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From The Times Literary Supplement February 3, 2010

Who was who in Ireland?


Saints to singers, politicians to painters: a work set to transform the world of Irish scholarship
The definition of Irishness is notoriously contested, which is perhaps the reason why the Irish have had to wait so long for a dictionary of national biography. Individual and rather scrappy volumes have long circulated, notably by Alfred Henry Webb (1878), John S. Crone (1928) and Henry Boylan (1979); but otherwise, prosopographical guides tended to be organized by genre or subject, such as Padraic OFarrells useful Whos Who in the Irish War of Independence 1916 1922 (1980), later extended into Whos Who in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War 19161923, Walter Stricklands venerable but invaluable Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913), or Brian Cleeves three-volume Dictionary of Irish Writers (196771: updated, with Anne Brady, as A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers in 1985). The standard of biographical entry became a good deal more demanding with the appearance of Oxford University Presss large-scale Companions to Irish literature and to Irish history, edited respectively in 1996 and 1998 by Robert Welch and Sean Connolly, but the people whose lives were covered were necessarily selective. Now, at last, we have a large-scale multi-volume Dictionary, available online (dib.cambridge.org) or in nine thumping volumes. It is packed with detailed entries, all of them signed, and accompanied by guides to sources; the trawl is laudably ambitious, and the editorial labour Herculean. This project has come in triumphantly on time; and many of the entries incorporate very recent scholarship, though some do show signs of having been composed some time ago. Previous compendium-projects in Irish academe have not always proceeded smoothly, with histories of running badly behind schedule and producing work that is inconsistent in approach or outdated by the time it is printed; the Dictionary of Irish Biography has vindicated the format. It is safe to say that it will transform the world of Irish scholarship. The obvious comparison is with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published five years ago, and this Cambridge project can stand the test. Though the online version does not have the ODNBs lavish visual material and the range is necessarily far narrower, the authoritativeness, balance and eye for a telling detail are of the same order. The new Dictionary of Irish Biography is also similarly user-friendly. Online searching is both flexible and sophisticated; besides text-search, subjects can be tracked by date (or place) of birth and death, floruit dates, gender, religion, profession or career. The ODNB, of course, includes many entries on Irish subjects, up to independence and slightly beyond; in fact, the new DIB opens with the same person as Leslie Stephens old DNB, a seventeenth-century Dean of Killaloe with the hardto-trump surname Abbadie. (It ends with the balladeer Michael Moran, aka Zozimus.) However, Irish incursors into the DNB in both its previous incarnations tend to be people whose lives impinged on British consciousness and experience, whether through politics, war or culture. The wide range of people covered in the DIB provides a profile of life within the island from the

