The nine volume Dictionary of Irish Biography was published just before Christmas. A collaborative project between Cambridge University Press and the Royal Irish Academy it has been many years in preparation and may well prove to be one of the most important publishing enterprises ever undertaken in this country. The dictionary gives the background on Irish men and women who are identified as having made a significant contribution in Ireland or abroad, as well as those born overseas who had noteworthy careers in Ireland.
Up to now anyone interested in the biographical details of Irishmen and women had to rely on a number of different publications, the first of which was James Wills six volumes, ‘Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Irishmen’ published in 1847. Alfred Webb was the Author of ‘Compendium of Irish Biography’ published by Gills of Dublin in 1878 and half a century later John S. Crone was the author of ‘A Concise Dictionary of Irish Biography’. A more up to date work was Henry Boylan’s ‘A Dictionary of Irish Biography’ first published in 1978 and now in its third edition.
In the intervening years other specialised biographical dictionaries relating to the Irish have been produced, including Richard Hayes’ ‘Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France’ and Louis McRedmond’s ‘Modern Irish Lives’, not forgetting the nine volumes produced to date in Irish of ‘Beathaisnéis’ under the editorship of Maíre Ní Mhurchú and Diarmuid Breathnach.
The newly published Dictionary of Irish Biography is truly the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published in relation to Irish persons. Containing 9,014 biographical articles covering a time span from the beginning of written records to the end of 2002 it does not include biographies of any persons living after that latter date.
I spent the Christmas period going through the nine volumes with a view to noting those persons with Athy connections. I ended with a list of 58 names, some of which had slight enough links with the town such as Patrick Delaney, Clergyman and writer born in 1685 who was educated in Athy. He was a friend of Sheridan and Swift and his second wife was the artist Mary Graville who as Mrs. Delaney wrote her autobiography which remains a valuable source of information about the social history of her time. Delaney himself became Dean of Down and as a writer produced several publications. His bust is in the Long Room in Trinity College.
His namesake, Malachy Delaney, from Ballitore is also included in the Biographical Dictionary. Delaney was a prosperous farmer who left Ireland and enlisted in the Austrian Army to escape punishment for some crime or other but who later returned to join the United Irishmen. As leader of the Rebels in the Ballitore area he lead the ambush of the Tyrone Militia on the Narraghmore Road in 1798 and following the collapse of the Rebellion escaped capture by going into the Wicklow hills. He later took part in Emmet’s Rebellion and served time in Kilmainham Jail before being released in or about 1805. He died in March 1807 aged about 50 years.
Lettice Digby, the only child of Lord Offaly and grandchild of Gerald, 11th Earl of Kildare, is also included in the dictionary and her relevance to Athy arises out of her possession of the manors of Woodstock and Athy.
Ownership of property in this or any other area did not concern Johnny Doran, uilleann piper and a member of the travelling community. Johnny was a celebrated musician who often passed through and in all probability played his uilleann pipes in the town of Athy. He was camped near Athy when his health broke down in the autumn of 1949 and had to be admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital. There he remained under the care of Sr. Dominic and her staff until he died on 19th January 1950 and it was in St. Vincent’s Hospital that the legendary Johnny Doran played the uilleann pipes for the last time.
One man whose links with South Kildare were previously unknown to me was George Downes, born 1790, died 1846. Described in the dictionary as a travel writer and topographer, he was educated in Ballitore school after being befriended by the Shackletons. He later entered Trinity College from where he graduated with an M.A. in 1823. Downes wrote a number of books on his travels throughout Europe and later worked with George Petrie on the Ordnance Survey and assisted him in his published work on ‘The Round Towers of Ireland’. As a poet he was noted in the ‘Poets of Ireland’ by D.J. O’Donoghue. Downes, who was unmarried, died in Dublin in 1846 and is buried in the Quaker graveyard at Ballitore.
William Harvey Du Cros was another South Kildare man whose story is told in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Born in Moone during the Great Famine Du Cros was a sportsman who won honours in fencing, boxing and captained Bective Rangers Rugby Club to win an Irish championship. As President of the Irish Cyclists Association he was approached in 1889 by associates of John Dunlop, the inventor of the pneumatic tyre, following which Du Cros established a company to produce the new tyres. This eventually led to the founding of the Dunlop Rubber Company in England which was headed up by Du Cros. He was in part responsible for the introduction of taxi cabs in London but failed due to the opposition of the Dublin jarveys to have similar cabs brought into the Irish capital. He died in Dublin just a month after the ending of World War 1.
One entry in the new dictionary has solved a mystery which has puzzled me for some time. William Grace, the first Catholic Mayor of New York, an office he held from 1880 to 1882 and again from 1884 to 1886, was noted in all previous accounts of his life as having been born in Cork. Sometime ago I came across a reference in one of the Athy Urban District Council Minute Books of a letter from an American woman seeking information on Mayor Grace whom she claimed was born just outside Athy in County Laois. My research tended to show that Grace was from Gracefield, yet the many references to his Cork background left me in some doubt. The dictionary confirms that he was born in 1832 in Riverstown, Co. Cork, while his parents James and Ellen Grace from County Laois were on holidays. William Grace died in New York in 1904 and the company he founded still operates in America as a leading player in the chemical industry.
I intend to return to the Dictionary of Irish Biography as time allows over the next few weeks to deal with more of the men and women from this area whose stories are included in this new publication.