Binchy, Daniel Anthony (1899–1989), historian and diplomat, was born 3 June 1899 on Main Street, Charleville, Co. Cork, second son (there were at least three other surviving children) of William Patrick Binchy, shopkeeper, and his wife Annie (née Browne).
EDUCATION AND EARLY CAREER
He was educated at Clongowes Wood College (1910–16), UCD, and King's Inns (1917–20: he was called to the bar in 1920), and afterwards at Munich, Berlin, Paris, and The Hague. At UCD he was auditor of the Literary and Historical Society (1919–20) and won the president's medal for oratory (1920). He graduated BA (1919) in legal and political science and MA (1920) in modern Irish history. He attended the University of Munich from 1921, graduating D. Phil. magna cum laude. In 1924 he was elected professor of Roman law, jurisprudence, and legal history (including ancient Irish law) at UCD, but was allowed to continue his studies at the École des Chartes in Paris until 1925, when he took up the UCD chair. At UCD he attended the Irish classes of his colleague Osborn Bergin (qv), professor of early Irish, and travelled to Dunquin, Co. Kerry, to improve his knowledge of Irish. When the professor of history, John Marcus O'Sullivan (qv), became minister for education in November 1925, Binchy acted in his place. But in 1929 he too was given leave of absence from UCD and joined the Department of External Affairs. His fluency in German, acquired whilst studying in Munich in the early 1920s, and his academic background in law, were both important assets to the department.
In 1929 Binchy was chosen to be the first envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the Irish Free State to Germany. The establishment of the Berlin post, along with those at Paris and at the Holy See, was the first expansion of the small Irish diplomatic service since 1922. Binchy took up his post in Berlin on 10 October 1929.
His linguistic skills were exceptionally important in a period when few Irish diplomats, other than those who spoke French, had a high level of fluency in foreign languages. He had already served on the Irish delegation to the League of Nations assembly in 1926. His initial task was to explain to German officials and politicians that Ireland was an independent state and that it followed its own foreign policy, and that the office of the Irish minister plenipotentiary to Germany was not an adjunct of the British embassy. He was also tasked with developing trade links between Ireland and Germany. He spoke in German on presenting his credentials to President von Hindenburg on 27 October 1929, a fact positively remarked upon at the time by German sources.
In the months after his arrival in Berlin he actively promoted his position as minister and the Irish Free State as a modernising and independent state through a series of talks to business, media, and political audiences. He also developed well-placed contacts in the German foreign office. But despite Binchy's well-focused efforts it was clear that Ireland would remain of low priority to Germany and to German foreign policy, being of importance only in so far as Ireland as a member of the British Commonwealth could exert influence on that body and on Britain. Through his academic contacts he was given the opportunity of lecturing on current affairs and economic developments in Ireland to specialist audiences. He also promoted Irish literature and the language revival to interested academic audiences. These talks, which he had prioritised on his arrival in Berlin, were appreciated in Dublin, with Joseph Walshe (qv), writing to Binchy in February 1930 that the minister for external affairs, Patrick McGilligan (qv), was ‘exceedingly gratified with the success of your Irish publicity campaign in Berlin’ (DIFP, iii, no. 345). During 1930 Binchy became involved in the wider dimensions of Irish foreign policy by promoting Ireland's candidature for a temporary seat on the League of Nations Council to the German foreign office and to his colleagues in the Berlin diplomatic corps. He personally thought the Irish move unwise and made no secret of this in a lengthy memorandum to Joseph Walshe (DIFP, iii, no. 324), though in his public capacity he energetically canvassed Ireland's candidature. While stationed in Berlin he also served on the Irish delegation to the League of Nations assemblies of 1930 and 1931; at the 1931 assembly he had to deliver Patrick McGilligan's main speech as the minister was indisposed with a cold.
