The Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) was originally proposed in the early 1980s; Dr Linde Lunney began compiling data on possible entries in 1984 and an editorial committee was formally established in May 1985 under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), with a fifteen-year project timeline initially envisaged. The appointment of James McGuire to manage the project in 1992, and of Dr James Quinn as assistant to the editors in 1995, reinvigorated the project.
The RIA was able to procure considerable state funding for the project by 1997 and we were also fortunate in recruiting Cambridge University Press as our co-publisher. The first nine volumes of the DIB were published in 2009, covering subjects who died before the end of 2002; at the same time, the online version went live on a site provided by Cambridge University Press on a subscription-only basis aimed primarily at institutions. There were certain constraints as the 2009 publication deadline began to loom. We had to deliver a certain amount of text for type-setting every month, and while this restricted our ability to revise or expand entries before publication, many were indeed revised and enlarged and publication can be seen as an achievement of which everyone who worked on the project can be proud.
Between 1997 and publication, some twelve years later, 88 full- and part-time research staff (up to 20 at any one time) and more than 700 external contributors (whose participation is all the more impressive because the DIB, unlike the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, was unable to pay external contributors for their efforts) researched and wrote entries on historically significant people who had a connection with Ireland. Birth or death in Ireland were and are useful but not essential criteria for inclusion in the DIB – for example, the novelist Anthony Trollope gets in because he worked in Ireland for years as a post office official and several of his novels are set in Ireland or feature Irish characters. Over time we have built up a database of nearly 70,000 actual or potential subjects, with brief notes on such matters as their claims to significance, possible sources, dates of birth and death, and significant connections (historically significant relatives, spouses or colleagues). We continue to develop this database with suggestions from academics, subject experts, staff and members of the public.
The DIB aims to be not only a reference source but a showcase for Irish scholarship, and to a considerable extent a work of original research in its own right. Obviously one function of a DIB entry is to provide basic biographical data – and when factual errors are pointed out we correct the online version – but it must be emphasized that we are not talking about a simple equivalent of Who’s who entries. Contributors are asked to assess the historical significance of their subjects and to provide an overall interpretation. These cannot by their nature be definitive because they require selection. For example, Frank Callanan’s entry on Conor Cruise O’Brien presents him as man of reason, heir of the Enlightenment and a predominantly benign influence on Irish life, whereas another contributor might have seen him as a Gothic, Goyaesque figure tormented and contorted by a lifelong struggle to illuminate the gap between official rhetoric and unspoken understanding.
Since initial publication in 2009 a core staff of half a dozen has continued to provide entries on people who had died since the cut-off date and on ‘missing persons’, who should have been in the original edition but were overlooked (such as the film director Brian Desmond Hurst and the War of Independence-era Dáil publicist Kathleen McKenna Napoli). 2018 saw the appearance of two supplemental volumes containing entries produced over the previous decade, and in 2021 then managing editor Kate O’Malley oversaw the migration of the online edition of the DIB to its current, fully open-access incarnation.
In addition to the standard volumes, we have produced several themed selections of entries (most published by the RIA) – on participants in the 1916 Rising, Ulster political lives of the Home Rule campaigns and Partition era, transatlantic lives, Irish Lives in America, and most recently Irish Sporting Lives – selected and edited with commentaries by members of staff whose expertise lies in these areas. We intend to produce several more of these themed volumes.
For many historians, biography is the embarrassing relation of the profession; methodologically primitive, exaggerating the centrality of its subject, and fatally prone to the ‘great man’ theory of history as made by powerful individuals (which was more in vogue when the original British Dictionary of National Biography was devised in the late nineteenth century than in our own day – the fact that the ‘great man’ was rarely a woman is one reason for its present unpopularity).
The biographical approach has other drawbacks. As we move back in time ever larger gaps appear in our understanding of the subject’s motivations, and even of their public career. For example, the classicist Michael Grant (whose seven years as vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast (1959-66) represented too small a proportion of his career to qualify him for the DIB) wrote that before St Augustine there are only three people in classical antiquity who can be the subject of a modern-style biography - Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and Julian the Apostate.
