The ABC of the Irish


REFERENCE: Dictionary of Irish BiographyJames McGuire and James Quinn, editors Royal Irish Academy/Cambridge University Press Nine volumes, 7,000pp. £775 Online edition:

Twelve years in the making, the innovative and imaginative comprehensive Dictionary of Irish Biographyis a wonderful work of scholarship

ON NOVEMBER 18th, 2009, the Dictionary of Irish Biographywas launched by the Taoiseach in Dublin Castle. The project had taken 12 years, and was produced on time and within budget. Of the many hundreds of people there that night, there cannot have been any who would deny their moment of triumph to the two editors of this magnificent piece of scholarship, James McGuire and James Quinn, affectionately and respectfully referred to over the last 12 years as “the two Jameses”. In a small country like Ireland, with an even smaller academic community, a collaborative effort involving 700 people which attracts such universal approval and support is remarkable. The great Breandán Ó hÉithir, who has his own splendid entry in the DIB, would have been astonished at the wholesale abolition of begrudgery in relation to this project.

And with good reason. The French Dictionnaire de Biographie Française, which began publication in 1932, has now only reached the letter L, while the German Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, which began publication in 1953, has reached the letter S. The Australian Dictionary of Biographyhas been operating since 1957, and has so far produced volumes dealing with people who lived between 1788 and 1990. The Dictionary of Canadian Biographybegan to publish in 1966, and has so far reached people who died before 1930. The nearest comparison to the Irish project is probably the National Biography of Finland,which took the same length of time to complete, but contains a third fewer entries than the DIB. Many of these projects had substantial previous collections to build on, unlike Ireland, which despite some very good small-scale and specialist dictionaries of biography, had to start from scratch.

The DIB consists of nine volumes containing entries for 9,700 lives, covering the period from earliest times to 2002, ranging in length from 200 to 15,000 words. There is a subscription-based online version, which allows searching by names, birth, death and floruit dates, gender, place, religion, occupation or field of interest, contributor and free text. One can also browse by name of subject or contributor, or read a random life. Names of other subjects covered by the series are linked from each piece, leading to a cornucopia of delightful distractions. It is much easier to click on a hyperlink than to take out another volume and leaf through it to find the person with the (qv) beside their name.

Criteria for inclusion in the series, as outlined in the editors’ introduction, are that subjects should be: “born in Ireland with careers in Ireland; born in Ireland with careers outside Ireland; born outside Ireland with careers in Ireland”.

Subjects include “artists, scientists, lawyers, actors, musicians, writers in Irish and English, politicians, sporting figures, criminals and saints”. Criteria for each entry were that it be “factually accurate, based on the most recently available sources and accessible to the general reader”.

The earliest entries are for the 5th Century, and the earliest (putative) birth date is for St Patrick in 420 (Cormac Bourke). The latest death date, December 8th, 2002, is for the art critic Dorothy Walker (Bruce Arnold). In between lie 9,700 lives, some very well known, some not at all.

To plunge into the O’Briens of Thomond, for example, is to be immersed in a world of Gaelic lordships, earldoms, bishoprics, internecine warfare, clever marriages, accommodations with new rulers, architectural innovation, patronage of the arts, wildly fluctuating financial fortunes, frequent familial disharmony, and a canny capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, all of it covering eight centuries.

The editors state their intention to broaden the traditional scope of dictionaries of biography: “ . . . biographical dictionaries are sometimes criticised as elitist works, the products of an old-fashioned view of history that concentrates on the deeds of statesmen and soldiers.

By contrast the Dictionary of Irish Biography’s editorial policy has been to give primacy to achievement over position. Holding an important office in itself has generally not been regarded as sufficient to merit inclusion; rather it is what an individual did with that office that has been judged the crucial determinant. While it has not been editorial policy to include relatively obscure persons as representative types of ‘ordinary’ lives, the Dictionary nonetheless encapsulates what might be best described as non-elite careers”.

Thus, we can choose between well-known figures such as Daniel O’Connell or Charles Stewart Parnell, both superbly dealt with by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and Frank Callanan respectively, or look at the beggar Billy-in-the Bowl, a late-18th-century legless Dublin rogue who is, according to Paul Rouse, mentioned in Finnegans Wakeand in a song by Shane McGowan. We can sympathise with Katty Barry, who ran a famous shebeen near Coal Quay in Cork, and whose bohemian establishment was closed down and demolished by Cork Corporation in the 1960s, as described by Jude McCarthy and Bridget Hourican.

The editors expressed their intention to give due regard to “the dramatic growth in research and publication in women’s history [which] has substantially changed the agenda for a work such as this. We have, therefore, not only included many pioneering women who broke into traditional male spheres like the natural sciences, but have also tried to provide accounts of outstanding practitioners in what have often (though not always entirely accurately) been seen as traditional ‘female’ occupations such as arts and crafts, midwifery and philanthropy”.

There are 917 entries for women in the series, approximately 10 per cent of the total, and this is to be greatly welcomed. Any weaknesses in the contributions reflect weaknesses in the research area, and it is to be hoped that the DIB’s coverage of women will act as a catalyst for further research.

As well as Anna Haslam (Patrick Maume), Mary Aikenhead (Marie O’Leary), Constance Markievicz (Senia Paseta) and Maud Gonne (Margaret O’Callaghan and Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid), we get Annie Moore (Maureen Murphy), Ellis Island’s first immigrant, for which she got a 10-dollar gold piece; Fanny Alexander (Linde Lunney), the composer of All Things Bright and Beautiful; Mary Burns (Frances Clarke), Friedrich Engels’s lover and educator; Rosamund Jacob (Bridget Hourican), republican and novelist (whose key relationship with Frank Ryan is strangely omitted from her entry); and the Belfast Communist Madge Davison (Anna Bryson), whose husband, John Hobbs, died recently.