But by April 1930 Binchy's enthusiasm for his new career had waned noticeably. He was frustrated by the life of a diplomat, writing to his former UCD colleague Michael Tierney (qv) that despite Dublin approving of his actions he had feelings of ‘arduous futility’ and realised that he was ‘temperamentally a complete misfit for my job’ (DIFP, iii, no. 356). He particularly disliked the continuing round of social obligations and the need to entertain regularly. Binchy's scepticism as to his value is apparent from the tone and content of a long confidential report on his first six months in Berlin sent to Dublin on 27 May 1930 (DIFP, iii, no. 373). In the report he stressed how to official Germany Ireland was just another ‘small unimportant state situated a considerable distance from its frontiers’, though amongst the public there was ‘uninformed sympathy’ towards Ireland.
Binchy caught and analysed the changing moods within Germany with a level of ability unequalled by his colleagues in the Irish diplomatic service. In part his resignation was prompted by a feeling that his reports were not taken as seriously as they might have been in Dublin, though in fact it is clear that they were read by both the minister for external affairs and by Walshe. When he presented his letter of recall on 12 March 1932 President von Hindenburg shook hands and gave Binchy a signed photograph saying ‘I hope this will help you to remember the old man in Berlin when he is long dead and gone’ (DIFP, iv, no. 10). It was the sort of gesture Hindenberg rarely made and which to Binchy made their ‘final leave-taking very affecting’.
Binchy returned to his UCD chair in 1932 and was active in college life, serving as dean of the faculty of law. In 1945 he left UCD on his appointment as senior research fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford; five years later he became a senior professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, retiring in 1975. He was visiting professor of Celtic at Harvard University (1962–3) and Gregynog lecturer in the University of Wales (1966). Elected MRIA (1926), he was elected a corresponding fellow of the British Academy in 1976, and received several honorary degrees: Wales (1963), Rennes (1971), Belfast (1973), NUI (1973), and Dublin (1976).
Three strands are evident in Binchy's scholarly career: medieval and early modern history, early Irish legal history, and modern European diplomatic history. In the early 1920s Binchy went to Munich on a travelling studentship, where he worked on a thesis on the Irish monastery at Regensburg – the most important of the Schottenklöster, the Irish Benedictine communities that were scattered across southern Germany in the High Middle Ages. It was a natural topic for an Irishman studying in Bavaria, the province to which Regensburg belonged. Yet he also saw that there might be dangers in seeing history from a narrowly national angle. He later recalled being encouraged in Munich to read a particular German historian's work on medieval Bohemia, and being dismayed to discover that, in spite of the title, it was not about medieval Bohemia but about the Germans in medieval Bohemia. The similarity with some treatments of Irish history will have been apparent. At this stage of his career, however, Binchy seemed destined to become an ordinary medieval historian: someone, that is, whose days were spent reading Latin texts. In Munich he was unusual more because, as someone from a well-off family in a country with a hard currency, he could afford to go out riding when the Germans around him were at their wits’ end because of hyper-inflation.
In 1924, on a return visit to Dublin, he met the president of UCD in St Stephen's Green and was offered the post of professor of Roman law, jurisprudence, and legal history, a post for which, as he was cheerful to admit, his qualifications were scanty. He might be from a distinguished legal family, and law had been one of several subjects that he had studied, but no one could pretend that it was his specialism. In particular, if he were to avoid entirely ignoring Ireland in his teaching of legal history, he needed a good knowledge of medieval Irish in all its phases; and, yet, his knowledge of Irish in any phase was then slight. Fortunately he was a good linguist: he remained delighted to the end of his life that, because he had in childhood been educated by French nuns, he could speak French with a convincing accent. When, therefore, he turned to his colleague, Osborn Bergin, professor of Early Irish, there was some hope that he might remedy this gap in his scholarly equipment. Bergin believed in knowing Irish from the beginning to the end: the language was a seamless garment and should be treated as such. Binchy thus began to accompany Bergin on visits to Dunquin – they were both good Munstermen and, in any case, Munster Irish was the dialect then favoured. Binchy's Bergin Lecture in 1970, Osborn Bergin, the first in the series, is revealing about both men.
