Fabricated stories of ignorant bards

In spite of being in a state of almost constant exhaustion since November due to about four successive viruses (Christmas and Easter saw me in bed with the flu) I managed to make it to a couple of talks this year. The first was part of a series hosted by the Royal Irish Academy about the Halliday papers. Dáire Keogh’s paper was an overview of the pamphlets from the 1790s. Given that pamphlets were still a central means of circulating ideas (and this in itself has its own politics; being relatively expensive, pamphlets were not aimed at the populace at large, and one of the revolutionary acts of the United Irishmen was to print a newspaper dealing with Irish political issues) the Halliday collection is remarkably diverse. Alongside political and religious issues, there were subjects such as agriculture, new forms of transport and technology, and, notably, concerns about education in the context of population growth in Ireland.

Probably addressing the great public debate surrounding the anti-slavery movement in Britain at this time, an account of slavery in Antigua was published in Cork in 1789, listing specifically and in detail the nature of the abuses, lending it a very modern tone. A tract by John Wesley, a frequent visitor to Ireland, was also printed in Cork the following year. The French Revolution was, of course, a huge topic for polemic. The test of every man’s political creed, as Wolfe Tone put it, issues of empire, kingship, nation and citizenship were writ large, and the debate was polarised between supporters of Paine and Burke. The issue of Catholic mobilisation emerged, as Tone argued for their inclusion in the discussion of revolution. John Fitzgibbon argued that the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 made it inevitable that Catholics would eventually gain their lands back, and that an act of Union was the only solution.

On March 14, I went to the Brendan Ó Buachalla memorial lecture at the National Library of Ireland, which was given by Pádraig Ó Riain on the development of his Dictionary of Irish Saints. That such a work did not previously exist in spite of the enormous amount of scholarship on the lives of saints [1] may seem a little extraordinary, but it had its ancestors in Liam de Paor’s Dictionary of Irish Saints, which was unpublished at his death, as well as the unpromisingly titled Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae (1962) and Ó Riain’s Corpus genealogiarum sanctorum Hiberniae (1985). The difficulties of compiling such a record becomes obvious when the impressive breadth of sources is viewed, ranging from annals to literature to hagiography, especially given that many of the manuscripts lie in various repositories in mainland Europe and England. However, it is also clear that the author engaged in painstaking and very practical folklore research as well.

One particular difficulty facing historians was raised by John O’Donovan, who, with Eugene O’Curry, collected information about local saints as they worked on the Ordinance Survey. Often accounts of the lives of saints were based on “the fabricated stories of ignorant bards and Ecclesiastics, [rather than] containing the sentiments of the original teachers of Christianity in Ireland” [2]. One famous example of the way in which politics led to historical fabrications is the turf war between Kildare and Armagh which caused works such as the 9th century Tripartite Life of St Patrick (Bethu Phátraic) to be written in order to promote Armagh’s claims to supremacy. The Tripartite Life had St Patrick make a journey to Munster, and although this was apparently not based on any historical evidence (the Book of Armagh does not mention it, for example) there still seems to be a strong belief in Clonmel that he visited what is now known as St Patrick’s Well. Ó Riain’s account of the cult of Finbar is another such example, as he made the extremely controversial suggestion some years ago that the saint intimately associated with Cork may never have set foot in the area and was, in fact, from North Down. Finbar’s cult spread to Scotland and Cornwall, and there is evidence that elements of his life may have been incorporated into the legend of San Frediano of Lucca owing to the travels of Irish monks.  Ó Riain also hypothesised that St Finian (on whose works Columbanus of Bobbio drew when composing his Penetential, was in fact Finbar, and also that St Colmcille, a pupil of Finbar, was the same person as St Canice and St Colmán.

Before the lecture I stayed a few minutes at the launch of Catherine Morris’s biography of Alice Milligan. I had originally intended to stay for both, but I only really had the energy for one (still feeling some of the effects of a bad cold, as distinct from the flu I have at the moment), and in any case the launch ran late. You can watch Declan Kiberd and Catherine Morris talk about the process of writing the book here. (The first video is linked to the others.) I don’t have any notes, and my virus-addled recollections don’t really shed any light on anything at all, so you’re better watching the videos.

[1] http://www.confessio.ie/more/bibliography_full

This is a list of works on St Patrick alone.

[2] http://www.offalyhistory.com/articles/393/1/Shinrone-and-District/Page1.html

The full text of O’Donovan’s letter.


2 thoughts on “Fabricated stories of ignorant bards

  1. I agree with Claire’s views on the relatively superficial coverage by historians of the reasons for the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. It wasn’t all down to personalities. One wonders why there has never been a full English language biography of Cathal Brugha, almost alone of all the central figures of Irish C20 history ?

    • Good point indeed about Cathal Brugha. Someone commented on some forum topic about Brugha that Michael Collins’s reputation would have been a lot less had he taken the anti-treaty side, which in itself raises a lot of interesting questions about how the history has been written.

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