Jonathan Swift beats St Patrick into second place

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

By Bernadette Cunningham

Above: Jonathan Swift—beats St Patrick into second place in a list of the most-written-about ‘person as subject’ in the Irish History Online database. (NGI)

Who is the most famous person in Irish history? We all know about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, so how can we compare the renown of various historical personalities from the Irish past? What biases will affect any attempt to rank historical personalities by reputation or popularity? What if a database designed for another purpose incidentally throws up a set of interesting statistics?

Recently, while checking the total number of entries on the Irish History Online database (www.irishhistoryonline.ie), I noticed that among the rankings offered was one for ‘person as subject’. The Irish History Online database contains a comprehensive listing of books and scholarly articles on all aspects of Irish history that have been published since the late 1930s. The ‘person as subject’ category can be used to detect the historical personalities most written about by historians in the last 80 years. The database lists books, articles in journals (including local history journals) and chapters in books of essays on Irish history topics, irrespective of where the books or articles have been published. The focus is on historical analysis, including historical biography, but not literary criticism, so where literary figures feature in the rankings it should be on the basis of books and essays about them that have a significant historical dimension.

Which historical personality wins these bibliographic Olympics? Here are the top ten as ranked in the Irish History Online database on 1 November 2017. The number in brackets is the number of books/articles listed:

1. Jonathan Swift (382)
2. St Patrick (321)
3. Daniel O’Connell (315)
4. Charles Stewart Parnell (266)
5. William Butler Yeats (262)
6. Éamon de Valera (235)
7. James Connolly (163)
8. Patrick Henry Pearse (162)
9. James Joyce (152)
10. St Columba (149)

The runners-up, in places 11–20, are also worth a look. Currently, Michael Collins has just missed out on tenth place, but will surely overtake St Columba before 2022. Collins is closely pursued by Edmund Burke, but Burke may have to wait until the tercentenary of his birth in 2029 for a significant bibliographic boost.

11. Michael Collins (144)
12. Edmund Burke (142)
13. Roger Casement (134)
14. William Ewart Gladstone (122)
15. Oliver Cromwell (112)
16. Hugh O’Neill, 2nd earl of Tyrone (109)
17. George Berkeley (107)
18. Edmund Spenser (104)
19. King James II (87)
20. Michael Davitt (86)

No women feature among the top twenty historical personalities in the database. The highest-placed woman is Maria Edgeworth, at number 25, perhaps revealing a bias towards literary figures in the historical persons about whom researchers choose to write. There are only three women among the top 50 personalities written about in an Irish historical context since the 1930s:

25. Maria Edgeworth (79)
35. St Brigit (76)
42. Lady Augusta Gregory (65)

These statistics are a snapshot at one point in time; what they signify is for you, the reader, to decide. The Irish History Online database is updated every week with new items added, so these rankings will change. Irish History Online, the National Bibliographic Database for Irish History, is one of a network of fourteen European historical bibliographies (www.histbib.eu). The database is hosted by the Royal Irish Academy, supported by the Irish Committee for Historical Sciences and maintained by a team of volunteer compilers. The project is actively looking for a source of funding to allow the appointment of a paid editor and provide security for the bibliography into the future.

Incidentally, among the other rankings that can be discerned from the Irish History Online data is that for periodical titles. Subscribers to History Ireland may be interested in the rankings for the periodical with the highest number of articles on historical topics (published since the 1930s), as recorded at 1 November 2017:

1. History Ireland (1,334)
2. Irish Historical Studies (948)
3. The Irish Sword (936)
4. Dublin Historical Record (893)
5. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (840)

Well done, History Ireland!

You may well ask why I was browsing the Irish History Online database in these unconventional ways. It’s because we, the compilers, knew that we were close to reaching the 100,000 mark. Indeed, we have now reached that milestone. On 1 November 2017 the total number of items in Irish History Online’s listings stood at 100,545. Think about it. That is 100,545 separate items on Irish historical topics written since the 1930s. Nowadays, more than 3,500 new items on Irish historical topics are published each year, and these are added to the database listing by our volunteer compilers. So visit our fully searchable website, which remains free to all users, whether academics, students or members of the public, and get reading! It takes quite some effort to keep up to date with all that is published on Irish history.

Bernadette Cunningham is editor of Irish History Online, www.irishhistoryonline.ie, iho@ria.ie.

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