The DIB in all its 9 volume glory.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography (the DIB), published in nine volumes and online in 2009, is a work of truly historic significance. The model for all books of this kind, the old British Dictionary of National Biography (the DNB), appeared in instalments between 1885 and 1900 – and was not superseded until 2004, when the new Oxford DNB appeared. I expect that the DIB will likewise last for at least the next 100 years. Certainly, it will still be consulted long after we have forgotten most other works of Irish scholarship now in print – and its influence will extend to every field of Irish studies.

 In a wider cultural perspective, the DIB represents a powerful statement of Irish identity – on a par with our language, our flag, our stamps and the harp on our euro coins. When the original DNB was published at the end of the 19th century, it included entries pertaining to Ireland. This was indicative of the mindset of the British establishment at that time. The Irish were part of the United Kingdom, albeit with their own distinctive tradition, like the Scots and the Welsh. There was no place for Irish separatism – not even for home rule, which was then the dominant Irish nationalist aspiration. The old DNB reflected that paradigm. It should be noted that we have not yet escaped from the yoke of the DNB. The new Oxford DNB published in 2004 continues to claim the Irish. The reason is, quite simply, that Ireland is regarded as part of Britain’s colonial heritage. While we cannot deny this aspect of our history, it is not the full story – and it is not an appropriate focus after over 90 years of independent statehood. We need to define ourselves in our own terms, not those of others. It is important, therefore, that we should have our own national dictionary of biography – and now, at last, we have it.

Máire O'Neill (Molly Allgood), Actor. Máire O’Neill (Molly Allgood), actor, who has an entry in the DIB.


The original publication contained 9,014 signed biographical articles, and to be the subject of one of those articles one had to have made a mark in some field of human endeavour, to have died before the end of 2002 and to have been born in Ireland or had a significant part of one’s career in Ireland. The DIB is, however, a continuing project, and is regularly updated and extended online. A further 351 articles have been added since 2009, about three-quarters of which refer to persons who died between 2003 and 2007. The other additional articles are about persons who, though eligible for inclusion in the original publication, were inadvertently omitted. Two of the omissions thus rectified are Patrick Henchy, director of the National Library of Ireland from 1967 to 1976, and Ernest Forbes, the cartoonist ‘Shemus’ in the Freeman’s Journal, many of whose drawings for the Freeman are held by the National Library. Another is Rosie Hackett, whose name will be immortalised in the new bridge over the Liffey. Among those who died after 2002 and are now included are Charles Haughey and John McGahern. Unfortunately, there are no plans at present to issue the additional articles in book form.

A toast to Charles J. Haughey after topping the poll (1973)     A toast to Charles J. Haughey after topping the poll (1973). Charles Haughey, politician, who has an entry in the DIB.


Being included in the DIB – in print or online – is the ultimate proof that someone made it in Ireland. A similar distinction attaches to the many people who wrote the biographical articles, both those employed on the project and the various experts who, without monetary reward, were external contributors. The authors comprise a ‘who’s who’ of Irish scholarship today, and it occurs to me that part of the fun in editing the DIB must have been matching authors and subjects. Quite apart from the influence which the DIB will have as a work of reference, its influence will also be felt through the vital role it played in the professional formation of a generation of Irish historians. Many young historians, after post-graduate work, began their academic careers with a period of temporary employment on the DIB when the original publication was in preparation. Working on the DIB was a rite of passage for them. The high standards of research and writing which the DIB exemplifies will, accordingly, define Irish historical scholarship for many years to come.

 This is greatly to be welcomed. For too long, the study of Irish history has been compromised by political and cultural agendas which have nothing to do with understanding the past. The long-running arguments about Irish history between so-called revisionists, anti-revisionists and post-revisionists are frankly tedious, and the time has come to move on from them. We can surely all agree that the study of history is about doing our best, in good faith, to discover the truth about the past – however inspiring, uncomfortable or mundane. Do the research, and let the chips fall where they will. The past happened, and cannot be undone; it made us what we are, for good and ill; and we have a duty to rediscover it and understand it, and to do so without illusions.

