Ireland after Donnchadh . . .

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Volume 26

Seán Duffy talked to Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Irish History at University College Cork, shortly before his death on 25 October 2017.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin

SD: Tell me about your family background and early years.

DÓC:  Well, I’m from Killorglin, Co. Kerry, from a farming background—a family that had a sideline in clerics and teachers and who felt they had been ruined by the Economic War, which they were. And I belong to the second generation who weren’t native speakers of Irish. My father didn’t know any Irish; my grandfather spoke Irish but didn’t get it at school, so he taught himself to read it from the Irish column in the Freeman’s Journal, which he took every day. In my early youth I was a passionate reader of English novels—Dickens especially—and I remember having an argument with a priest in secondary school (I was sent to St Brendan’s College, Killarney, which was a minor seminary). I said, ‘Why are we reading this rubbish in Irish, this isn’t literature?’ And he lent me his copy of An tOileánach and of Fiche Bliain ag Fás and said, ‘Read those and you’ll find out there’s some literature in Irish’. I did and he was right, but the poetry that was selected for the Irish classroom by the Department of Education in its wisdom was absolute tripe.

SD: Did any of your teachers spark something in you that mightn’t otherwise have shone?

DÓC: Yes, I had such a teacher. His name was Michael O’Flaherty, who taught English, history and Latin. He made us love Shakespeare and the love of Horace that he instilled in me has remained all my life. Then of course I grew up in an intensely religious background, and it was almost a given that I wound up in Maynooth, where I spent two years. I spent the first year trying to find out what had gone wrong with me and the second screwing up the courage to get out of it. But I had Tomás Ó Fiaich as a teacher of modern history and he was quite exciting. I admire Ó Fiaich’s energy and his ability as a teacher, but of course he was an unreconstructed de Valeraite nationalist from Crossmaglen and that did not fit me at all. I didn’t belong to that creed. I came from a household that excoriated de Valera and everything he stood for.

SD: So where did you get your grounding in early Irish history? 

DÓC:  When I went to Cork I did a mixed degree of Irish and history and had an absolutely exciting teacher in James Hogan, who didn’t do history in the conventional way, and, when I finished my degree, I went along to Séamus Pender, the professor of Irish history, and he said, ‘Why don’t you do a study of Dermot McMorrough?’ So, I took it up and did it. That brought me to read the Irish annals closely and from then on I was keenly interested in the type of society that was in Ireland in the early Middle Ages. When I got a first in the MA, Ristéard A. Breathnach, who was the professor of Irish, got in touch with his friend D.A. Binchy and recommended me for a scholarship in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and so I spent two years there. It was heaven, because the university libraries in those days were pretty bad and here was an outstanding specialist Celtic library. I was assigned to Binchy, and Binchy was as severe and remote as a glacier. When I sent up stuff for him to read, a mysterious pencilled ‘X’ would appear in the margins when he didn’t agree. But he didn’t tell you what he disagreed with or why or what was wrong. I found out later that until Binchy was convinced you were serious and had the makings of a scholar he did nothing for you.

SD: You rate Binchy very highly, then?

DÓC:  Yes, Binchy was undoubtedly the greatest Irish historian of his age. He began scientific, source-rich, Irish social and institutional history—kingship, social classes, status, kinship, land-ownership, and so on. His primary degree was in law and politics, and after his MA in UCD he went to Munich and studied with Paul Lehmann and others. He soaked himself in the great German tradition of historical jurisprudence and wrote a Ph.D (for which he had nothing but contempt later). When he returned to Ireland he told the greatest Irish scholar of the day, the reserved Osborn Bergin, that he proposed to re-edit the Ancient laws of Ireland.

But Bergin and MacNeill both told him that he had to master Irish in all its stages from Early Old Irish to the present day and, trained by Bergin and the great Rudolf Thurneysen of Bonn, he did just that, and became the greatest living Celtic philologist, and his Corpus iuris Hibernici, which came out in 1978, is still the largest source-book for medieval Ireland ever edited. His book-length essay ‘Patrick and his biographers, ancient and modern’ (1962) is the finest piece of historical criticism in twentieth-century Irish historiography, which cleared a whole field of the scrub of piety and legend-building ‘history’, and enabled its scholarly study.

Binchy’s world was far wider than Celtic Studies. In Paris (as he told me himself) he met Joyce, having read in advance the pre-publication excerpts of Finnegans wake. He found Joyce formal and elegantly dressed. Joyce asked him what he thought of his latest work. ‘Are you writing a river symphony?’, asked Binchy. ‘Interesting idea’, said Joyce. Then Binchy said that he found Joyce’s writing obscure and allusive and asked Joyce whether he knew that there was an early medieval Hiberno-Latin text like Finnegans wake, called Hisperica famina. Joyce took down the reference and Binchy later marked every passage in his copy of Finnegans wake where he thought he could identify a cross-reference to or echo of Hisperica famina. I had to promise him solemnly not to tell anybody about this, because he did not want Joyceans tramping up to his study. His copy of Finnegans wake appears to have been lost in the subsequent dispersal of his books.

SD: After your time as a scholar in the Institute, what then?