earliest times to 2002. As with the ODNB, the editors, James McGuire and James Quinn, have clearly made a decision to take in those often excluded from official Irish history, for reasons of disreputability or gender. Their introduction makes clear that achievement rather than position has been taken as the benchmark; election to the House of Commons or Dil ireann, or religious preferment, is not an automatic passport to inclusion. Our abiding criterion has been to include those names which seem most likely to be the objects of enquiry in the twenty-first century. There are many entries on women and artists, conveying a great deal of unfamiliar and valuable information; criminals and black sheep also feature, and a fair number of boxers, hurlers and footballers have shouldered their way in. The worlds of Irish academe and intelligentsia are generously treated. And not the least attractive feature of this enterprise is its adherence to the tradition of Irish historical scholarship (as reflected in the Committee of Irish Historical Sciences, or the journal Irish Historical Studies) which embraces the whole island: there is an evident wish to pay close attention to Northern Ireland in its various spheres of activity and achievement. Taken all in all, it cannot have been easy. Starting in those earliest times, particular difficulties of identification and confusion are inseparable from medieval Irish history, especially where saints and scholars are concerned: two Marianus Scottuses flourish at exactly the same time, and there are three different entries for Mo-Chua, Crnn, saint in the Irish tradition, spanning the sixth and seventh centuries. Their respective cults and activities are briskly sorted out by Ailbhe Mac Shamhrin, who also deals with a horde of Vikings and minor kings. Irish pseudonyms also create problems. A search for Mary Anne Kelly, who wrote poetry for the Nation in the 1840s under the pseudonym Eva, yielded no cross-references under Kelly, Mary Anne or Eva; she turns up rather illogically alphabeticized as Kelly \[Mary Anne\], Eva (an excellent entry by Brega Webb and Frances Clarke). This is just one instance where looking up entries online probably yields a quicker result than doing so in print. The approach to who qualifies is also engagingly broad. Those who were born in Ireland but achieved fame elsewhere find their place, even when their parentage was for instance English. The painter Francis Bacon is a good example; an Irish childhood in County Kildare horse-racing circles qualifies him for a long entry, ending with the point that his legendary South Kensington studio is now a permanent installation in Dublins Hugh Lane Gallery. This brilliant coup de thtre by the gallerys director reclaimed Bacon for Ireland at a stroke, and the process is confirmed by his inclusion here. Margarita Cappocks useful entry is less racy than recent Baconian commentary by John Richardson and others; sexual masochism goes unmentioned, though the concept of conscious sadism turns up unabashedly in the long entry on someone else not often seen as primarily Irish, C. S. Lewis. Lewiss biography here is one of several tours de force by Patrick Maume, who has contributed many entries distinguished for their intelligence, imagination and concise but thought-provoking judgements. Lewis the Ulsterman is given his due: Prince Caspians discovery that he is the descendant of pirates who conquered Narnia, massacred the native population and pretended that they never existed is not simply a critique of ahistoric rationalism. It is occasionally suggested that a Hibernocentric Lewis seeking the Celtic Twilight instead of the Nordic myths might have been a greater artist, but he might also have been a provincial crank, as were several of his intellectually frustrated relatives.

Editorial inclusiveness is also practised concerning people who were born and largely lived outside Ireland but exercised a notable influence on the country. There are exceptions (no Casimir Markievicz, though he was active in the theatre movement with his wife Constance) and the principle immediately raises some knotty problems, especially where politicians are concerned. British people who held office in Ireland qualify for an entry, but not those politicians who made Ireland a special interest or cause. Thus William Ewart Gladstone is missing; though he only visited Ireland once, he arguably left a more lasting impression on Irish policy than any other British politician. (Oliver and Henry Cromwell do receive authoritative and absorbing entries, by John Morrill and Toby Barnard respectively). By the same token, the long-forgotten seventh Duke of Marlborough qualifies for an entry because of his stint as Viceroy in the 1870s, but not his son Lord Randolph Churchill (whose disgrace at court precipitated the appointment). However, Lord Randolph spent much of his short but meteoric career absorbed in Irish affairs, actually lobbied to become Irish Chief Secretary (no doubt seen by some as an early sign of the dementia that killed him), and famously travelled to Ulster in 1886 to endorse Unionist resistance to Home Rule. It is true that Lord Randolph is, to a certain extent, smuggled in under his fathers entry, a strategy also employed elsewhere as with the Maxwell family, where the entry on the tenth Baron Farnham segues neatly into an account of his successor, or with whole clutches of socialite Guinnesses. Families of painters such as the Mulvanys or the Robertses also sometimes share entries; thus the promotional material can boast 9000 entries, but 9,700 lives. All this extends the trawl usefully, but is not an aid when using the Dictionary by strict alphabetical order. Politicians are generally given a good deal of space. The lengthy entries awarded to amon de Valera and Sen Lemass (both by Ronan Fanning, both excellent) were rather preeningly highlighted by the current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, at the Dublin launch of the Dictionary; perhaps fortunately for the purposes of Fianna Fils continuing enterprise of self-congratulation, Charles James Haughey died too late for inclusion. One eagerly anticipates his entry in a future volume. More obscure figures are often treated generously: eighteen columns, for instance, awarded to Timothy Michael Healy, antiParnellite and first Governor-General of the Free State. This is contributed by Healys biographer Frank Callanan, who also writes thirty-two exemplary columns on Parnell; full of interesting quotations and with a lengthy coda summing up aspects of his career, it stands as a Brief Life in itself. The other giant of nineteenth-century Irish politics, Daniel OConnell, receives eighteen columns by Gearid Tuathaigh a model of judicious concision. But less-established politicians get their due too. The protean Patrick Maume contributes a fascinating entry on Daithi Conaill (193891), foundermember of Provisional Sinn Fin/IRA; the sources employed involve a wide range of obscure journalism, and the text even directs us to a roman clef by Eugene McCabe about a character based on Conaill. And due space is given to people who laboured less glamorously in public life, such as the priest John Hayes, who founded the agricultural organization Muintir na Tre one of several strikingly informative biographies of early twentieth-century figures by Diarmaid Ferriter. A similar project of reclamation is represented by James Kellys entries on the luminaries and opportunists of the eighteenth-century Irish parliament.