There is, therefore, no place for hagiography in history, not even perhaps when someone has earned the formal title of saint – and few deserve the opposite, outright demonization. Figures in the past were human, just like us – flesh and blood, each a mixture of good and the not-so-good, each with talents and shortcomings, each with failures as well as achievements. We do nobody any favours by enlarging them beyond what they were in life, by turning them retrospectively into plaster saints. Our heroes are actually more attractive, and their lives have more meaning for us, when we pay them the compliment of seeing them as real human beings, in all their complexity. In Brian Friel’s play Making History, Hugh O’Neill implores his biographer, Archbishop Lombard, not to ‘embalm me in pieties’, but to ‘record the whole life’ – and that is an admirable injunction to all historians.

 Nowhere does the DIB fall into the trap of facile piety. It may be a statement of Irish identity, but it is a mature statement – not written in any spirit of national self-congratulation or with commemorative intent. It is instead grounded in a determination to find the truth, or at least ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’ (to quote Woodward and Bernstein, the Watergate journalists). Its aim is to record whole lives within the necessarily limited space allowed for each article. It seeks to understand and explain, not to judge. It is not God as He is sometimes depicted in images of The Last Day – with the virtuous on His right, the damned on His left. It is, in short, a work of scholarship. It provides a vital point of reference for anyone, anywhere in the world, who is interested in Ireland’s past – in the experience of the Irish people, both individually and collectively. It is a credit to its editors, James McGuire and James Quinn – and to the Royal Irish Academy, who sponsored it, and to the publishers, Cambridge University Press.

'The Reign of Terror' by Shemus (Ernest Forbes). ‘The Reign of Terror’ by Shemus (Ernest Forbes), cartoonist, who has an entry in the DIB.


*Felix M. Larkin is vice-chair of the NLI Society and a member of the NLI’s statutory Readers Advisory Committee. He was an external contributor to the Dictionary of Irish Biography.


by Jason Kearney, BA Photography student, DIT

As part of our third year in college, we had the option to study the archive in context – a progression from an earlier module in which we studied the theoretical aspects of the archive. To put these theories into practice and also out of a sense of curiosity surrounding the inner workings of the National Library of Ireland’s (NLI) National Photographic Archive (NPA), I put myself forward for the 12 week module. It was both an opportunity to try something new outside of the classroom and to gain experience that would be valuable in the future, given that archiving in general is receiving more prominence these days with the advent of an ever-expanding public digital database.

The module began with a discussion involving Elizabeth Kirwan, curator at the NPA and Matthew Cains, Conservator at the NLI, to plan the re-housing of the NPA’s Press Photographers Association of Ireland (PPAI) Collection and to plan the input of metadata to be created in a specially designed collection level record template. The PPAI was founded in 1978 and the PPAI Collection (1978-1993) consists of 1,462 negatives and colour contact sheets by Irish press photographers who were shortlisted for the annual PPAI Awards between 1978 and 1993. The collection was bought by the NLI in 1997. Typically, an archive of an organisation consists of a collection of documents of or about that organisation. The PPAI Collection lay untouched for 15 years, and was significantly lacking in supplementary information to help us decipher its contents.

PPAI archive

The four phase boxes which hold the PPAI archive

The PPAI archive consisted of 1,462 negatives in four phase boxes. Each phase box was split into ‘batches’ and each batch contained on average 15 medium format negatives. Each batch also contained a contact sheet for these negatives and a corresponding A4 sheet with information for each negative. This information detailed the photographer, newspaper, shutter speed and various other technical aspects for each negative.

This was a good start until we realised that there seemed to be no apparent pattern to indicate why each batch of 15 negatives was grouped in such a manner. The problem was practical in that when documenting an archive, ideally there should be a systematic recording of the contentents, using clearly defined parameters and keywords. This is particularly fundamental in relation to the NPA as part of its policy and remit is to increase access to its collections.

PPAI archive

A PPAI archive 'batch' - negatives, contact and information sheets

The challenge here was that we had a collection spanning 15 years, with over a hundred photographers, 1,462 negatives of images from 1978 to 1993, the vast majority of the images relating to Irish culture – sporting events, political personalities, celebrities, musicians, people at work… yet there was no identifiable system to their ordering. It is important to note here that the physical integrity of an archive must be understood before it is re-housed for public use. Typically this raised a few problems, as single photographs are easily placed in protective covers and filed for accessibility. Yet we were faced with an unusual physical barrier, each of these 105 batches was placed in a non-consecutive order, plus negatives within each batch were similarly non-consecutive.  Also, the constituents of each batch – a contact sheet, negatives and a few A4 sheets of paper – were stapled together. To decipher an archive, you must respect its original physicality, however tempting it is to re-order its contents, otherwise important information and knowledge may be lost.

