Dictionary of Irish Biography Online.

Terry Clavin reports for the Irish Times:

On March 17th, the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published for Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB), is moving to an open access model, making its entire corpus of nearly 11,000 biographies, spanning over 1,500 years of Irish history, freely available to all through a new website at dib.ie. […]

In terms of the sort of person who features, the “great and the good” get their due, but they keep strange company, jostling for the reader’s attention alongside entertainers, eccentrics, martyrs (religious or otherwise), desperados and impoverished geniuses. DIB readers can navigate this sprawling canvas using the website’s simple and accessible user interface, with options to browse by entry or contributor, or to search by keyword (such as the name of a town or village) or using a more granular faceted search.

Ranging in length from 200 to 15,000 words, DIB biographies are more than mere catalogues of events – in the dismissive words of Samuel Johnson, a “formal and studied narrative … begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral” – but attempt to give a sense of a subject’s personality and to analyse and contextualise their life. Suitably illuminating anecdotes are also included. The main editorial criteria are that each entry be factually accurate, based on the most recently available sources and accessible to the general reader.

Upon its launch in 2009, the DIB dealt with subjects from the earliest times to those who died up to the end of 2002. It was published in nine hardcopy volumes and also online through a platform provided by its publishers Cambridge University Press, which was available to institutions to purchase. Subsequently the DIB published online updates to that platform every six months, as well as two further hardcopy volumes in 2018. Most of the online updates were comprised of batches of roughly 40 subjects who had died since 2002. Inevitably, some interesting and important figures were overlooked in the original DIB, so every two years the online update was a “missing persons” batch comprising 60 to 80 new biographies.

There has been a tendency for DIB biographies to become more detailed and ambitious in scope. This is mainly in response to the widespread digitisation of primary source material over the past decade, which has heightened expectations of what the DIB can deliver. In particular, the ability to perform word searches on the digital archives of nearly all the national and many of the local newspapers has turned the Irish print media into an invaluable repository of research material.

Here’s the dictionary site; naturally, the first entry I looked for was Patrick (Patricius, Pátraic, Pádraig), contributed by Cormac Bourke:

Patrick (Patricius, Pátraic, Pádraig) (c.420–490?), patron saint of Ireland, was born into a Christian family of fifth-century Roman Britain, son of Calpornius, decurio and deacon, and grandson of Potitus, a priest. Nothing is known of his mother. […]

Patrick, given his background, must be understood as having been bilingual in Latin and in British/Primitive Welsh, the former being the language of learning and liturgy in late Roman Britain, the latter that of daily conversation. His acquisition of Old Irish during his period of enslavement rendered him trilingual and equipped him uniquely for his Irish mission, which points incidentally to the linguistic disadvantage under which Palladius must have worked. The case advanced by Howlett notwithstanding, there is perhaps a nuance in Patrick’s solitary reference by name to the Latin language, when he speaks of the words of God and the apostles and prophets ‘which I have set out in Latin’ (quod ego Latinum exposui (‘Epistola’, 20)), as though to suggest that Latin was no everyday medium.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s an interesting biography.

    I was particularly struck by the suggestion that Patrick may have been exceeding his authority in converting the pagan Irish, and that he got into trouble with the Church authorities for it.

    In the fifth century I imagine it still wouldn’t have been too hard for a Briton to learn Irish.

  2. Yeah, they hadn’t put the language through the grinder yet.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Grandson of a priest. Tempora mutantur!

    In the fifth century I imagine it still wouldn’t have been too hard for a Briton to learn Irish.

    That’s assuming he wasn’t a Latin monoglot. I don’t suppose there’s evidence either way?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    The biography itself suggests that he was bilingual, but the only real evidence they cite is the passage of his that Hat quotes above, which may suggest that he didn’t regard Latin as an everyday medium.

  5. I decided to look up whether they include the villains as well and, to their credit, they do. There is a biography of Cromwell. And ending very graciously with “He is not personally to blame for all the baleful legacy of the 1650s, but he did little to mitigate what others did in his name.” and not with the story of posthumous beheading.

