Last week Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle of NUIG gave a talk in the National Library on pre-eighteenth-century Gaelic genealogy. Dr. Ó Muraíle is renowned in scholarly circles for his editing of Leabhar Mór na nGenealach, the Great Book of Genealogies, a huge compendium of the pedigrees of Gaelic, pre-Gaelic, Scottish, Viking and Old English families in Ireland, compiled in Galway in the mid-seventeenth century by Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh. Ó Muraíle’s edition, published in 2004 by Éamonn de Búrca Books, runs to 3,100 pages in five volumes, including two volumes of indexes, a full English translation and a complete scholarly apparatus. The only appropriate response is awe.
The talk was fascinating, an eagle’s-eye view of the topic from someone in perfect control of the detail. It left no doubt just how deeply engrained genealogy was in the old Gaelic order: the worst insult a learned Gael could throw at the influx of newcomers in the seventeenth century was that “they had no genealogy” – in other words, they didn’t know who they were. And the sheer quantity of surviving medieval genealogies is unique to Ireland, orders of magnitude greater than anything similar elsewhere in Europe.
He also made clear just how sceptically these pedigrees have to be treated. Having the right descent was vitally important for the Gaelic aristocracy and the genealogies were created at their behest. As with modern-day consultants producing reports for lobby-groups, the correct conclusions were often obvious in advance. In any case, for someone doing genealogical research now, these genealogies have to remain tantalisingly out of reach, rendered forever inaccessible by the collapse of Gaelic culture and the documentary black hole of the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922.
The lecture was one of the series of highly successful brief lunchtime family history talks organised over the month of August by the National Library, in association with Eneclann and Ancestor Network. Let’s hope they become a regular fixture.
And the pronunciation is “DOOaltach MacIrvishy”. Which was anglicised, incredibly, as “Dudley Forbes”.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]