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Seamus Heaney on the DIB

Address by Seamus Heaney at the launch in Belfast on 16 December 2009 of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography (9 vols and online, Cambridge University Press, 2009).

In the course of an essay written towards the end of his life, W. B. Yeats praises the Royal Irish Academy for beginning the study of ancient Irish literature and for persuading the English Government to finance the Ordnance Survey on a large scale; ‘scholars,’ he wrote, ‘including that great scholar O’Donovan, were sent from village to village recording names and their legends. Perhaps it was the last moment when such work could be done; the memory of the people was still intact, the collectors themselves had perhaps seen or heard the banshee; the Royal Irish Academy with equal enthusiasm welcomed Pagan and Christian…’

A century and a half after the completion of the Ordnance Survey, The Royal Irish Academy is still at its indispensable work and it is an honour for me to be here to salute the publication of this epoch-making Dictionary of Irish Biography. It is a work which will stand out in the history of Irish scholarship as durably and significantly as the work of the Survey. The ordnance survey took the measure of the land we live on, but the dictionary takes the measure of the lives that we have in some sense lived off. It deepens our knowledge of the immense contribution made to us by those who have gone before, a contribution mostly for the good, if sometimes not so good. The malefactors are there as well as the benefactors.

There have been previous dictionaries of this nature, of course, such as the early 19th century account by Richard Ryan of ‘the worthies of Ireland’ as he called them, and the one compiled by the Belfast born physician John Smith Crone in 1928, but none have attempted to be as exhaustive or extensive as the volumes now brought triumphantly to completion by our esteemed editors, Dr James McGuire and Dr James Quinn. The ambition of the undertaking had a truly nineteenth century scale to it and the editors and contributors have fulfilled that ambition with astounding success. What we celebrate this evening is the culmination of eleven years’ work by more than 800 advisors and contributors, a manifestation of Irish scholarship at its intellectual and stylistic best. A manifestation too of what Roy Foster called 20 years ago ‘varieties of Irishness’, but one that heralds, I would make bold to say, an age of visionism rather than revisionism.

No words of mine can do justice to the scale of this achievement. So I quote with relief the words of co-editor James Quinn who declared at a recent meeting of the Academy that ‘attempting to theorize the concept of a biographical dictionary or to make profound statements about those who are included tends to result in the kind of vapid generalizations which I’m sure you would rather not hear’. ‘The really interesting thing about the DIB,’ he tells us, ‘is the articles it contains.’ But he tells us also that it contains 9,014 articles, separate biographies covering people with careers in all fields of endeavour including politics, law, religion, literature, journalism, architecture, painting, music, science, medicine, engineering, entertainment and sport.

Like John O’Donovan and his team of scholars and collectors, the editors and contributors to the dictionary have spent years recording as Yeats put it the names and the legends. They may not have seen or heard the banshee, but from the evidence in these volumes many must have worked until they were near screaming point themselves. And their work was its own reward, and had to be, since there were no fees for the scholars who contributed articles – another cause for praise and gratitude. They have raised a monument, garnered a harvest, heaped up a hoard, created a honeycomb.

The day the dictionary was delivered, I was amazed at the sheer size of the nine volumes, the bulk and the beauty of the physical books. But I was dismayed also. How was I going to approach them, where was I going to start. Well, I thought, why not try Heaney. I hefted out volume 4, G to J, and tried my luck. One name, Heaney, Joseph, but no entry. Instead, a reference to O h Eanai, Seosamh, in volume 7, Oates to Patten. Sean-nós singer and storyteller, sometime builder’s labourer and lift operator, but still a great singer who ended up on the faculty of Washington University in Seattle. Fair enough. So then I thought I’d try Devlin, since there is one in our house who goes by the name of Heaney but is still inclined to think of herself as a member of that ancient sept. And under Devlin, I found to her great delight, six entries, all worth mentioning here, because they give you some sense of the embrace and allure of what’s available. They are Devlin, Anne, nationalist and heroine; Devlin, Denis, diplomat and poet; Devlin, Joseph, nationalist leader; Devlin, Frank, badminton player; Devlin, Paddy, politician and trade unionist; Devlin, Patrick James (pseudonym ‘Celt’), GAA journalist.

