Looking it up in Ireland

Published in Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), Volume 12

James McGuire (right) with James Quinn, Executive Editor.

James McGuire (right) with James Quinn, Executive Editor.

TC: When did you become involved with the Dictionary of Irish Biography?

JMcG: I became involved with the DIB in the early 1990s when I was approached by the then president of the Royal Irish Academy, Aidan Clarke. I was asked to be one of the executive editors, the others being Aidan Clarke himself and Ronan Fanning of UCD. After giving it some thought, I decided that it was a challenge that I wanted to take on.

TC: What is the Dictionary of Irish Biography?

JMcG: The Dictionary of Irish Biography is first and foremost a work of reference which attempts to be as comprehensive as possible a biographic record from the beginning of recorded history up to the end of 2002. The crucial thing is that one has to be dead to be included. We try to find as subjects those individuals whom one could imagine people wanting to find information about, or those who have had interesting careers that have subsequently been forgotten but whom experts in different periods and fields recognise as important. We also seek to provide biographies which are intrinsically interesting and which the casual browser might enjoy reading. I want to stress, though, that above all it is a work of reference, which means that our approach to writing a person’s life might be different to someone writing for a learned journal on a particular aspect of a career. We attempt to cover all aspects of a career, insofar as that is possible within the format of a dictionary.

TC: Does that mean that the DIB concentrates on the factual information about a person’s career rather than making judgements about the person as the writer of a biography might?

JMcG: That is essentially the case, but there is no bar on contributors making assessments. Provided that they are intellectually defensible and reasonable, the editors will not interfere. However, we are determined above all else to have a factually useful and accurate book because there is nothing more frustrating in looking up a biographical work of reference to find that key information, such as when someone was first elected to Dáil Éireann or first imprisoned, for example, is not included. We want to provide the sort of information that people need and often want to find quickly, as is often the case when someone is writing an article or essay, although that does not exclude scope for intellectual assessment or judgement.

TC: You mentioned the DIB beginning with recorded history. Does that present a problem in the early period where history and legend may overlap?

JMcG: We go back to the beginnings of written sources for Irish history, although historians say that these sources come some time after the earliest events occurred. Some legendary figures will be included but we will make it clear that they are mythical and are included because they are significant. However, from the fourth century onwards our coverage will be as comprehensive as we can possibly make it within the constraints of having 9000 entries for the whole spectrum of Irish history.

‘We must bear in mind that someone like James Joyce has a huge international importance and that people abroad who have never heard of what we might regard as household names will know of him’. (Hulton Getty Collection)

‘We must bear in mind that someone like James Joyce has a huge international importance and that people abroad who have never heard of what we might regard as household names will know of him’. (Hulton Getty Collection)

TC: Is there a problem with ‘twilight’ figures that overlap myth and history such as the pagan and the Christian Brigid?

JMcG: I hope that contributions on such figures, like Brigid, will satisfy people worried about the extent to which she was a historical figure or a mythological one.

TC: What are the criteria for entry?

JMcG: We approach that issue in a number of ways. There are some people who clearly must be included, major historical figures. In other cases, we note their inclusion in other biographical works and the extent to which they occur in general histories of previous periods. The advice of experts on individuals who should have entries has been hugely important to us. One example would be in the area of science in which Irish people, or those working in Ireland, have made significant contributions. We sought advice from knowledgeable people and out of that has come the list of names to be included. If we get it wrong, then we must accept the blame. Our advisers cannot be blamed and we are very grateful to them for the assistance they have given.

TC: Figures from a hundred or a thousand years ago have stood the test of time, but as you approach the twenty-first century is it more difficult to choose who should go in?

JMcG: It is not especially difficult over the past one hundred years as many books and other work are being produced on politics and literature, for example, which highlight names that we want to know about. The problem is dealing with people who have died up to the limit of our terms of reference, say since 1980. We do our best to look at the careers of people who seem to be noteworthy or significant, but we are aware that in fifty years’ time readers may say that we failed to appreciate the significance of certain individuals or scratch their heads and ask why certain other people are in the dictionary. We can only say that in the contemporary context of a person’s dying in the 1980s or 1990s his or her career seemed more significant than it might appear to later generations. We can see this in the old (British) Dictionary of National Biography, where what seemed important in the 1870s and 1880s influenced the choice of Leslie Stephens and Sydney Lee and we today are sometimes puzzled as to why certain figures were included. However, this is the fate of all dictionaries of national biography.

TC: On the question of who is significant, how do you make the choice between, say, an early saint and a modern sporting hero?

JMcG: Historians are often accused of being interested only in great men and politicians, but I would like to emphasise that we are conscious of the whole spectrum of interest from criminals to scientists, from writers, artists and actors to sportsmen, musicians and entertainers. In Ireland, especially, the stage and literature have been particularly significant in the twentieth century and have achieved international recognition. The career of someone like Éamon de Valera is of profound importance here and abroad, but we must bear in mind that someone like James Joyce has a huge international importance and that people abroad who have never heard of what we might regard as household names will know of him.

TC: Is there a uniformity of treatment on the entries?