  6. In the 5th century AD, would British and Irish have been roughly like Spanish and Italian today, separated by about 1500 years?

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    I doubt whether they were separated by such a time depth. Thurneysen says that the relationship between British and Irish must have been extremely close at the time of the beginning of the Roman conquest, and that accords with my own (highly subjective) impression. Prior to the loss of Brythonic final syllables in the sixth century and the wholesale grinding of Irish that Hat alluded to above, the resemblance must still have been very close. Even the opposition seen in Irish between between absolute and conjunct verb forms remains fairly regular in the oldest layer of Welsh poetry.

    (There are a few traces of it even later, as in the proverb Tyfid maban, ni thyf ei gadachan “A baby grows, his swaddling-clothes do not grow.”)

  8. January First-of-May says

    In the 5th century AD, would British and Irish have been roughly like Spanish and Italian today

    I suspect probably closer to Spanish and Portuguese. IIRC the split-off point is a lot later than 10th century BC.

    [EDIT: if David Eddyshaw’s description is correct it might have actually been more like Spanish and Catalan.]

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    As to the Dr. Johnson point about “ending with the funeral,” the entries may not be written that way, but I suspect (based on some testing of names) that still-living Irish persons are not eligible for inclusion although I couldn’t immediately find that spelled out. The search engine lets you filter results by religion and beyond the obvious primary religious divide in Irish history/society, that feature enables one to quickly find the two Hindus and one SIkh (none of them immigrants but all instead individuals who went out to India under imperialist auspices and were taken with what they found there).

  10. It’s in the Irish Times article:

    So who gets into the DIB? First and foremost, subjects eligible for inclusion must be dead (usually for at least five years) and must either be born on the island of Ireland or have had a significant career there.

  11. The increasingly useful Wikidata reveals two people who each have two DIB articles: John Fleming (aka Seán Pléimeann) and Anna Maria O’Brien (née Ball).

  12. The interesting story we had here a while back about “clann” coming from Latin through Welsh to Irish seems to indicate that at the time when Latin was spoken in Britain, Welsh and Irish were not too far apart.

  13. Amanda Adams says

    [EDIT: if David Eddyshaw’s description is correct it might have actually been more like Spanish and Catalan.]
    Is it the opinion of the Hattery (or other well-known authority) that Catalan is closer to Castilian than Portuguese is?
    Before I learnt any Castilian to speak of, I once found myself in Lisbon owing to weather grounding a flight. With my (they) extremely rudimentary Catalan I was able to converse with the taxi driver quite well.
    This never worked with Castilian speakers.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Portuguese having lost l and n intervocalically, among other changes, makes the cognate vocabulary with other Romance languages difficult to recognize, as in Ptg “coelho” ‘rabbit’ (Spanish conejo). Perhaps the taxi driver could speak Spanish? or even Occitan (Catalan’s closest relative)? Taxi drivers often come from varied backgrounds, and driving foreigners around puts them in situations where they pick up bits of other languages.

  15. In a Spanish context I can also imagine that the Castilian speakers didn’t want to understand Catalan.

  16. Trond Engen says

    That, and not having to get used to variation. I’m pretty sure many Swedish dialect speakers would have an easier time being understood in Norway than in Stockholm.

  17. John Cowan says

    Grandson of a priest. Tempora mutantur!

    Indeed. But, you know, the Irish and Highlander surname McPherson < mac an phearsain ‘son of the parson’. In pre-Reformation days, a parson was < persona ecclesiae, the individual through which the Church spoke, though now the term is normally Protestant.

  18. Patrick Woulfe, “Irish Names and Surnames” (1923)

    Mac an tSAGAIRT—MacEntaggart, MacEntaggert, MacEntegart, MacIntaggart, MacInteggart, MacTaggart, MacTeggart, Taggart, Teggart, Tegart, Tiger, etc.; ‘son of the priest’ (Irish ‘sagart’, Latin ‘sacerdos’); an Ulster surname.

