Donal Kennedy finds that there's much commend within the volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography
IF YOU'VE nothing you must do and in danger of being bored on a wet day might I suggest a visit to a library where you could do worse than ask to see the Dictionary of National Biography (DNOB)?
Its first twenty volumes go from the earliest times to 1900 and cover those whose lives impacted on these islands. Visitors such as Julius Caesar, immigrants such as Saint Patrick, natives such as Boudica feature.
For a British publication it is surprisingly fair, and where Irish patriots feature they are not blackguarded. Indeed. John O'Leary contributed an essay on at least one of his fellow Fenians. Since 1900 a new volume followed every decade, except for that from 1910 to 1920. The Great War and the Spanish Flu needed two volumes.
The significance of some lives was not always appreciated immediately after their deaths. A few years ago a volume called Missing Persons made good some omissions and you'll find Pearse and Connolly in that volume.
Anyway, to steal a phrase, all human life is there. If you confine yourself to the Macs and O's you could spend a month of wet days entranced, and the other 24 letters of the alphabet are no less fascinating. I'll give three examples. One is Miler McGrath, though I'm not sure that's how the DNOB spells it. He lived from about 1523 until 1622 and prospered mightily during all the upheavals that from the reign of Henry VIII to almost the end of the reign of James I.
He was archbishop of Cashel and bishop of various other dioceses simultaneously and got the revenues of them all. The phenomenon was not that uncommon and was called pluralism. What made made McGrath unusual was that some of his dioceses were held for the Catholic Church of his upbringing, and others for the Reformed Churches of Elizabeth and James II, when those churches were at daggers drawn and well blooded.
McGrath was distrusted and despised by Catholics and Protestants alike. He was arrested by Aodh Ruadh O Domhnall on his epic march to Kinsale in 1601 and would have been put to death as a traitor, but was saved by an entreaty from Aodh O Neill, O Domhnall's ally.
So McGrath my have been a double agent, triple- crosser or a quantum of solace. But his would be a hard act to follow.
Another enigma from that age was Murrough O'Brien, Lord Inchiquin, known as 'Murrough the Burner' from his penchant for burning all round him in Munster in support of an English, Protestant cause, first under Charles I then under Parliament, then Charles II.
He later served the Spanish in north Africa, with as much energy and little mercy, as a Catholic.
It is difficult to attribute principle or sentiment to McGrath or O'Brien but both seem to have had heroic energy in pursuit of the main chance.
By accident I stumbled over a British field marshal with a career that took him into the services of various powers in each of which he had distinguished himself. He was not a Mac or an O and he was English. For all his adventures his never became a household name, unlike that of his sister Catherine, who married, first, a Captain O'Shea, and later an ex-militia officer named Charles Stewart Parnell.
I leave it to you to find him.
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Copyright © 2009 Donal Kennedy