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From Abaddie to Zozimus -- 9,700 amazing Irish lives

It is, without doubt, the biggest thing in books in Ireland for years. For a start, the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) is a nine-volume monster weighing as much as a concrete block. It contains over eight million words in more than 7,000 pages. It's been 10 years in the making, was worked on by 700 contributors, and covers over 9,700 lives.

A collaborative project between the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and Cambridge University Press, the DIB is the most comprehensive biographical dictionary ever published for Ireland. The biographies, each one signed by the writer, cover the lives of people in many diverse areas, including politics, law, religion, literature, architecture, painting, music, the stage, science, medicine, entertainment and sport.

The aim of the DIB project was to cover the lives of all Irish men and women who made a significant impact in Ireland or abroad, as well as those born overseas who had noteworthy careers in Ireland. The time frame is the past 2,000 years. The names go from St Patrick to Patrick Pearse, James Ussher to James Joyce, St Brigid to Maud Gonne MacBride, Edward Carson to Bobby Sands.

And it's not just the worthy and the pious who make it in. The DIB includes the lives of criminals and prostitutes (like the fascinating 'Chicago May', originally Mary Ann Duignan from Ballinamuck in Co Longford) who made their mark in their own way.

There's also Peg Leeson, the renowned Dublin brothel-keeper, the infamous murderer William Burke (of Burke and Hare fame) and 'the Amazing Blondini', a famous circus performer whose real name was Michael Costello.

So if the lives of all the patriots and politicians cause you to nod off a bit, there's a sprinkling of racier stuff to rouse you again. Almost as interesting as the subjects are the contributors. Apart from (literally) dozens of historians, they include people with special knowledge like TK Whitaker, writer Colm Tóibín, Supreme Court judge Adrian Hardiman and social worker Fr Peter McVerry.

Although some biographies are just a few hundred words, many are long enough to fill several broadsheet newspaper pages and all are highly authoritative. The biographies are arranged alphabetically from Jacques Abbadie (d. 1727), a Huguenot refugee who became dean of Killaloe, to Zozimus, aka Michael Moran, (d. 1846) the balladeer born in Dublin's Liberties.

St Brigid is the earliest woman featured and the earliest man is Palladius, an envoy sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine. The most recent biography is of Dorothy Walker, the writer and critic, who died in December 2002.

The DIB is being published simultaneously in print and online. The online version of the dictionary will be an ongoing project, with new biographies being added each year into the future.

All of this does not come cheap. In print, the nine-volume set costs £775 but if you buy before the end of February you can get it at the special introductory price of a mere £650.

The good news is that the online version for individuals is £300 for five years' access. As is normal with institutional buyers (universities etc), the online price will be higher and will depend on the size of the institution.

Anyone can log on to the site at http://dib.cambridge.org/ where limited access is available free, including being able to look up the full list of names covered. Many libraries here already have copies. Dublin City Libraries, for example, has a copy in 12 branches and negotiations are underway to provide online access for people with library cards.

The online version is fully searchable, meaning that users can look up all subjects born on a certain date or in a certain place, or those with the same name, or religion, or profession etc. The DIB will be a very valuable resource for students, writers and anyone doing research. It will put the lives of all notable Irish people into every major university and library in the world for the first time.

This first edition stops in 2002 and those who died in subsequent years will be included in the online updates. The first update will be in May this year and updating will be done twice-yearly in the future.

The project grew out of an awareness among the members of the RIA that, unlike other countries such as the UK, USA and Australia, Ireland did not have a proper dictionary of biographies.

Cambridge University Press is expert in this field and so a link was forged, an editorial board was formed and two eminent UCD historians, James McGuire and James Quinn, became the main editors (Quinn has published biographies of Thomas Russell and John Mitchel and McGuire is a former editor of Irish Historical Studies and currently chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission).

And then 10 years of hard work began. From the start, the project enjoyed great goodwill -- for example, all of the independent contributors who were invited to write pieces did so for free. But the task was enormous and, inevitably, costly. The idea had been discussed in the RIA since the 1980s but did not begin until 1997 when Higher Education Authority funding at last made it possible.

And then the fun (and the headaches) really started. Who to put in? Who to leave out? Who would be best to write on a particular person? How much space to give? How to check accuracy? And so on and on ...

The managing editor of the project James McGuire says that they took advice from many experts in many fields when making the selection. "While many of those chosen were obvious candidates, in many other cases the editors had to make a call. In this respect responsibility lies with me and James Quinn," he says.

The choice of contributors was made easier by the fact that the RIA is full ofacademic experts in so many fields. "When a subject joined the list, we would discuss whether we would have the subject treated in-house or externally," McGuire says. "Was there an external authority who should be approached or had we a suitable internal contributor?"

And the checking was rigorous. "All entries on submission went through a process of initial reading, copy-editing, specialist reading, reversion to the author with queries, coding and putting into batch, and then final reading," McGuire explains.

One begins to understand why it took so long. The writing and editing of the dictionary took from 1997 to autumn 2008, followed by page proofing and online testing. Initially there was to be a print edition only, but in 2004 the RIA's publisher, Cambridge University Press, persuaded the Academy that there would have to be a simultaneous online version as well (that autumn Oxford University Press published the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in Britain in print and online).

Going online as well was "the right decision," McGuire says, "though it had considerable implications for the timetable as over 7,000 entries had already been written by then and now had to be manually coded".

But all that is water under the bridge and the result of all the hard and painstaking work is the magnificent nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography and its fascinating online version.

The pride of those involved is palpable and justified, especially on the part of the editorial board, the two senior editors and the team of, at times, up to 20 people (mainly young historians) who worked on the project.

Irish Independent