    Mac an EASPUIC—M’Enaspicke, MacAnespic, MacAnaspie, Easping, Aspig, [Bishop] ‘son of the bishop’ (Irish ‘easpoc’); very rare.

    Woulfe was himself a Catholic priest, but AFAIK there were no little Woulves or MacEntaggarts.

  19. David Marjanović says

    There’s a “son of the abbot”, too, right? McNab, Mac an Ab? Because that was never supposed to happen.

  20. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Amanda Adams:

    I’m no authority however unknown, but from a dozen years’ experience in the Iberian peninsula, and having learned both Catalan and Spanish actively and Portuguese passively, I’d venture that around here proximity may be a good guide to reading comprehension, but vowel reduction is more influential for listening. Hence, spoken Spanish is easiest to understand, then Catalan, then Portuguese — that’s fiendishly reduced European Portuguese: Brazilian is probably easier than Catalan.

    While I’m pretty sure Italian is farthest from them all in some objective sense, I’d be wholly unsurprised if a Gaditan taxi driver could understand Italian better than Catalan, and I wouldn’t blame a sinister agenda of Spanish nationalism. The fact that Spanish itself is both the most widely spoken and the most easily understood language does nothing to predispose Castilian speakers to figure out their neighbors’ inconveniently reduced vowels.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    Back when we talked about Storebælt, I quoted an old patent granting tax free passage to the abbot of a monastery in Odense, his monks — and their families. Things were not the same in the thirteenth.

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    @dm, lars
    has a fairly good summary. Basically
    1. Monks took a vow of celibacy.
    2. Efforts to extend this to the clergy were only local until the 11th century.
    3. The real push to apply the rule/ enforce monastic vows came with the Reformation (what Protestants call Counter-Reformation).
    The specific situation in Ireland before the Norman invasion and in the ensuing centuries is not covered. Contemporary sources are politically biased; all I think you can really say is that Church administration and organisation was construed to or by Pope Adrian to be out of line with what Rome wanted. I do know that, historically, abbots had more power and authority than bishops in Ireland, so it might have been hard to carry out Church reform through bishops.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Not just by Protestants – Gegenreformation is a familiar term in Austria.

  24. I have never heard Irish Catholics call it anything but “Counter-Reformation”.

    The 12th-century changes in the Irish church are often described as a “reform”; I suppose one might polemically call them a “reformation” instead.

  25. Trond Engen says

    It was always motreformasjonen in school. I first heard den katolske reformasjonen from a history professor in 1994. Last time I heard it was in a lecture by a Catholic priest on occasion of the Martin Luther anniversary a couple of years ago. My wife says she thinks lay Norwegian Catholics use den katolske reformasjonen too, but she’s not sure. It’s not a frequent topic of discussion.

  26. The term Counter-Reformation is used both for changes to the Catholic Church itself, and sometimes also for all actions taken by Catholic forces in opposition to the Protestants. The latter meaning would include the military campaigns of Charles V against his Lutheran vassals, and even the further Habsburg actions against their Protestant enemies up through 1648. In this context, I have seen the Duke of Parma’s successful campaigns in the Netherlands in 1580 described as a peak of the Counter-Reformation’s success.

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    I think there may be some muddling and temporal drift here – the Vatican’s attempt to enforce celibacy on non-monastic clergy in Western Europe more rigorously than had often previously been the case is typically associated with what is sometimes called (although I’m not sure if using this label is considered a factional signal among historians of the relevant period) the “Hildebrandine Reformation” of the late 11th century, so named for the Hildebrand who took the name Gregory (#7) when he became Pope himself after promoting certain reform-oriented ideas to his predecessors. This should not be confused with the Reformation(s) and/or Counter-ditto(s) of the 16th century. I see that wikipedia’s label for the Hildebrandine Reformation is the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_Reform. Obviously the desirability vel non of the increased centralization of authority (or at least claimed authority) in the Vatican is a somewhat separate issue from the desirability vel non of the particular policies which that authority was then used to promote or discourage.