Although the PPAI archive contains photographs, the sheer amount of images to be assessed meant that essentially I was dealing with data, trying to correlate differing pieces of information, searching for patterns and attempting to solidify theories about the system of batching. A process of elimination led from one theory to the next, the method being that any application must be consistent across all batches and negatives before re-housing could commence.

PPAI archive

40 black and white A2-sized prints from the PPAI archive

It was at this stage that I assessed 40 black and white A2-sized prints from the 1979 PPAI competition. Each print had similar information on the back, as detailed on the A4 sheets, including a category, labelled by letter from A to F. This ‘code’ was the key to figuring out a possible systematic way of grouping this archive into distinct parts in an effort to make it navigable, yet we still had no ‘key’ to this lettering system. Given the lack of information supplied with the archive, I spent some time navigating through the online newspaper archive of the Irish Times, searching for any articles relating to the PPAI from 1978 to 1993. Finally I discovered one article that revealed the category titles and their corresponding letters. In 1989 the PPAI competition was broken down into: A-Sport, B-News, C-Features, D-People, E-Individual Study and F-Picture Essay. We could now look at this archive in a new light.

At the beginning of the module I decided to email the PPAI secretary, Kate Horgan, to see if she could shed some light on the collection. Although 20 years had passed since the final year documented in the archive, I hoped that some insider knowledge could help us out. Thankfully Kate replied and was interested in sharing her experience as member and secretary of the PPAI. She brought along a number of catalogues from PPAI annual exhibitions into the NPA in Temple Bar. These corresponded with the categories in the Irish Times article and helped confirm and quantify my findings. It was great to talk to someone directly involved in the PPAI as many puzzling questions were answered.

PPAI archive

A contact sheet from the PPAI archive

Carroll’s, the tobacco company, had sponsored the PPAI annual exhibition between 1978 and 1997. Some years it was hosted in their premises and to our knowledge, the company kept the exhibition prints, which averaged 100 a year. It seems that they moved premises, were bought out and in the process it was most likely that stacks of photographs were unintentionally rearranged. Due to the passing of time, the facts remain unclear, yet it is evident that it was not realised that one day these images would be of historical significance.

As part of the module Elizabeth asked for my input in discussing a viable strategy to list the archive. I put forward the proposal that all negatives with sufficient information in the PPAI archive could be digitally listed on the NLI’s online Virtua catalogue and that negative by negative would be re-labeled, in its current physical state. Due to the fact that the negatives were incorrectly numbered, a new system of numbering would be established, therefore making any image searched on the online database retrievable with minimal confusion within the physical archive.

PPAI archive

Information sheet detailing the entries submitted by photographers Matt Kavanagh and Frank Miller to the 1983 Eircell PPAI Photographer of the Year Awards

I thoroughly enjoyed the investigative aspect of appraising the PPAI archive. Although it was unexpectedly  laborious and frustrating at times, it was very rewarding to see that the efforts paid off and, after 12 weeks’ work, the foundations for creating a more accessible collection were set out. It is satisfying to know that many years of historically important photojournalism will be more accessible in the near future. This kind of work, carried out at the NPA, is essential in preserving Irish cultural identity and a visual link to the past.


by Gavin Finlay

The American Civil War of 1861-65 is one of modern history’s most catastrophic conflicts. With approximately 750,000 fatalities and 400,000 wounded, it remains the deadliest war in US history. Yet relatively little is known in Ireland, or indeed officially recognised here, in this the sesquicentennial of the war, that it was also arguably one of the most significant conflicts in Irish history. Over 1.6 million Irish people lived in the United States by the 1860s and approximately 170,000 Irish-born men fought, and perhaps tens of thousands died, during the conflict (the vast majority for the Union). These figures almost mirror the numbers of Irish who fought in World War I. In other words, the American Civil War represents the second largest deployment of armed manpower in the history of Irish militarism. Indeed, recently it has been described as Ireland “great forgotten conflict”. The Irish experience in the American Civil War is a popular theme amongst American historians, and the Irish-American community in general, where it continues to be studied and commemorated across the Atlantic.

