Donnchadh Ó Corráin and F.J. Byrne

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—The last few months of 2017 witnessed the passing of two giants of Irish historiography. Donnchadh Ó Corráin—interviewed in the last issue (HI 26.1, Jan./Feb. 2018)—died in Cork on 25 October, and then on New Year’s Eve came news that Francis John Byrne, another colossus of early Irish history, had died on the previous day. F.J. Byrne had been professor of early Irish history in UCD—a position he attained at the age of 30—from 1964 until his retirement in 2000. Whereas Donnchadh was gregarious and relished communication, Francis John was a scholars’ scholar: one encountered him in the seminar, in quiet discussion and in learned papers invariably written for other specialists. He is now mainly known for two works. First, for his monograph Irish kings and high kings (1973 and later revisions), which addressed the role of kingship as a social institution in early Irish society. We now know its perspective so well that we forget that it was the first time that a historian had drawn together the various kinds of evidence (legal, linguistic and literary, in addition to the more well-trodden ‘historical’ and archaeological sources) about kingship and its roles in society. His second project was the New History of Ireland in conjunction with T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin. Its aim (first sketched: 1962; first published plan: 1968) was audacious: an equivalent in nine volumes to the Oxford History of England but with each volume being the work of an expert panel rather than a single author. The first volume appeared in 1976 with this note: ‘Each volume, whatever its date of publication’ (and it was over 30 years later that the final volume appeared), ‘will broadly reflect the stage of advance of historical research attained by that date’ (p. v). This vision reflects an aspect of Francis John’s approach to history that he transmitted to his students: history is an edifice to which each scholar contributes her/his one or two, or possibly more, bricks. The challenge was to be careful and precise in making those bricks—and big historical vistas were inherently suspect.

I first met Francis John in ‘second arts’ in UCD and soon realised that every lecture was a workshop in historical method. He was never the teacher but rather the leader of the seminar: he assumed that we wanted to engage in the task of being historians and treated us as fellow scholars. We were often lost but knew that we would learn our trade by trying to keep up, and were rewarded by having our half-baked ideas treated with the same dignity with which he dissected the works of Binchy or MacNeill, or their even more illustrious predecessors such as Mommsen or Delehaye. I took away many things from those undergraduate days with him, but two stand out. First, that the historian had to be master of the material evidence: one could not just rely on an edition but one had to be trained—in the fashion of Continental scholars—in palaeography so as to read documents as they were read; likewise, one had to master the languages, for each language (and F.J. was a master of many, including Chinese—learned as a child in Shanghai) was as much a world as the document was a witness to that world. Second, one could not ignore any source of information. This was brought home to me when on the morning that the discovery of the Derrynaflan hoard was announced he was able to draw a picture of the place in the eighth century using the bare minimum of sources—all taken from his well-stocked memory.

Donnchadh and Francis John were very different styles of scholar but both were disciples of Bloch (Donnchadh explicitly), both were masters of evidence and both were kind guides to those of us who came after them. They will be missed!—Yours etc.,

University of Nottingham


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