  28. David Marjanović says

    My experience with the term – background: in Austria everyone is tacitly assumed to be Catholic until proven otherwise – is that it includes everything done to reconvert Protestants to Catholicism after large areas that are now Catholic again had become Protestant. This mostly meant bringing in the Jesuits, making the church more attractive by belatedly giving in to many of Luther’s demands, and making the church buildings prettier on the inside – this is the beginning of baroque architecture. The wars are not included.

  29. making the church buildings prettier on the inside

    That’s a matter of opinion. I find those overdecorated churches repugnant.

  30. Sometimes you have to get into the mood. In many Orthodox churches my first reaction is “it’s just too much”. Too many icons, too much gilding, too many candles (and the smell!). But you are supposed to get to heaven (to a degree), not into museum.

  31. I like Orthodox icons, I don’t like this sort of thing.

  32. Yes, as room decoration it is distasteful, but as a model of heaven?

  33. I see your point. No place to put bookshelves.

  34. but as a model of heaven?

    I don’t believe in heaven, but I do believe in architecture.

  35. This is my idea of good religious architecture (I was lucky enough to visit several decades back).

  36. I think the religious sites that I appreciate the most esthetically are ones where the art and architecture have developed naturally over time (like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as as extreme example). Such places present more interesting mixtures of different styles, which may have been integrated to a greater or lesser extent. The organic feel really improves these settings, in comparison to places that are designed and overelaborated in a single style, which can become boring, artificial, and sterile.

  37. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    The way I was taught (which of course may be wrong), counter-reformation church plans, baroque architecture, and overwrought gold-and-marble interior decoration are three distinct things that often go together but don’t imply each other.

    The specifically counter-reformation element in church architecture was structuring the interior so all the faithful can see and focus on the high altar. I’m not aware of anyone currently questioning the liturgical wisdom of that move. And on a purely aesthetic level, it typically entailed a reduction, not an increase in decoration: i.e., the removal of choir enclosures and chancel screens. These were often beautifully decorated, but it’s less clear they were architecturally pleasing. Here in Barcelona most people seem to find the bare post-arson stonework of Santa Maria del Mar architecturally more appealing than the cathedral with its preserved choir, despite the beauty of its stalls as seen from the inside.

    The overwrought gold-and-marble interior decoration, exemplified by the Gesù, I’m also not fond of. Though it’s been so popular for so long I suspect distaste for it is rather elitist. But, as in the Gesù itself, such overwrought decoration is often applied to boring buildings that aren’t architecturally very baroque — I believe the Gesù itself counts as mannerist.

    Baroque architecture qua architecture is instead about buildings that are interesting because of their exuberant, original shape: quite the opposite of overdecorated barns. Say, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, both by Borromini; or in my very baroque hometown of Turin, San Lorenzo and the Shroud Chapel, both by Guarini. Needless to say, you may not like these either, but I’d say they’re objectively quite unlike the Gesù.

  38. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    Quite the contrary: lots of bookshelves! Not sure if our gracious host finds them repugnant too. I like this style better in its library than its church version myself.

  39. David Marjanović says

    I don’t like this sort of thing.

    That, actually, is exactly how a museum should be: the third time you go there you still discover something new!

  40. I like Baroque libraries too. It’s just churches, like the one Hat linked to, that don’t accommodate shelving.

  41. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Y: Sorry for being cryptic: my point was that the church Hat disapproved of and the library I rather like are both in Melk Abbey.

  42. Aha! I was wondering where that was.

  43. Not sure if our gracious host finds them repugnant too.

    I never find bookshelves repugnant.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    There must be repugnant bookshelves somewhere. Squamous, rugose bookshelves, whereon is shelved, numbered by no sane classification system, marked with a library mark the very sight of which blasts the mind of the beholder, the dread N…

    But I have said too much.

