Bring­ing the dead to life

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - NEIL HE­GARTY


“The reader’s first ques­tion of the biog­ra­pher is al­ways go­ing to be, what was she, or he, like?’”

This ob­ser­va­tion by the em­i­nent biog­ra­pher Hermione Lee both en­cap­su­lates the fun­da­men­tal cu­rios­ity that drives the reader and the writer of bi­og­ra­phy, and un­der­scores its es­sen­tial dif­fi­culty. Each sub­ject im­poses dif­fer­ent de­mands, and each story is moulded and buf­feted by pow­er­ful forces: the biog­ra­pher’s own tastes and sub­jec­tiv­ity; the sub­ject’s stealth and cun­ning in hid­ing as­pects of her or his life from view, some­times from be­yond the grave; is­sues of loy­alty, fam­ily pos­ses­sive­ness and emo­tion. Ma­te­rial is ex­cluded and in­cluded, de­lib­er­ately – and sur­round­ing all this, the ques­tion of cul­tural con­text, which de­fines the lim­its of that which may be said, or claimed. “Truth” is, in other words, the most un­ruly of sub­jects.

All the more rea­son, per­haps, to trea­sure texts which es­tab­lish a set of foun­da­tions on which to build these lives – or at least overtly and con­sciously at­tempt to do so. And so we may be grate­ful for the ex­is­tence of the mon­u­men­tal and hand­somely pro­duced Dic­tio­nary of Ir­ish Bi­og­ra­phy, which has cat­e­gorised and pieced to­gether ver­sions of 10,000 Ir­ish lives (and count­ing) over the last three decades. The project be­gan as a shoe­string pi­lot project in 1983: it took over a decade to find its fi­nan­cial foot­ing – and now vol­umes 10 and 11 have ap­peared, bring­ing the story up to 2010, and adding fur­ther value to our col­lec­tive cul­tural ar­chive.

This is a gar­gan­tuan project, and one which is aug­mented reg­u­larly on­line – and the sto­ries gath­ered here are given the nec­es­sary space, with noth­ing rushed, noth­ing con­stricted, and each ex­tra­or­di­nary life given space to breathe. To give just a few from a con­stel­la­tion of ex­am­ples: jour­nal­ist Mary Hol­land is de­scribed as com­bin­ing “the man­ners of a grande dame with po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism and emo­tional open­ness”, the en­try il­lu­mi­nat­ing grace­fully her prin­ci­ples, per­son­al­ity, and so­cially and po­lit­i­cally valu­able ca­reer; the por­trait of au­thor Clare Boy­lan spot­lights the abil­ity of her writ­ing to il­lu­mi­nate fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence in new and sig­nif­i­cant ways, and un­der­scores the pathos of her early death shortly after her novel Emma Brown (2003) had been pub­lished to con­sid­er­able praise; the en­try on ac­tor Mau­reen Pot­ter cap­tures the breadth – too fre­quently for­got­ten – of her tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence, from child star through to old age; and the pro­file of Ir­ish-lan­guage scholar Bre­andán Ó’Buachalla as­sesses his valu­able legacy against an ex­plic­itly Euro­pean con­text: “what sets Ó’Buachalla’s schol­ar­ship apart,” notes the Dic­tio­nary, “was the sheer rigour with which he ap­plied this phi­los­o­phy to the Ir­ish-lan­guage ar­chives” – in the process de­bunk­ing a range of cul­tural myths.

En­tries are by no means ha­gio­graphic, and are from time to time writ­ten with a cool tone which adds much to the tex­ture of these vol­umes. The ar­chi­tect Sam Stephen­son emerged from a rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal house­hold, but we are told drily that this “pre­vail­ing left­ish ide­ol­ogy ex­erted lit­tle last­ing in­flu­ence upon him”; and later in a lengthy en­try, Stephen­son is recorded as hav­ing called down “a plague – bubonic, or other ap­proved” upon those cit­i­zens un­will­ing to see Dublin’s Ge­or­gian ter­races torn down to make way for his Mod­ernist dreams. Con­tro­ver­sial and tragic de­tails are pre­sented in un­var­nished form: for ex­am­ple, the de­cline of snooker player Alex Hig­gins from the pro­fes­sional suc­cesses of the early 1980s into drug, gam­bling and al­co­hol ad­dic­tions is de­tailed un­spar­ingly: Hig­gins was “con­sumed by his griev­ances, and he in­flicted them on any­one avail­able, and alien­ated all but his most loyal friends.”

These vol­umes widen to sat­is­fy­ing and sen­si­ble ef­fect the def­i­ni­tion of an “Ir­ish” life: the en­try on the No­bel-win­ning writer Hein­rich Böll traces the tremen­dous im­pact of his Ir­ish Jour­nal (1957) upon gen­er­a­tions of Ger­man read­ers, and ac­knowl­edges in par­tic­u­lar his close con­nec­tion with Achill; and Mo Mowlam’s mon­u­men­tal and still in­suf­fi­ciently recog­nised con­tri­bu­tions to Ir­ish na­tional life are re­mem­bered here. And most po­tently, each vol­ume closes with a lengthy cat­a­logue of pre­vi­ously ex­cluded or for­got­ten “Miss­ing Per­sons”, thus be­gin­ning to ad­dress the sys­tem­atic and im­plic­itly ter­ri­fy­ing era­sures which have char­ac­terised the study of his­tory in our col­lec­tive past. Em­blem­atic in this re­spect is the en­try on trade union­ist Rosanna “Rosie” Hack­ett, after whom a Lif­fey bridge is named to­day: such work does much to il­lu­mi­nate the course of a life that made a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact in the so­cial rather than the of­fi­cial po­lit­i­cal an­nals of the coun­try.

These vol­umes have the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of be­ing deeply mov­ing: an ar­chive of lives lived, and cap­tured by means of care­ful and scrupu­lous memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion. One can hardly ex­pect many Ir­ish house­holds to col­lect an ex­pen­sive set of these vol­umes for their own shelves (al­though they have been made avail­able for free to all Ir­ish schools; and sub­scrip­tions are avail­able on­line) – but they will richly re­pay a leisurely visit to the lo­cal li­brary.

■ Frost: That Was The Life That Was,Neil

He­garty’s bi­og­ra­phy of David Frost, is pub­lished by WHAllen


Alex Hig­gins: “con­sumed by his griev­ances, and he in­flicted them on any­one avail­able, and alien­ated all but his most loyal friends”.

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