Great Saint Robbery – Frank McNally on the dubious Scottish historian Thomas Dempster

An Irishman’s Diary

On foot of a recent column about historic ambiguity over the term “Scot” (An Irishman’s Diary, February 2nd), a reader has reminded me of a notorious mass abduction case from the 17th century, in which a perpetrator exploited the confusion.

In fairness to the Scottish theologian Thomas Dempster, the trauma to his victims will have been lessened by the fact that they were all dead by then, and also in some cases fictional.

But either way, his crime involved claiming as Scottish every notable saint or scholar in history to whom the adjective "scotus" had been applied. Since Scotia was long the Latin name or Ireland, his all-star line-up included even St Brigid.

The result was summarised in the 2012 book Endurance – Heroic Journeys in Ireland, by Dermot Somers. Writing primarily about the historian Michael O'Clery, of Four Masters' fame, Somers also mentions Dempster, "who kidnapped the entire canon of Irish saints in a semantic raid", as one of the things O'Clery was up against.

This was not just a matter of historical correctness or national honour. There was money at stake too, most notably in the funding of Irish Catholic seminaries in Europe, especially France. To be deprived at a stroke so many of its famous ancestors might also have undermined Ireland's ongoing struggle for recognition as a nation.

Hence the war of words that raged throughout the early 1620s in response to Dempster's mass hostage-taking. One of the Irish responses was by the Bishop of Ossory, David Rothe, who in rebutting Dempster's claims that all the ancient scotti were Scots in the modern sense, went to the other extreme and claimed they were all Irish, which was not true either.

Dempster countered in Latin that Rothe was a "diabolus rabiosus exiens orco" ("mad devil from hell"). But the bishop had gallant allies in Europe, including Thomas Messingham, rector of the Irish College in Paris, who detailed Ireland's embarrassment of saintly riches in a famous work of 1624.

It should be said that much of Dempster’s published work was of a higher academic standard. Unfortunately, he is now best known for the book in question, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Scotorum, which the British Dictionary of National Biography (DNB, 1888 edition) sums up as “displaying great industry [but] chiefly remarkable for its extraordinary dishonesty”.

Not only did not it misappropriate Irish saints, but English ones too.

According to the DNB, the author “claims a Scottish origin for every distinguished person mentioned in history who has ever been supposed to be a native of Britain, supporting himself often by quotations from imaginary authors, or garbled extracts from real ones.” The DNB blamed Dempster’s fraud on either excess of patriotism or “personal vanity”.

Of the latter possibility, it notes that he himself is the only authority for his supposed date of birth, August 23rd, 1579, and adds that “there seems reason to suspect that he may have [placed it] a few years too late with the object of enhancing the marvel of his youthful precocity in learning.”

Whatever Dempster’s motivations, the Irish-Scot confusion has been largely sorted since then, with some exchange of prisoners.

The ninth-century philosopher John Scotus Eriugena, for example, is now generally accepted to have been Irish, contrary to Dempster's claim; while the 13th-century thinker John Duns Scotus is now widely considered a Scot, contrary to long-standing Irish contention.

Mind you, when a 2014 article on the website irishphilosophy.com handed Duns Scotus over thus, it later had to add a footnote to the effect that some of its readers had still not conceded the issue and that he might have been born in Co Down.

As a Scottish Catholic aristocrat, Dempster had been educated from an early age in Paris, at the Scots College, among other places.

That used to be on the Latin Quarter’s Rue Cardinal Lemoine, not far from the Irish equivalent.

But whereas the Scots version did not survive the French Revolution, the Irish College did, and still does in its modern reinvention as the Centre Culturel Irlandais. Take that, Dempster,

The Scotsman's career as teacher and scholar subsequently brought him all over the continent, and finally to Bologna where he spent his last years, enjoying fame, a papal knighthood, and a pension from his friend, Pope Urban VIII.

But there was some trouble in paradise too.

In 1625, Dempster’s wife ran away with one of his students. He pursued them as far as Vicenza but his wife then formalised the separation by means of escaping across the Alps.

Perhaps the saints had deserted Dempster in the end.

He gave up and returned home, exhausted by the journey, and died in Bologna later that summer, at the alleged age of 46.