American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) for Best Multivolume Reference work in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sunday Independent

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