DÓC:  Then I was appointed a temporary lecturer in UCD, when it was in Earlsfort Terrace. It was an overcrowded, steamy, eternally warm place, and very strange in many ways. Anytime you went round a corner you ran into a cleric, and whole departments were clerical departments, which I’d never seen before. There had been what Binchy called ‘the three learned Jesuits’ (ironically, he meant it, of course)—that’s Fr John Ryan, who had inherited MacNeill’s chair, though he was long gone by my time and had, I would say, a baby’s view of history; Francis Shaw, who got involved in the Patrician argument; and then Aubrey Gwynn—who formed a clique in UCD. It was commonly said that Monsignor Horgan, the professor of Metaphysics, was the Catholic archbishop’s man there and reported to him. T.D. Williams entertained these high-powered clerics in his office as dean, including, I remember, Desmond Connell, a frequent visitor to the dean’s office, and I recall seeing Dudley Edwards go down on his knees and kiss a bishop’s ring at a meeting of the Irish Catholic Historical Society. So it was a strange atmosphere.

SD: Your book, Ireland before the Normans (1972), is on the reading list of every undergraduate course in medieval Irish history after 45 years. How do you view it now?

DÓC: I was very young and I wrote it very fast—in six weeks. It was revisionary, in its day, of the Viking period in Irish history, but now it’s out of date, of course, but I don’t think anybody has looked in such boring detail at the politics of the eleventh and twelfth centuries since. So it badly needs to be dumped or rewritten and I can’t at the present time do either. Irish history of the early Middle Ages is in such a developing position that it is extremely difficult to produce the large books that are defining statements. Thomas Charles-Edwards has done great work in that line but for me it is not possible to write ‘the big tome’ because so much is uncertain and there are so many big issues that we haven’t even looked at.

SD: Tell me about your latest project?

DÓC:  It’s called Clavis litterarum Hibernensium, published by Brepols. It’s an attempt to list all the important manuscripts and texts from the Irish Middle Ages in Latin, Irish, English and French: if it’s a text, you get the incipit, the manuscripts in which it is preserved, the standard reference books, the editions if there are any, the translations, and as good a bibliography as I can supply—enough to set you off to do research on it. The whole thing runs to 2,000 pages in three volumes. What I learned from the exercise is that the Irish output in Latin is phenomenally large, and the Irish output in Irish is slightly larger still. What they’re doing in France and Germany and Italy before the year 1000 is minuscule by comparison, and I never quite realised that until I started doing all this poking.

SD: Are you a critic of the Irish university sector?

DÓC: Yes, I am. One of the problems is that they’re aping the American system and it’s always very dangerous to ape a system you don’t understand. Anyway, the American universities are themselves in deep crisis in the humanities. You don’t enhance a university by killing off the humanities and building on the sciences. And one certainly should not be sacrificing humanities departments of a university because one is making a new business school or the like, because business schools are pestiferous—business schools are about teaching people how to be bankers and company directors and so on, and I cannot see that a university should be good at that.

As to the obsession with university rankings, many of the best Continental universities ignore this thing and I think we should too, because a university has a society to which it answers and it has duties within that society and you can’t universalise these duties. For instance, do the Irish universities have a duty to the Irish language? I would say ‘Yes’, not to the political programme of reviving the Irish language, which is a completely different kettle of fish, but to the proposition that Irish has been the language of this country for a very long period, it has produced an enormous literature—much of which is still unpublished or in very poor editions—and the work has not been done to bring this literature into the mainstream. Old Irish is a remarkably important witness to Indo-European until the development of the European languages, and it is the Irish who should be doing this. It doesn’t matter whether you have two students or ten, there are things that universities discharge as part of the culture of their environments. So I believe that we should have sufficient confidence to be able to design and define our own aims.

SD: And the position of history in the universities?

DÓC: History is divided conventionally into ancient history, medieval history and modern history. None of these is more important than the other. And to those people who talk about it not being relevant to study the Roman Empire, I would ask: ‘Relevant to whom?’ There is no proof that recent history is either more relevant or more understandable; in fact, there’s a good deal of evidence that it is less understandable because it hasn’t been subjected to the cold analysis of scholars. And another thing is that students need difference, they need to study different types of societies and cultures, different ways of human existence: difference is a highly educational thing. So I believe that the tendency in the universities at the moment to concentrate on nineteenth- and twentieth-century history is wrong.

SD: And history in the school system?have to teach history in schools, for one thing, because, if we don’t, our society will be vulnerable to being seriously misled. Another thing—and you might think this is somewhat nationalistic—is that, as far as I know, in most European countries, if they have a Golden Age, the kids get taught it and, for example, those in Greek secondary schools read the actual texts of the ancient classics for which Greece is famous. But we have as the centre of our school curriculum for senior students one of the most disastrous centuries in Irish history, the nineteenth, that century in which we turn into a peripheral European country that doesn’t matter much to anyone. But take, say, the arrival of Columbanus on continental Europe, take for instance Sedulius Scottus, who was the finest Latin poet in Europe in the ninth century, or Eriugena, who is the most important philosopher for about a millennium. If other European countries had cultural heroes of this kind, their students would hear about them.

SD: How do you switch off from history?

DÓC:  I don’t know, actually. I have long ago given up fiction. I read some poetry but basically I live as I work. And that’s it. I do think being a historian is an emotionally heavy job. Remember, you’re spending your days and nights with the dead as a matter of course. And the other thing is the profound realisation that humanity does not get any wiser.

Seán Duffy is Professor of Medieval History at Trinity College, Dublin.


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