Before Binchy published his first work on early Irish law in 1934, his period as Irish minister in Berlin allowed him time for regular visits to Bonn, where Rudolf Thurneysen (qv) was now in retirement and was devoting himself to early Irish law. Thurneysen had been Bergin's teacher and was, without question, the leading student of early Irish language, literature and, now, law. As Binchy was happy to acknowledge, Thurneysen had put the study of early Irish law on a far more scholarly basis. His obituary of Thurneysen in Éigse, ii (1940), 285–6, is a moving portrait. On the other side, Binchy was the pupil who gave Thurneysen hope that his work on Irish law would be continued. Their relationship was crucial in giving Binchy's interests a permanent direction.
His approach to early Irish law was not merely a continuation of that followed by Thurneysen. Thurneysen was a philologist by background. Early in his work on the subject he had collaborated with Josef Partsch, a legal historian, but Partsch had died after only a brief collaboration. Thurneysen's prime concern was to understand texts and their relationship to each other. Binchy had the same concern, but he was also interested in situating texts within a changing law: he was always averse to seeing early Irish law as an unchanging body of rules. The difficulty in putting this principle into practice was, first, that the early Irish legal texts came from a comparatively short period, and, secondly, that later glosses and commentaries on the early texts were, on the whole, distrusted. The old texts might well contain older and newer layers, but it was not obvious what tools one could use to disentangle them. It was here that legal history might come to the rescue. If there were general truths about the evolution of law – and in Binchy's youth general theories of social evolution were in vogue – they might help to disentangle the different strata combined in the texts. His first major work on Irish law combined together an edition and translation of a tract on ‘sick-maintenance’, Bretha Crólige (‘Judgements on blood-lying’), with a commentary on particular points and a general discussion based, not just on the tract being edited, but on all the legal evidence he could assemble. Already, therefore, he had read widely in early Irish law before he published his first work on the topic. A crucial item of evidence came from another tract he was later to edit for the Medieval and Modern Irish Series: a direct statement in Críth Gablach that the system of sick-maintenance described in Bretha Crólige was obsolete. Any such acknowledgement of change is rare in early Irish law, but it gave valuable support to Binchy's approach to the entire topic. Binchy and Thurneysen can be seen in combination in Studies in early Irish law, devoted to the law of women, published in 1936, but the result of a seminar in 1929 conducted by Thurneysen who had been invited to Dublin by the Royal Irish Academy. Thurneysen's main contribution was an edition and translation of the principal text, Binchy's two essays in legal history.
By 1934, therefore, Binchy appeared to be set upon the road he was to travel for the rest of his scholarly career. Yet his former occupation as a diplomat had not yet lost all its influence. In 1941 he published his edition of a legal tract on status, Críth Gablach, and also his longest book, Church and state in fascist Italy. His reports sent home from Berlin when he was employed as a diplomat show his analytical skills when describing political developments; it was that side of diplomacy rather than the round of parties that attracted him. In the 1930s he published some remarkable articles in Studies on German political figures, and in 1937 he wrote a review article, also in Studies, ‘The papacy in a changing world’. The central concern of his book, was on the concordat between the papacy and Mussolini's government. As presented by Binchy, this was an undoubted achievement by Pius XI: the papacy succeeded in negotiating an agreement, even though Mussolini's government was inspired by ideals essentially hostile to catholicism, and it did so without compromising its own stance. The concordat achieved a settlement of the constitutional vacuum in relations between the Italian state and the papacy, a vacuum that had endured ever since the unification of Italy. Church and state in fascist Italy was published by the Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House; its favourable reception led to Binchy's work on Italy during the second world war for Chatham House, then located in Balliol College, Oxford; the connections thus established in Oxford led to his election to a senior research fellowship at Corpus Christi College (1946–50).
The research that he declared to the college that he would carry out was twofold: to edit the whole body of early Irish law manuscripts and to write a book on ‘Celtic institutions’. The former finally emerged more than thirty years later as the six volumes of Corpus Iuris Hibernici, published, in his retirement from a senior professorship in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, in 1978. A relic of the Oxford beginnings of this great project was that it began with two manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Rawlinson B 487 and Rawlinson B 506. The book on Celtic institutions was never completed, although he was to write several important articles and to publish his O'Donnell Lecture, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon kingship, in 1970.