And then I thought I’d check on a name that linked my first home in Co Derry to my present home in Dublin, because I knew there was a connection between Castledawson, the village nearest to where I was born, and Dawson Street, the street where the Academy has its venerable premises. And sure enough, there he was, Joshua Dawson (1660-1725), government official and property developer, son of Thomas Dawson, another well got official who in 1657 had purchased the eight townlands of Moyola, Co Londonderry from the heirs of Sir Thomas Philips (qv). Joshua at any rate was MP for Wicklow, held lucrative offices and left a permanent mark on the the city of Dublin when in 1705 he acquired 8 acres of land between Trinity College and St Stephen’s Green and began laying out streets on a grid pattern: Dawson Street, Duke Street and Anne Street. And then in 1710 he obtained a patent to erect the Moyola estate into a manor by the name of Castle Dawson.

But the happy discovery for me was Joshua’s son, Arthur Dawson (1698-1775), lawyer, politician and poet. Arthur lived at Castledawson and on Molesworth Street, and was celebrated author of the song ‘Ye good fellows all’ which became in musical terms ‘Bumper Squire Jones’. That much is registered in the dictionary, but I went on to find a legend associated with the name, since the story goes that Dawson was over in Moneyglass one evening at the house of one Squire Jones in the company of the blind Harper Carolan and had composed the words of ‘Ye good fellows all’ to a tune Carolan had written in honour of Jones. Maybe so.
No maybe, however, about the fact that James Chichester Clark, Lord Moyola, former prime minister of Northern Ireland, also lived at Moyola Lodge.

Two of my uncles from Castledawson drove a breadvan for Hughes’s bakery, founded by Hughes, Bernard (1808-78), master baker, entrepreneur and liberal reformer. My brothers were at school in Bellaghy with another Hughes, Francis, republican paramilitary and hunger striker, also included. And all of them at that school would probably have sung settings of words by Hughes, Herbert, musician, critic and folksong arranger.

I could go on, as Beckett, Samuel Barclay, writer, might have said, and talk about two other important Sams, the first Samuel Thomson, (1766-1816) poet from Templepatrick and friend of Robert Burns, and the later Thompson – with a p – Samuel, (1916-1965) playwright and shipyard worker; could talk about William Beattie from Derry who was Nelson’s physician at Trafalgar and about St Colmcille who sailed from Derry to convert the Picts, but enough: even this minimal sampling will give some inkling of the range and importance and sheer interest that characterize every page of every volume.

Earlier I made what was perhaps a rather trim remark about the Dictionary being more about vision than revision. What I had in mind was a rare sensation of gratitude and hope that flitted through me when I first encountered the physical fact of the nine volumes. Certainly this vast compilation of the names provides grounds to trace the island story back to – and back through – those who were important and often prominent in the different migrations, invasions, confiscations, conversions, castes and classes, sects and religions, ascendancies and alliances, businesses and brotherhoods, all of whom played their part in the evolution of modern Ireland. But as I paged through the volumes, and that’s about all I’ve had time to do, that millennia-long roll call of diverse and distinguished high achievers, what came to me was an excitement about a possible future rather than a contested past. The dictionary can be read in a forward direction to prefigure an Ireland of all the talents.

But whatever about what the Dictionary prefigures, what it presents us with is a resource of enormous importance, not only for professional students and scholars, but for every literate person on the island. As an Irish work of reference, it is nonpareil. Just by dipping in to any ten or twenty pages of any of the volumes, the average person will strengthen his or her sense of being a link in the human chain that binds us by affection and election to a large, liberating and reimagined Irish community. Any household that can afford it should possess it, even before it comes on line. Already it is a browser’s paradise, a Plutarch for the people, an annals of Ulster and a Hibernian Book of the Dead all rolled into one.

We should all be grateful to the editors and advisors for envisaging and ordering the volumes, to the contributors for the vigour and variety, the thoroughness and authority of the entries, to the Cambridge University Press for the strength and elegance of the physical books. And grateful above all to the Royal Irish Academy, its President and committees for their farsightedness in conceiving the project and their staying power in carrying it through.

And since I began with Yeats, let me end with him also. In the article I already quoted from, he goes on to declare,

Behind all Irish history hangs a great tapestry, even Christianity had to accept it and be itself pictured there. Nobody looking at its dim folds can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends…

Were he alive today, the grand old man would not only have cause for gratitude for his five page entry by Professor Terence Brown, and for six more entries covering other members of his family; he would also find new light cast upon the dim folds of that great tapestry, since the dictionary even includes the biography of a Bronze age hero like Cuchulain, not to mention a whole litany of early Irish Saints and a positive genealogy of early Gaelic kings. Indeed, were Yeats still alive and reading, he might be inclined to repeat, with even more justification, the praise he bestowed on Lady Gregory’s book about Cuchulain: ‘I think this book is the best that has come out of Ireland in my time.’