JMcG: We attempt, as far as the sources and period allow, to have a set formula. Each entry begins with the name, dates and a header description of their claim to fame, such as ‘scientist’, ‘historian’, ‘writer’. Then we describe the career chronologically. If it is a complicated one with different facets, it will be divided into sections. Every entry concludes with a list of the sources used in writing it. It follows the pattern of most dictionaries of national biography. However, there is no formula for a common style to be used throughout. Each contributor is given a certain degree of freedom as each has his or her own particular way of writing, but we seek to prevent unduly wordy entries or awkward turns of phrase. The basic criteria are that the syntax must be good and the meaning clear.

TC: How do you determine the length of entries?

JMcG: We have word bands. The major entries, category one, can run from two thousand to ten thousand words, but that would only be a very small group of international significance. At the other end of the spectrum is category five, where the entry might run from two hundred to five hundred words. Within that there is a degree of flexibility dependent on the significance of the career, the amount of information available and the amount that it is necessary to include.

TC: Is there a need to give fuller entries to lesser-known figures over well-known ones?

JMcG: I can see that people might feel that way but major figures, such as de Valera or O’Connell, require longer entries because it would be very frustrating for someone not to find them in a dictionary of Irish biography. Also, published biographies may not be available to a person who needs the information in a hurry, and it must be borne in mind that a published biography may not be very good. Therefore major careers have to be covered, and at length. Politicians, although their careers may not be ultimately significant or remembered in a thousand years like a writer, require a degree of space because of the length of time involved and the significance of decisions that they might have been involved in.

The Liberator addressing the electors of Clare—‘. . . major figures, such as de Valera or O’Connell, require longer entries because it would be very frustrating for someone not to find them in a dictionary of Irish biography’. (Maclure & Macdonald Lithographers, Glasgow)

The Liberator addressing the electors of Clare—‘. . . major figures, such as de Valera or O’Connell, require longer entries because it would be very frustrating for someone not to find them in a dictionary of Irish biography’. (Maclure & Macdonald Lithographers, Glasgow)

TC: The question of well-known figures presumes an Irish readership for the DIB, but do you see it having a wider readership?

JMcG: One of the most encouraging things in the course of this project is the number of people who contact us to wish us good luck and say that it is really needed, which is good for the morale of the editors and all working here. We foresee a huge Irish interest from writers, scholars, academics, local historians and the general reader who might then like to find out more in another book about a particular person who is mentioned. Irish diplomats, civil servants, newspapers and broadcasters will also find it useful. Others might want it for more utilitarian reasons such as organising a pub quiz. There is also a growing worldwide interest in Ireland and Irish studies in many countries, encompassing history, literature, theatre and other disciplines.

TC: How many people are working on the DIB?

JMcG: There is a core team of six as well as short-term contract people who have made a vital contribution. Many of these were doctoral students or recent doctoral graduates who brought their expertise in specific areas, which has smoothed over many problems in producing the dictionary. I also wish to acknowledge our immense debt to the over five hundred external contributors who have been hugely generous with their time and commitment. Well-known experts on a particular person or period wrote most of the major entries and likewise many shorter entries that required esoteric knowledge. This is a good opportunity to record our gratitude to them.

TC: When is the publication date?

JMcG: The planned date is 2006, which we expect to meet. It will be published in book form and in electronic format. The publisher is Cambridge University Press, which is the oldest academic press in the world and one of Europe’s leading publishing houses. It is also a worldwide company and will bring that dimension to distributing the DIB.

TC: What would you say to those who regard this project as an élitist enterprise focusing on the great and the good?

JMcG: That issue is sometimes raised but I agree with J.S. Crone, who said in his Concise Dictionary of Irish Biography that ‘no apology for its appearance is necessary. Its need and usefulness are taken for granted’. That may sound arrogant, but if we are including the élite careers it is because those are the ones that people want to look up. Given that, the dictionary covers a wide spectrum of people whose lives have proved to be significant. There will be worthy and significant careers that will not be included for the simple reason that we do not know about them. Hopefully, readers will inform us of omissions so that subsequent editions will include them. However, there is no agenda to concentrate on ‘élite’ careers.

TC: Is there a conscious attempt to address the question of gender balance in the DIB?

JMcG: We are aware of this and have done everything in our power to address it. We have sought advice and put great effort into ensuring that first-rate coverage is given to the careers of women. It would be intolerable for a work of reference not to. Women’s careers have often not been seen as significant in a male-orientated world, but we seek to include them from earliest times onwards. The percentage will not look good because of the structure of Irish society up to recent times. The more obvious names are women like the republican and socialist activist Ita Maloney, the artist Mainie Jellet, or Mother Mary Martin, founder of the Medical Missionaries. I hope that the percentage of women, particularly in the twentieth century, will be an improvement on anything produced before.

TC: The editor of the British DNB in the 1880s, Leslie Stephens, suffered a nervous breakdown because of the sheer scale of the task. How are you coping?

JMcG: I hope to avoid that because this is very much a team effort. The support of the team in the office is very important. James Quinn, Linda Lunny, who started when it was a pilot project, Richard Hawkins, our copy editor, Christopher Woods, and Larry White have all made splendid contributions. As well as them, we have an enthusiastic staff that have made the project go well. And if that was not enough, the support and kind words of our external contributors have helped our morale and assured us that this is a worthwhile project.

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