The Corpus Iuris Hibernici was an enterprise requiring considerable self-denial. It is a transcription of the manuscripts, not an edition of the texts. In later volumes he allowed himself to make more of an intervention, in that he punctuated text in lower case, corresponding, in the manuscripts, to glosses and commentaries, as well as to non-canonical texts; but in the transcription of the Oxford manuscripts he did not allow himself even that liberty. Making a transcription of this kind is highly laborious; and yet it also demands an understanding of the subject matter, since expansion of manuscript abbreviations and suspensions cannot be done mechanically. Yet, although Munich in his days as a student had housed an outstanding palaeographer, Paul Lehmann, Binchy's interest was never caught by manuscripts as such. He recalled being set a test, while he was at Corpus, by the great palaeographer E. A. Lowe, then attached to the same college: it was on two Visigothic manuscripts, and the key to the puzzle, which Binchy, as he admitted, entirely failed to spot, was in the shape of the letter ‘a’. Palaeography, so Binchy thought, should be left to those with an artistic eye, such as R. I. Best (qv). The Corpus Iuris Hibernici has initiated a period in which studies of early Irish law have flourished as never before; and yet, for Binchy himself, it immensely reduced the time he could have devoted to more congenial tasks.
In the trio of senior professors first appointed to the new Institute for Advanced Studies – a trio immortalised by Myles na gCopaleen's (Brian O'Nolan (qv)) ‘Binchy, Bergin and Best’ – one might have supposed that roles would be distinct: Bergin would look after language, Binchy after history, and Best after palaeography. Yet Binchy's taste for philology went much deeper than his concern for manuscripts – other than as repositories of Irish law. Partly this was a matter of scholarly standards: nineteenth-century work on Irish law had been vitiated by a lack of philological method; and Irish studies as a whole needed to abide by the highest standards if they were to be accepted into the mainstream of European scholarship. But his interest in an approach to Old and Middle Irish via Indo-European linguistics went further than a mere conscientiousness over scholarship. He collaborated with Bergin in producing the English version of Thurneysen's Handbuch des Altirischen (A Grammar of Old Irish, published in 1946); but, in Binchy's hands, early Irish philology would benefit from a better knowledge of the legal tracts, and legal history would benefit from philology. His own work in the field is exemplified by an article, ‘Indo-European Que in Irish’ (1955), in which most examples were from the laws. If the Old Irish glosses of the eighth and ninth centuries had been the main sources for Old Irish, it was now thought that the laws, although transmitted in later manuscripts, might preserve earlier features of the language. A particularly rewarding period for Binchy as a teacher was when he had as his pupil Calvert Watkins, later a distinguished professor at Harvard, but then a scholar at the Institute; Watkins used much Irish legal material in his work on syntax and on Indo-European metrics. On the other side of the coin, some of Binchy's most striking discoveries in legal history came by combining philology and legal history: he was able to show detailed correspondences between the technical vocabulary of Irish and Welsh law and so give himself an extra tool for identifying the most ancient parts of Irish law.
As a teacher Binchy had two especial gifts. When conducting seminars in the Institute he was able to sustain a demanding level of seriousness. They were occasions that required extreme intellectual effort from participants and that promised significant discoveries about material of the highest difficulty. They attracted the best Irish scholars, professors as much as students; and the mere Institute scholars, who were called upon to translate, did so in front of an audience that would intimidate the most brash. His seminars were dramatic performances, but the drama was so managed that it enhanced the importance of the subject rather than of Binchy himself. His other gift was clarity. He could take a broad topic and delineate its outlines and its inner mysteries in lucid and memorable prose. Excellent examples are his Thomas Davis lecture, ‘Secular institutions’, in a series subsequently published in 1959 as Early Irish society (edited by Myles Dillon (qv)), and his paper in the first number of Studia Hibernica (1961) on ‘The background to early Irish literature’.
Binchy lived latterly near Castleknock, Co. Dublin. He died 4 May 1989.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).