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The Irish Times 11.08.2004

A lifetime's work on a work of lifetimes

Nollaig Ó Muraíle has spent a lifetime working on a work of lifetimes, writes Pól Ó Muirí.

The lecturer in Irish at NUI Galway has, since 1971, been editing Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh's Leabhar Mór na nGenelach, or The Great Book Of Irish Genealogies

Mac Fhirbhisigh, who was born in Lackan, Co Sligo, in about 1600, was the last traditionally trained member of a hereditarily learned family, and although his name will not be familiar to many people his work is significant.

Leabhar Mór na nGenelach is his greatest achievement, says Ó Muraíle, and we are fortunate that it has survived the passage of time and the ravages of war. Mac Fhirbhisigh wrote most of the book in 1649-50, while living in Galway. He finished it on December 28th, 1650, just as Cromwell's army crossed the Shannon and headed for the city.

Now, 350 years after its composition, Mac Fhirbhisigh's entire manuscript is available in five volumes, and Ó Muraíle's years of hard labour have come to an end.

By any standards Mac Fhirbhisigh was a remarkable scholar. As well as his immense knowledge of Irish-language material he knew Greek, Latin and English.

He is, says Ó Muraíle, "on par with such major figures in the literary and cultural history of 17th-century Gaelic Ireland as Mícheál Ó Cléirigh and his team on 'The Four Masters' and as SéathrúCéitinn/Geoffrey Keating".

The Great Book is "comparable in scale" with The Annals Of The Four Masters - more properly known as The Annals Of The Kingdom Of Ireland, but "whereas that great compilation was the work of up to six people, The Great Book Of Irish Genealogies was the fruit of the labours of one single individual, and Dubhaltach carried out most of his work in the midst of the Cromwellian wars.

"The work is a remarkable compendium of traditional genealogical lore, preserving, and sometimes reworking, texts some of which go back as far as the early eighth century, but it also brings many pedigrees down to the period of compilation - those of the likes of James Butler, duke of Ormond, Ulick Burke, marquis of Clanricarde, Owen Roe O'Neill, Archbishop Myler Magrath, and many others."

In terms of scale, Ó Muraíle points out, "the standard edition of pre-Norman Irish genealogies - one of the largest works of its kind from medieval Europe - has a personal-names index running to some 12,000 separate items. The corresponding index in Mac Fhirbhisigh's great work runs to 681 pages and lists some 30,500 separate individuals."

The appeal Mac Fhirbhisigh has for a modern audience is to be found in the man himself, says Ó Muraíle. "There is something wonderfully poignant about his labouring away, apparently alone and unaided, at such an unpropitious period of our history.

"There is also the striking vignette that comes to mind of Dubhaltach calling into 'the colledge of Dublin' [ Trinity College] to consult the Book Of Lecan, the great manuscript compiled by his forebears in west Sligo some two and a half centuries earlier. One cannot resist imagining him being sorely tempted to put this marvellous family heirloom under his coat and carry it home with him."

Ó Muraíle believes that Mac Fhirbhisigh's work and tradition are still part of "hidden Ireland". Although Keating and the names of the four masters are familiar to most Irish-language graduates, Mac Fhirbhisigh "is still largely unknown outside of very restricted and specialised circles. He is certainly waiting to be brought back out into the light".

Bringing him back into the light has been no easy process. Ó Muraíle's description of the editing process as being one of blood, sweat and tears is no exaggeration. When he began work on the manuscript, access was very limited. He began to transcribe it by hand and then by typewriter. After that he added a transcript of Mac Fhirbhisigh's shorter genealogical work, the Cuimre, then began the "very tedious work of making a minute comparison between my typescript and Mac Fhirbhisigh's autograph manuscript".

This meant travelling from Galway to University College Dublin each Wednesday afternoon and comparing the two texts, letter by letter and word by word. That took more than two years and was followed by retyping the entire text, of about a third of a million words. He then indexed the text - 70,000 index cards, since you ask - transcribed the material, standardised the Irish forms of names and, at last, began the relatively easy task of looking for a publisher.

Éamonn De Búrca of De Búrca's Rare Books took on the task, having already published editions of The Annals of the Kingdom Of Ireland and The Annals of Ulster. Yet even a publisher as experienced as De Búrca could not free Ó Muraíle from his editorial purgatory. Ó Muraíle started to translate the whole work, including sections in Old Irish to Early Modern Irish and some Latin, into English.

He says phlegmatically: "Some of this was quite straightforward, but some of it proved rather difficult, especially, and rather unexpectedly, the 14th-century topographical poems, which contained a good deal of doggerel that was difficult to render into anything approaching decent English.

"When the editorial work was complete the text of the five volumes ran to about one and one-third million words - or four times the number of words in Dubhaltach's original text."

Why do it? "I would hope that it will lead to the name and work of Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh becoming more familiar to many Irish people," he says. "I do not think it unreasonable to expect that an educated Irish person would have some acquaintance with the names and achievements of the Four Masters, Keating and Mac Fhirbhisigh, to name just some significant individuals from the fateful, and remarkably fruitful, 17th century. How many in this country who profess some acquaintance with the works of Spenser, Bacon, Marlowe, Milton and others - Shakespeare being a given - would be hard pushed to say anything intelligible about any of those Irish names from the 17th century?

"I would also hope that historians of the 17th century who sometimes, quite incredibly, ignore source material in the language that, after all, was the vernacular of the vast majority of the island's population will include even a passing reference to Mac Fhirbhisigh."

Mac Fhirbhisigh's life did not have a happy ending. Having survived the Cromwellian wars, he was stabbed to death near his home, in Co Sligo, in January 1671. He was killed by a man called Thomas Crofton, though why is unclear, say Ó Muraíle. Perhaps his ghost can draw some comfort from the fact that his legacy is now available for a new generation, thanks to the quiet and dedicated scholarship of Nollaig Ó Muraíle.

The Great Book Of Irish Genealogies is published by De Búrca Rare Books, Dublin, €635

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