The lives of Daniel Binchy, Irish scholar, diplomat, public intellectual

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Irish Academic Press
ISBN 9781911024224

Reviewed by: Thomas O’Loughlin


It is the common destiny of most scholars, and certainly those who describe themselves as medievalists, to survive only as footnotes—and for the quantity of those footnotes to diminish steadily with the passing of the years. One of the very few exceptions, and possible the only Irish exception, is D.A. Binchy. Formidable, acute and fierce in argument while alive—he died in 1989—his work remains a benchmark in half a dozen areas of early Irish studies. Moreover, in an area where one decade’s certainties are the whipping boys of the next, Binchy’s judgements are, in general terms, as sound as when he made them. But if today he is remembered as a philologist, as a textual scholar of Old Irish, and as a historian and interpreter of early Irish law, he had, in his day, many other irons in the fire. As a student in Germany it was not his path to avoid any contact with politics from the lofty towers of the academy, but he observed Hitler at close quarters and, almost instantaneously, took a deep dislike to the mixture of populism and incitement of hatred that he saw in the future tyrant—and this was in the early 1920s, when the Nazis were only a Munich sideshow. Likewise, while today he is noted as a scholar on Ireland’s distant past, in his day he was a diplomat, a commentator on the Irish constitution and a political theorist. To each domain he brought an incisive logical mind, a passion for strict rules of evidence, a hatred of sleight-of-hand rhetoric, and a deep uneasiness with appeals to irrationality in whichever of its two dominant forms it manifested itself: specious religiosity or fanatical nationalism.

Born in Cork—the exact date of his birth is disputed (1899 or 1900)—Binchy graduated in law from UCD but was already deeply committed to the study of history. This evolved into a fascination with medieval history, and its documentary legacy, and so to Germany, where he wrote his Ph.D thesis on the Irish religious houses of medieval Germany. While today a university chair—at least in the humanities—is the mark of one’s own antiquity, almost at once he was given a chair in law in UCD. It would be followed by other chairs and he ended eventually in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. But no sooner had he started work than he was called away from academia to be the first minister (ambassador) of the Irish Free State to Weimar Germany. His appointment ended just before the Nazis came to power, but he had seen enough for him to warn many in Ireland, both privately and in writing, of the dangers of Hitler and, more generally, of Fascism.

A fascinating feature of Binchy’s work, seen in the early 1930s when he wrote of the corrosive dangers of Fascism, was his ability to work simultaneously on two widely diverging fronts. He was producing minutely argued scholarly studies of early Irish law—to be read by a handful of other experts—and contemporary broadsides on the state of the world. All the while he was working on other fronts: his concerns over the cultural life of Ireland at the time, the narrowness of many of its official policies, the ongoing legacy of the Civil War, the problems of education, not to mention the fact that he had a large circle of friends and acquaintances with whom he maintained constant contact. He was, in a way that few have been since, a public intellectual in a society that preferred romantic certainties and the politics of the parish pump.

All his life Binchy was a man on a mission: he had targets that he wanted to achieve—such as a monumental edition of the remnants of early Irish law—and targets that he wanted to attack. And, as he admitted himself, he wrote most fluently when he had some (unfortunate) colleague in the discipline in his sights. The result is that today we have a copious body of publications by him. Binchy’s six-volume Corpus Iuris Hibernici may be a monster to use—it needs Liam Breatnach’s A companion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Dublin, 2005) as an introduction—but only someone of Binchy’s courage and endurance could have brought it about. Likewise, the mythic histories of early medieval Ireland—whether of splendid high kingship or an all-conquering St Patrick—could only have been challenged by someone who had not only scholarly ability but also great independence of mind. Binchy, whether tackling Fascism or the confusion of comfortable myths about Ireland’s past, was fearless in his criticism.

It is fitting that this great scholar should now be the subject of historical investigation, and in Garvin he has found an enthusiastic admirer. The book, having opened with a who’s who in early Irish studies at the start of the twentieth century and containing a summary of various myths of early Ireland that need to be seen off in its final chapter, is a series of narratives that recount Binchy’s life from schooldays to old age. It does not follow the dreary bibliography-with-notes format of many biographies of academics. Rather it reads as the work of a storyteller, intermingling the many strands of Binchy’s life as they were intermingled in the man. Garvin has looked at Binchy’s books, searched the archives and collected the folklore about Binchy from those who knew him. And, as a political theorist in his own right, he has claimed the ancient storyteller’s right to declare his own position, which he sees as being in succession to Binchy, with authority: he points out how a failure to look with cold eyes on ‘the lovely past’ hamstrung many aspects of the cultural life of Ireland in the twentieth century—and with effects that continue even today. Binchy would, I suspect, chuckle to read it, but would then, as I will now, put this barb at the end of his review: needs some good sub-editing and a lot of careful proofreading!

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.


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