An indication of the richness and density of information to be accessed from a single entry, just by following the qvs, can be demonstrated through Ronan Keane’s very thorough piece on Seán MacBride, a man with an extremely varied career, ranging from Irish republican aristocracy to revolutionary activity to cabinet membership to international jurist to human rights innovator.

His entry leads you, in order, to his mother, Maud Gonne, and half-sister Iseult Gonne; his father, John MacBride; John Francis Sweetman, Headmaster of Mount St Benedict in Wexford, who was banned from priestly activities for 14 years because of his support for Sinn Féin; the suffragist Charlotte Despard, who shared Roebuck House with his mother; Robert Briscoe, Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor; Michael Collins; and Eamon de Valera.

We also get MacBride’s father-in-law, travel writer William Bulfin; Cumann na nGaedheal minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins; WB Yeats; WT Cosgrave; Major Bryan Cooper, a Sligo landowner who moved from referring to “Robespierre Redmond and Danton Dillon” to becoming a Cumann na nGaedheal TD, and was allegedly the man who put John Jinks, TD, on the Sligo train, drunk, in 1927, thus saving the Cumann na nGaedheal government from losing a crucial vote of confidence; Peadar O’Donnell, socialist and writer, who was too left-wing for MacBride’s taste; Moss Twomey, the chief of staff of the IRA who preceded MacBride in that position; Tom Barry, who succeeded him, architect of the notorious Kilmichael ambush, who is reported as having said to the intransigent Liam Lynch in 1923, “I’ve done more fighting in one week than you’ve done in your whole life”.

There is George Gavan Duffy, before whom MacBride appeared as lawyer for one of the IRA members interned in 1940, and whose judgment held that the provisions of the Offences Against the State Act of 1939 relating to internment were contrary to the guarantee of personal liberty in the constitution, resulting in the release of IRA internees; the writer Francis Stuart, who married MacBride’s half-sister Iseult, and became embroiled in later controversy due to broadcasts made from Berlin to Ireland during the second World War; broadcaster Noel Hartnett, one of the founders, with MacBride, of Clann na Poblachta in 1946 (his initially close connection to MacBride caused him to be nicknamed “the shadow of the shadow of a gunman”); Sean MacEntee, Fianna Fáil minister for finance in the early 1950s and virulent attacker of Clann na Poblachta.

And finally, John A Costello, head of the inter-party government of 1948-51, in which MacBride was minister for external affairs; Noel Browne, minister for health in the same government, member of Clann na Poblachta, who fell out very publicly with MacBride over the proposed mother and child scheme of 1951, leading to Browne’s resignation; Maurice Moynihan, the legendary cabinet secretary, whom MacBride excluded from cabinet meetings during the inter-party government, thus adding to its many troubles; FH Boland, secretary of the department of external affairs when MacBride took over as minister, who relinquished his post to become Irish Ambassador in London because of personal differences with MacBride; and John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, who led the charge against the mother and child scheme.

One entry gives you 24 other people, some with overlapping roles, including one president, three taoisigh, five cabinet ministers, nine TDs, four MPs, two senior civil servants, one archbishop, two writers (one a Nobel laureate), two chiefs of staff of the IRA, three professional soldiers, two feminists, two muses, one president of the high court, one priest, one travel writer and one republican socialist.

These people take us through most of 20th- century Ireland, from the Gaelic revival through the 1916 rising, the movement for female suffrage, the war of independence, the civil war, the various governments after the establishment of the Free State, many of the achievements, controversies and disputes of the period, a large part of its early literary history, the power and influence of the Catholic church, the continuation of republican violence after independence, the development of Irish jurisprudence, and of course Sean MacBride’s achievements in establishing the International Committee of Jurists, and his crucial role in the foundation of Amnesty International. It is a shame that the references at the end of the piece cannot, unlike so many others, refer to a collection of the subject’s papers in a reputable repository.

This exercise could be repeated for many other entries; the breadth and scope of the series becomes abundantly apparent as one moves from one link to another, adding to the depth of the experience. It is hard to put down the volumes, and harder still to get off the site, without one more peek.

Many young historians, whose sterling work is to be seen in this wonderful piece of scholarship, got work from the DIB in the days when work was hard to come by (we’re back in that situation now; time for another great project). The major pieces on outstanding personalities are extremely well served by their contributors: St. Patrick by Cormac Bourke; Brian Boru and Dermot MacMurrough by Máire Ní Mhaonaigh; Grace O’Malley by Emmet O’Byrne; Gearóid Mór Fitzgerald by Mary Ann Lyons; Hugh O’Neill by Hiram Morgan; Ó Tuathaigh and Callanan as previously mentioned; James Connolly by Fergus D’Arcy; James Larkin by Emmet O’Connor; Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass by Ronan Fanning; Michael Collins by Michael Hopkinson, among many others. The standard of general scholarship is very high.

As well as historians, there are experts in the many fields covered by the subjects: literature, archaeology, science, the arts, sport, politics, religion, education, crime and more. The accessible scholarly plenitude provided by this tremendous resource should be a source of great pride to its editors, advisory boards, staff, contributors, Cambridge University Press and the Royal Irish Academy.

It should also be a signal that Irish humanities scholars are capable, with the right financial supports, of producing innovative, accurate and imaginative material to the highest international standard which greatly enhances Ireland’s national image.

An introductory, reduced offer for the DIB of £650 runs until March 31st.

Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland

“ One entry gives 24 other people including one president, three taoisigh, five cabinet ministers, nine TDs, four MPs, two writers (one a Nobel laureate), two chiefs of staff of the IRA, two feminists and two muses