  45. In Australia:

    The glimpses themselves were at first merely strange rather than horrible. I would seem to be in an enormous vaulted chamber whose lofty stone groinings were well-nigh lost in the shadows overhead. In whatever time or place the scene might be, the principle of the arch was known as fully and used as extensively as by the Romans. There were colossal round windows and high arched doors, and pedestals or tables each as tall as the height of an ordinary room. Vast shelves of dark wood lined the walls, holding what seemed to be volumes of immense size with strange hieroglyphs on their backs. The exposed stonework held curious carvings, always in curvilinear mathematical designs, and there were chiselled inscriptions in the same characters that the huge books bore. The dark granite masonry was of a monstrous megalithic type, with lines of convex-topped blocks fitting the concave-bottomed courses which rested upon them. There were no chairs, but the tops of the vast pedestals were littered with books, papers, and what seemed to be writing materials—oddly figured jars of a purplish metal, and rods with stained tips. Tall as the pedestals were, I seemed at times able to view them from above. On some of them were great globes of luminous crystal serving as lamps, and inexplicable machines formed of vitreous tubes and metal rods. The windows were glazed, and latticed with stout-looking bars. Though I dared not approach and peer out them, I could see from where I was the waving tops of singular fern-like growths. The floor was of massive octagonal flagstones, while rugs and hangings were entirely lacking.

  46. Sounds good. You want an inviting space in which to read your Archie comics.

  47. Of course Cultes des Goules, De Vermis Mysteriis, and Unaussprechlichen Kulten were on those shelves…

  48. Stu Clayton says

    I had to ‘net Cultes des Goules. I knew nothing about this Lovecraft fellow, and was comfortable in that ignorance. Pleasantly enough, I find my repose undisturbed after this bit of research.

    But I did get a glimpse of French struggling with gender demons, in an article in that language that ends:

    Le-a lecteur-rice est prévenu-e

  49. That’s écriture inclusive and little dashes supposed to be little dots.

  50. Stu Clayton says

    Thanks, it’s the first time I’ve seen that. I haven’t moved beyond Houellebecq and Le Figaro. The dashes gave me the impression that the typewriter had broke down.

    German do-gooders have recently been experimenting with asterisks to a similar end. There was even a headline in Spiegel about it.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Twenty years ago, experts could tell people’s fine-grained ideological positions by their use of Studentinnen und Studenten, Student(inn)en, StudentInnen*, Student.inn.en**, Student*innen, or Student_innen.

    * mit Binnen-i
    ** Communist.

  52. J.W. Brewer says

    Something seemed a bit off about the description of the eldritch library Brett quoted but then I remembered that a standard Lovecraftian trope is distortion of and/or departure from ordinary Euclidian geometry, which is merely a projection of what we puny humans call “sanity.” So in light of that it is perfectly sensible for the library floor in question to be completely tesselated with octagons, regardless of the “sane” view that that is mathematically impossible to accomplish.

  53. @J.W. Brewer: While eldritch non-Euclidean geometries are a recurring feature in Lovecraft, that’s not what is going on in that passage from “The Shadow out of Time.” The Great Race, at least in the rugose conical bodies that they have occupied upon the ancient Earth, are relatively normal material beings; they are composed on ordinary matter and their dwellings are constructed by conventional means. Their one particular paranormal power—the temporal dislocation of their minds—is achieved by technological, rather than magical or psychic, means. So a warped tessellation composed solely of octagons would not make sense in the context of their civilization (not that the narrator Nathaniel Peaslee knew any of this at the time he was having the dreams described in that passage).

    However, Lovecraft does actually clarify this issue later in the story, although it is easy to miss the explanation. It turns out that there were actually square blocks inset between the octagons.