In the coming decade of commemoration, the Irish state will, and rightly so, remember those who participated in the calamitous and tragic 1914-18 war (and of course the revolutionary 1916-23 period). While recent commemorative gestures have been welcome, such as the Irish Defence Forces partaking in the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg last December, there is still no official memorial to the tens of thousands of Irish emigrants who perished in the American Civil War. In this year of The Gathering, when we reach out to the global Irish diaspora, perhaps a proper acknowledgement of Irish who fought in America’s defining conflict is long overdue.

The National Library of Ireland has a number of documents, as well as dozens of books and memoirs, on Irish participation in the American Civil War that will interest any scholar or enthusiast of this fascinating period of (Irish) American history. What follows is a focus on just one set of documents the library has in its possession…

Listed as Ms. 18,327 are papers in the NLI’s manuscipt collections relating to John O’Neill, originally of Portarlington, Co. Laois, who served in the Federal Army during the American Civil War, and who died in Andersonville, Georgia in 1864. The letters and documents date between c.1860-1880s, and include some correspondence between John and his family in Portarlington. Most fascinating is a detailed and protracted correspondence between John’s mother, Dora O’Neill (and her legal representatives) and the US War Department, War Pension Agency, Sanitary Commission and US Treasury in Washington regarding her claim for a dependent’s war pension for her “missing presumed dead son”. Dora was ultimately successful.

In this letter, Private O’Neill writes to his mother in May 1964 during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. This battle was the second major battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign and in total involved around 100,000 Union forces and 52,000 Confederates. The resulting casualty toll of 32,000 makes the Battle of Spotsylvania one of the top five deadliest battles of the Civil War.

Manuscript 18,327

Letter from John O'Neill, Army of the Potomac, to his mother on 10 May 1864. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

“Doubtless you will hear of the great battle in the papers”, he writes. “Now as I write to you we are … in the rifle pits about two miles from Spotyslvania Court House; the shots are beginning to be fired at the advancing rebels by our men. I do not know what way it will end yet, both parties are equal at present…”

 Concerned for her son, Mrs O’Neill wrote to the US War Department on 12 September 1864. In the response from Washington below, Mrs O’Neill is informed that “Private John O’Neill of Co. 26 30th Regiment New York Volunteers, appears from the latest information received at this office, (dated August 31, 1864) to be as follows: “Missing in action, supposed to be a prisoner”.”

Manuscript 18,327

From Assistant Adjutant General at the War Department in Washington to Mrs Dora O'Neill on 6 October 1864. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

There was very little comfort for Dora O’Neill at the start of 1865 in a communication from John Bowne, Superintendent Hospital Directory in Washington, D.C. Her son John is still taken as missing and “is supposed to be a Prisoner of War”.

Manuscript 18,327

Letter from the U.S. Sanitary Commission to Mrs Dora O'Neill, February 1865. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

More than twenty years after the war, Mrs Dora O’Neill received correspondence from the Bureau of Pensions enclosing a Certificate (No. 251.154) for a pension “this day issued in your favor”. She is told that when she returns the “properly prepared vouchers” to a recognized attorney in the US, she will be sent a check  for the “pension then due”. For his trouble, the recognized attorney who was based in Winsted, Connecticut, was to receive $25.

Manuscript 18,327

From the U.S. Bureau of Pensions to Mrs Dora O'Neill, January 1889. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

A document from the office of Sidney L. Willson of the US Pension Agency, For Payment of Pensions in Washington, D.C., enclosed the O’Neill’s original pension certificate and instructions. It is noted that the pension will be payable quarterly, on the fourth day of March, June, September and December.

Manuscript 18,327

From US Pension Agency. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

More than 20 years after the O’Neill family of Portarlington, Co. Laois started their campaign to receive a pension following the death of John O’Neill, soldier in the Union Army, at Andersonville, Georgia in 1864, we see this memo from Goodbody and Webb, Stockbrokers of Dame Street in Dublin. Dated April 1889, it confirms an accompanying cheque for £492 14s 2d “being proceeds of American draft $2419.4. We have allowed you 48 [and] 7/8 d per dollar.”

Manuscript 18,327

From Goodbody & Webb on Dame Street, Dublin, April 1889. NLI ref. Ms. 18,327

If you have any information about John O’Neill, we’d love to hear it…

(Gavin Finlay is an M.Phil Public History graduate of Trinity College Dublin. As part of the M.Phil programme he completed a short research internship here at the National Library of Ireland. An article based on his research on Irish experience in in the American Civil War will be published in History Ireland later in 2013. He works for Historical Walking Tours of Dublin.)