The entries on Irish writers significantly mirror the burgeoning of Irish literary history, particularly in reflecting literary production in the eighteenth century at a wider level than Swift, Goldsmith and Sterne, and in including popular but now forgotten writers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The long and judicious entry on the novelist Kate OBrien includes a useful paragraph detailing the rediscovery of her work by feminist presses and critics from the 1980s, and the deservedly high status she now holds; it is also refreshingly matter-of-fact about her personal life, introducing a tone unfamiliar to previous Irish biographical dictionaries (\[her husband Gustav\] Renier was probably bi- or homosexual; OBrien was lesbian and not domesticated and the marriage only lasted eleven months). Edwina Keowns entry on Maria Edgeworth similarly ends with a useful appraisal of her reputation and its recovery; the main part of the entry contributes to this by concentrating on the underrated novel Ormond at the expense of Edgeworths many other productions. The lives of some writers are drawn so as to parallel their creations, as with the roistering William Hamilton Maxwell, clerical novelist and author of Wild Sports of the West (1832): He usually passed his days fox-hunting, shooting and fishing, often with the 2nd marquess of Sligo, who made him his personal chaplain, perhaps for expert advice on misdeeds. The giants of Irish writing receive their due; Joyce, Yeats, Shaw and Wilde are the subjects of impressive essays by Bruce Bradley, Terence Brown, Nicholas Grene and Owen Dudley Edwards. Appropriately, there is also a provocative assessment of the great critic of Yeats, Joyce and Wilde, Richard Ellmann, by Diarmaid Ferriter: His admirers saw him as providing a critic commensurate with the Irish authors capacity for complexity, a skill lacking in native critics, and suggested that while he was born into an age of new criticism and died in an age of critical theory, he never fully belonged to either group, being too sophisticated to be labelled categorically. The wide variety of authors drawn on for the entries on literature adds to the interest (Colm Tibn on Francis Stuart, for instance) though, oddly, the adjacent entries on Sean OCasey (by Robert Lowery) and on his wife Eileen (by Lawrence William White) give different dates and circumstances for how the couple met (the latter seeming more circumstantially exact). Due attention is also given to creative artists in other genres, such as the designer Eileen Gray (who spent most of her life in France) and the adoptively Irish film director John Huston though curiously, no judgement is passed on his films, in marked contrast to the analytical tone adopted where most novelists are concerned. Singers and actors feature interestingly: Derek Walshs fascinating entry on the great tenor John OSullivan makes clear just how celebrated he was before James Joyce took his cause up in 1929, though it is perhaps through his friendship with Joyce that he is now most vividly remembered. The entries on Irish painters indicate the rapid developments in art history over the past three decades or so, notably in Peter Murrays entry on James Barry though the contribution on Daniel Maclise, clearly submitted some time ago, inevitably missed the re-evaluation (and the magisterial catalogue) associated with a major exhibition in 2008. But the Dictionary provides far more than an updating of Strickland; artists of the early and mid-twentieth century are fully covered: there is a great deal of useful information about painters such as Jack Hanlon, Charles Brady, Laetitia Hamilton, Norah McGuinness and Colin Middleton hitherto only accessible in sources such as back numbers of the Irish Arts Review. These sometimes apparently draw on personal knowledge and experience, clearly hard-won. The character sketch of the marvellous

