James Quinn’s Irish dictionary highlights history’s Celtic quacks

Globe and Mail

James Quinn, who worked for 12 years on the Dictionary of Irish Biography, says many of the characters included defy classification.

James Quinn, who worked for 12 years on the Dictionary of Irish Biography, says many of the characters included defy classification. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

James Quinn, executive editor of the Dictionary of Irish Biography, describes how 9,000-plus characters made the cut in what’s hailed as the most significant Irish publication of the 21st century so far

Sarah Hampson

Globe and Mail  Sunday, Apr. 11, 2010

There’s Grace O’Malley, a female pirate, and Jim “Lugs” Branigan, a big-eared Dublin policeman in the 1940s who once subdued an offender by sitting on him, only to be bitten on his behind.

There’s Eyre Coote, a British army general and ancestor of Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State, who had a dalliance with a slave girl in Jamaica in the early 19th century. Mr. Powell has mentioned him with pride. But he likely didn’t know – or, if he did, wasn’t eager to report – that Mr. Coote was stripped of his military honours and ranks at the end of his career because of discoveries about his sadomasochistic practices with schoolboys.

There’s John Brenan, a 19th-century Dublin quack who advocated the virtues of turpentine as a cure-all.

All are part of the Dictionary of Irish Biography, a massive undertaking that’s been hailed as the most significant Irish publication of the 21st century so far.

“It’s very wide-ranging,” reports James Quinn, the executive editor of the dictionary, who worked for 12 years with senior editor James McGuire to complete the account of 9,014 lives beginning at the start of recorded history (St. Patrick’s confession) in the middle of the 5th century up to contemporary time.

“A lot of biographical dictionaries in the past were very much tilted towards respectable history, if you like: politicians, statesmen, military figures. But we decided to make this as all-encompassing as possible, to include more marginal figures, people who don’t often get a lot of historical attention.”

Of characters such as pedophile priest Brendan Smith, he says simply that the articles about them “are not very savoury, but you have to include the underbelly because unfortunately it’s indicative of Irish life as well.”

A 48-year-old academic dressed in a rumpled suit who looks as though he has emerged from a dusty library, Mr. Quinn delights in pulling up the stories of people included in the dictionary, pointing out that many defied categorization. In the end, he decided that a section for eccentrics, which includes the turpentine-dispensing doctor, was warranted.

“Part of it may be the love of language and the storytelling tradition,” he explains when asked why Ireland has a reputation for producing legendary characters. “Some people will say that one of the reasons the Irish have a reputation as great talkers is that they were a colonized people, and one of the ways you bamboozle your colonizer is through language.”

“A lot of people would see Irish literature like that,” he adds. “Yeats and Joyce and Beckett wrote in a language that to some extent was not their native language, but they did things with it that the colonizer would never think of doing. There’s a playfulness of language, almost a lack of reverence for it – almost no rules.”

The troubled history of Ireland also makes the stories interesting. “If you look at those born in the 1950s and 1960s who are in the dictionary, at least half are people who died prematurely in Northern troubles,” Mr. Quinn says.

Of the 9,014 names in the dictionary, 7,000 were obvious inclusions, while the rest were up for debate.

“It’s not an exact science,” Mr. Quinn concedes, adding that one of the conventions of a biographical dictionary is that those in it have to be dead. (The future of the dictionary is online, he says, where entries are currently being made on notables who died in 2003.)

“You call in as many advisers as possible, especially in specialized areas – literature, sports and crime – and you get them to suggest names,” he explains. “So you build up panels, and names get a grading.”

The editors also had to create boundaries. To be included, people had to either be born in Ireland or have had a career in the country.

With those parameters, notables of Irish descent – such as former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, of whom the Irish are very proud – are not included. And only two British monarchs – King John and Richard II – are included. “We don’t have Queen Victoria or George V or VI because they don’t have what we would deem Irish careers.”

The Irish diaspora also created a challenge. “Because of the sheer numbers of people who went to Canada, the U.S. and Australia, it’s overwhelming. There’s an argument to be made that someone should write a complementary dictionary about the Irish diaspora,” Mr. Quinn says.

Published in November, 2009, the dictionary has had six launches: in Dublin, Belfast, London, New York, Boston and, recently, Toronto.

If some of the exhaustive work was in finding people of interest, it was also about separating fact from fiction.

“There is no area of history more treacherous than biography, because people lie about themselves. … We’re going to get criticized about inaccuracies, about getting things wrong, or even assessments of people that others don’t agree with,” he offers lightly. “But you have to accept that, because otherwise you won’t get a project like this finished.”

As it is, the funding for the dictionary was only made possible through an unprecedented historical event – the Celtic boom that started in the mid-1990s. “Government coffers were more full of money than they would otherwise be, and we were a beneficiary of that,” he notes. “If you went now for funding for a product like this, you wouldn’t get it.”

In the end, the work allows readers “to see history through the lens of individuals,” Mr. Quinn enthuses in his careful academic manner.

“History is monolithic, but the monolith breaks down with a project like this. You see that not all nationalists are narrow-minded, and not all British imperialists are simplistic. All things break down. You see the texture and the complexity of history close up, and you also see that most figures have their flaws.”

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