Working for the Dictionary of Irish Biography: a personal experience

Contributed by Patrick Maume

We asked Patrick Maume to provide Pue’s readers with an inside view of the Dictionary of Irish Biography.  The following offers a perspective on the DIB as historical process rather than focussing on the results.  Enjoy!

I have worked as a researcher on the Dictionary of Irish Biography since April 2001.   I have written almost 300 entries on nineteenth and twentieth-century figures, and am currently working on the first supplement.

In the early stages the editors adopted many of my proposals for additional names.   This last feature tailed off as work progressed because of the requirements of publishing.  I have regrets about some names whom I found too late for inclusion – such as William Desmond Taylor (pictured left), the silent movie director whose unsolved 1922 murder was one of the earliest major Hollywood scandals – but hope they may get into an eventual supplement.  At the same time I am glad that someone like Elizabeth Somers – an early twentieth-century nationalist activist and industrial revivalist – has been given her place in the sun, and might not have without my suggestion.  I am also glad that by finding Paul Mohr’s fine biography of the nineteenth-century astronomer John Birmingham on a remainder pile in Liam Byrne’s bookshop in Galway, I was able to make Birmingham’s entry fuller and more accurate than would otherwise have been the case.  I hope this will lead to Mohr (whose book was generally overlooked because privately published) getting more credit for his research.

Editorial tolerance is important because I believe not only that an entry should try to set out the basic facts of the subject’s life as clearly, fully and accurately as possible, but that it should try to give a sense of the person’s significance and suggest possible directions for future research (for example, the early twentieth-century newspaper editor RJ Kelly’s forging links with east European nationalist movements – particularly the Czechs – whom he saw as analogous to the Irish).  In general, I try to give the subject of an entry the benefit of the doubt – to try to make it clear how they might have seen their life, while at the same time preserving a certain critical distance.  In some instances I try to challenge a dominant emphasis if I feel there are good enough grounds for this – but such a challenge must always take account of how competing interpretations arose and the evidence on which they were based, and give as good an account of the rival view as possible.  There are of course cases where very little empathy is possible, where the person was utterly deluded or criminal, and these are the most difficult to handle – especially when there is danger of hurting or offending still living people who suffered at their hands.

The most satisfying entries are those where the research offers new vistas.  While writing the entry on the mid-Victorian Tory lawyer-politician James Whiteside I discovered that he was the pupil of the former United Irishman Peter Burrowes, that he modelled his speeches on the classical orators of Grattan’s parliament, and that he ended an eulogy of the Act of Union by stating that if he had lived then he would probably have been misled by enthusiasm into voting against it.  Occasionally I uncovered little-used sources such as the moving typescript memoir of the lawyer-journalist Ignatius O’Brien.  Writing in exile as a lonely and childless old man after the defeat of his political allies, he expressed the hope that future generations might find some interest in it if the mice didn’t devour it first; the mice didn’t, and they have.  By piecing together many sources I reconstructed the career of journalist Denis Holland from protégé of Fr. Mathew through becoming the first (and only) Catholic editor of the Belfast Northern Whig to pro-Fenian journalism, financial ruin, and finally impoverished exile and lonely death in New York.  At the same time it is frustrating not to develop these themes in full – there is never enough space and the next entry is always beckoning – but I am trying to enlarge on them elsewhere.  Even if I do not do so myself the DIB will hopefully breed many dissertations.

The project continues so I do not really have a sense of finality at the appearance of the print edition, but it is good to see so much work brought into print – research is lonely work, and after sending off so many entries, like throwing stones down a well, it is gratifying to make a splash at last!  It is also humbling to see how small a portion of the whole thing my seven years’ labour amounts to and to realise once again the achievements of my colleagues – especially James Quinn and above all James McGuire – in bringing it to fruition.

Patrick Maume is a researcher and writer for the Dictionary of Irish Biography.  He has published widely on nineteenth and twentieth-century Irish history.

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2 Responses to “Working for the Dictionary of Irish Biography: a personal experience”

  1. Eamonn Grimes Says:

    Do you mean Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway Patrick?

  2. Patrick Maume Says:

    Charlie Byrne it is – sorry for the slipup.

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