portrait painter Edward McGuire (193286) carries a heartfelt ring: A complex, paradoxical, highly-wrought personality, he alternated bouts of bohemian conviviality with long periods of monkish solitude; handsomely patrician, courteous and impeccably mannered, he could turn rude and bitterly sardonic when so moved. Overall, though, the national stereotype of creative, quarrelsome, undisciplined Celts receives a much-needed corrective. The entries on business people and entrepreneurs reflect recent historiographical reassessment of this under-valued aspect of Irish experience, and take in not only the shipbuilders of Belfast and linen barons of Derry, but the brewers and bakers of Cork and Waterford. There is also a wide representation of engineers, medics and scientists, male and female. Here, the intentions declared by the editors introduction have been impressively realized. Overall, the tone is remarkably readable, partly because the editors have wisely allowed a certain quirky dryness of tone to creep in, and perhaps contributed to it themselves. Mariga Guinness, co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society, is described, with some restraint, as an exotic and sometimes glamorous hostess. Ruth Dudley Edwards affirms that the distinguished journalist Brian Inglis refused to become Director of Programmes for RTE, knowing that it would have been hell to deal with pressure-groups and that like all high-profile returning Irish he would be savaged by the Irish media. And Patrick Maume (again), refining faint praise to an art form, suggests that James Chichester-Clark, briefly Premier of Northern Ireland, should not be seen as devoid of ability. Larger themes and conclusions about a biographical approach to Irish history suggest themselves as one peruses these volumes. There is the prevalence of certain families, dynasties and extended tribal groups, some producing professional middle-class politicians and academics (Gwynns, Dillons, Webbs), others soldiers and statesmen (Butlers, OBriens), and others, such as the Moores, scientists, doctors and writers. The venerable nationalist notion of the exemplary individual life reflecting that of the nation at large is subtly subverted by much that we read here. The Dictionary of Irish Biography represents, overall, a triumph of imaginative scholarship as well as painstaking generalship on the part of the editors, whose commitment is above praise. The editorial principles followed are sound, sensible and consistent, but not to the point of obsession. Very long entries are usefully subdivided, many (though by no means all) ending in the DNB style by listing extant portraits as well as archival and secondary sources; in the case of St Patrick, the bibliographical guide is immensely long, and much of the actual entry is concerned with problems of evidence. One oddity concerns the titles of the nine volumes themselves: Volumes 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are designated by names of the first and last subjects, in the old DNB style (as in Volume 2, BurdyCzira); Volumes 3 and 4 appear under alphabetical letter only (as in Volume 3, DF); Volumes 1 and 9 mingle the two approaches (as in Volume 1, A Burchill). The admirably informative yet crisp introduction gives no rationale for this inconsistency. In any case, it does not intervene between the curious reader and the riches within the individual volumes. As one closes them, a remembered phrase from rural Ireland comes to mind. After a long visit spent discussing friends, relatives and family interconnections, it was sometimes remarked We had a great evening, tracing. Many such evenings can be promised to those fortunate enough to have access to this wonderful series.

James McGuire and James Quinn, editors DICTIONARY OF IRISH BIOGRAPHY Nine volumes. Royal Irish Academy/ Cambridge University Press. 775 (US $995). 978 0 521 63331 4 Roy Foster is Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, Oxford. His books include Modern Ireland 16001972, 1988, and Luck and the Irish: A brief history of change 19702000, 2007.

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