    A month of digging brought a total of some 1250 blocks in varying stages of wear and disintegration. Most of these were carven megaliths with curved tops and bottoms. A minority were smaller, flatter, plain-surfaced, and square or octagonally cut—like those of the floors and pavements in my dreams—while a few were singularly massive and curved or slanted in such a manner as to suggest use in vaulting or groining, or as parts of arches or round window casings. The deeper—and the farther north and east—we dug, the more blocks we found; though we still failed to discover any trace of arrangement among them. Professor Dyer was appalled at the measureless age of the fragments, and Freeborn found traces of symbols which fitted darkly into certain Papuan and Polynesian legends of infinite antiquity. The condition and scattering of the blocks told mutely of vertiginous cycles of time and geologic upheavals of cosmic savagery.

    (Dyer’s reaction here—”appalled,” as Peaslee puts it—is not just a geologist’s natural shock at discovering crafted structures millions of years old. It is also a bit of dramatic irony, since William Dyer was previously the protagonist of At the Mountains of Madness is already well aware that there have been multiple sapient races on Earth, prior to the coming of humankind.)

  54. In A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly’s harping on the lack of “theology and geometry” ultimately comes from Lovecraft. Robert Byrne, the inspiration for Ignatius, had a stock phrase, “the theology and geometry are all wrong”, which came from the phrase “the geometry was all wrong” in The Call of Cthulhu.

  55. It was Rodriguez the Portuguese who climbed up the foot of the monolith and shouted of what he had found. The rest followed him, and looked curiously at the immense carved door with the now familiar squid-dragon bas-relief. It was, Johansen said, like a great barn-door; and they all felt that it was a door because of the ornate lintel, threshold, and jambs around it, though they could not decide whether it lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar-door. As Wilcox would have said, the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable.

    All the remarks about the wrongness of the geometry eventually lead up to my favorite bit from the story, which I’m not going to quote, since I don’t want to spoil its cleverness.

  56. David Marjanović says

    You want an insane tiling? Forget Lovecraft and start with Penrose.

  57. Aaahhhh! My eyes!….

    *gibbers, runs amok*

  58. John Cowan says

    I find those overdecorated churches repugnant.

    Well, of course. You are a Lutheran (culturally speaking), whose ideal church is a barn painted white on the inside, with a pulpit in the middle and an organ along one wall, and that’s it.

  59. St. Peter and Paul’s Church is a baroque masterpiece known for its exceptional interior


  60. Trond Engen says

    You are a Lutheran (culturally speaking), whose ideal church is a barn painted white on the inside, with a pulpit in the middle and an organ along one wall, and that’s it.

    Not necessarily. Here in the Lutheran north, baroque architecture came with the final victory of the reformation and is very much associated with Protestant imagery: Rich altar decorations contained within otherwise sparsely decorated buildings. Prophets, evangelists and angels but no extra-biblical saints. Here’s Vor Frelsers kirke in Copenhagen. Towards the end of the baroque, the initial strictness gave more and more way to the rich, and at the advent of the roccocco we would get Kongsberg kirke in Norway.

    “The final victory” in the sense that the choice of Catholic or Lutheran doctrine was no longer a political issue. The Baroque came with High Church Lutheranism, which effectively incorporated the previous crypto-Catholic faction in the Lutheran church. The final lutheranization of people’s minds, at least in Norway, may not have happened until the lay movements of the 19th century, which indeed did advocate austerity in everything, including simple buildings that didn’t distract from the preacher and the Gospel. This strand of Lutheranism was stronger in the emigrant communities in America, being outside the reach of the established church.

  61. You are a Lutheran (culturally speaking), whose ideal church is a barn painted white on the inside, with a pulpit in the middle and an organ along one wall, and that’s it.

    You’re thinking of Quakers.

  62. John Cowan says

    This strand of Lutheranism was stronger in the emigrant communities in America

    Which is what I had in mind.

    You’re thinking of Quakers.

    The first (non-programmed) Quaker meeting I ever attended was in a clearing in the words in which people sat on benches made of birch poles that faced toward the empty (in a material sense) center. No pulpit, no hireling preachers, certainly no organ. If it rained, one either wore a raincoat or poncho, or was simply rained on, though the meeting would be abridged if the rain was severe enough. “The rain it raineth on the just / And also on the unjust fella / But chiefly on the just, because / The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”

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