Obviously, the classical era does not feature in the DIB. The early, mediaeval and early modern periods have relatively more source material, but similar problems persist for many subjects. In contrast, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are drowning in data – the flood increases all the time as source material is released from government files or public archives, or becomes accessible online – with a commensurate increase in the number of potential subjects and what can be said about them. We cannot include everyone who fought in the War of Independence or Civil War, for example, but where does the cutoff point lie between a historically significant figure and a foot soldier? How much sifting of the Bureau of Military History and Military Pension files – which began to become available when the DIB was well under way – is needed to draw the line in individual cases? Part of the issue here is that our subjects are not all shapers of history in the grand sense – they can also be representatives of wider trends (locally famous, or an articulate memoirist).
The increasing online availability of past issues of Irish newspapers is in one respect a blessing, for it frees us from the tyranny of the obituarist, whose priorities are not necessarily those of the subject - who might have participated in movements which seemed marginal to their contemporaries – such as mid-Victorian women’s suffragism – but which may be their major claim to fame for later generations. On the other hand, reconstruction of an overall career from contemporary news coverage requires more investment of time than simply reading obituaries – and databases can still contain awkward gaps.
The British Dictionary of National Biography serves as an interesting point of comparison. It was originally conceived as a monument of an old-established state which had become the centre of an empire; Ireland was ruled from elsewhere throughout the modern era until 1922. This means, for example, that decisions with a major impact on Ireland were often taken by people who had little direct contact with the island. We are regularly asked why the nineteenth-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone does not have an entry. While Gladstone had a major influence on Irish history both through his sheer longevity and his attempts at radical reform (such as disestablishment of the Church of Ireland), he only visited Ireland twice – for some weeks in 1877 and when he happened to be on a friend’s yacht off Dublin and came ashore to attend church service one Sunday in 1882. There are stronger candidates among British prime ministers who were also not included, such as Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston and Andrew Bonar Law. In these cases it was decided that their Irish involvement was too peripheral to their careers to justify an entry, though these decisions remain open to reassessment.
Ireland’s academic research culture and traditions of literary history are much less long-established than those of Britain, because we have historically been a much less affluent society. This means that less of the preliminary spadework has been done for us than for our British counterparts. In some instances we find ourselves working on original documents from British or Irish archives; there is a real thrill in discovering the hitherto unknown birth-date and literary/social contacts of a minor nineteenth-century shopkeeper-novelist, a find facilitated through the kindness of the Royal Literary Fund in allowing us access to his grant applications; or in gaining new insights into a mid-twentieth-century playwright through a few of her letters in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
My personal favourite story of discovery concerns Geraldine Penrose Fitzgerald (1846-1939), listed in Rolf and Magda Loeber’s classic bibliography of Irish fiction as the author of four novels (some only available in the British Library) whose subject matter suggested she was Irish. I came across a reference to her in Joyce Sugg’s book on John Henry Newman’s women correspondents and realised that, with her novels and Newman’s published letters, it might be possible to offer an overview of her career, especially if (as turned out to be the case) the Newman archive at the Birmingham Oratory contained some of her letters to him. By the time the research was complete I had discovered that she wrote two more novels not listed by the Loebers, as well as several books on Irish and German subjects under a pseudonym; that she was quite possibly the first catholic woman student at the University of Oxford (the archivist at Somerville College was very interested to hear of two letters at Birmingham describing her experience) and that (thanks to a friend who is researching early twentieth-century Cork politics) although her novels published in the 1880s are fiercely conservative, she was a suffragist and by 1920 had become a Sinn Fein supporter. She is another piece in the jigsaw of Irish history, who may fit into patterns we haven’t yet recognised.
Some individuals have historically attracted numerous biographers for particular reasons – Michael Collins as the lost leader, James Connolly because of rival socialists laying claim to his heritage, Roger Casement because of his human rights activism and the controversy over his sexuality – and the better known they become the more saleable additional biographies are (though some of course rise and fall with changing concerns – Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington has attracted more attention in recent decades, while Patrick Pearse is less saleable than some decades ago). I recall in the late 1980s Eunan O’Halpin concluding a Times Literary Supplement review of Diana Norman’s biography of Constance Markievicz: ‘Diana Norman says Markievicz has been written out of history. This is the sixth biography of Markievicz. The last four contain very little which wasn’t in the first two. Here are some of the twentieth-century Irish public figures who have never been the subject of a biography …’, and there followed a long list of names.
It is only fair to add that biographies of most of these individuals have appeared in subsequent decades. Sometimes these biographers can be co-opted as external contributors; in other cases these new biographies pose questions about updating previously published entries in the DIB – while we have sometimes revised and expanded entries in the light of new information and will probably do so more often in future, our primary emphasis is on keeping up to date and identifying subjects whom we have not already covered.