Irish Manuscripts Commission: Chairperson Designate

Anois déanfaimid plé leis an Ollamh John McCafferty, atá mar chathaoirleach ainmnithe ar Choimisiún Lámhscríbhinní na hÉireann. Cuirimid fáilte roimhe. I thank Professor McCafferty for coming before us today to give his presentation.

Sula dtosóimid, ba mhaith liom an Ollamh McCafferty a chur ar a aird go bhfuil sé, de bhua alt 17(2)(l) den Acht um Chlúmhilleadh 2009, faoi chosaint ag lán-phribhléid maidir leis an bhfianaise a thugann sé don choiste seo. Má ordaíonn an coiste dó ámh éirí as fianaise a thabhairt i leith ní áirithe agus má leanann sé dá tabhairt, níl sé i dteideal tar éis sin ach pribhléid cháilithe i leith na fianaise aige. Ordaítear dó nach dtabharfar ach fianaise a bhaineann le hábhar na n-imeachtaí seo agus fiafraítear dó cleachtadh parlaiminte a urraimiú nach chóir, más féidir, daoine ná eintiteas a cháineadh ná líomhaintí a dhéanamh ina n-aghaidh, ina ainm, ina hainm nó ina n-ainmneacha ar shlí ar bhféadfaí iad a aithint. Ba mhaith liom é a chur ar an eolas go ndéanfar na ráitis tionscnaimh a chuireann sé faoi bhráid an choiste a fhoilsiú ar shuíomh ghréasáin an choiste tar éis an chruinnithe seo. Meabhraítear do chomhaltaí an cleachtadh parlaiminte atá ann le fada nár chóir dóibh tuairimí a thabhairt maidir le duine atá taobh amuigh de na Tithe, nó le hoifigeach, ina ainm nó ina hainm ar shlí ina bhféadfaí é nó í a aithint. We look forward to Professor McCafferty's presentation. I ask him to commence and we will then put some questions to him after that.

Professor John McCafferty

Go raibh míle maith agat. Ós rud é go bhfuil mo chuid Ghaeilge labhartha cosúil le giolcadh na Lochlannaigh, b'fhearr liom labhairt i mBéarla. I would prefer to speak in English.

Professor John McCafferty

I would really like to say something about the past and how it relates to the present and the job we do. The Four Courts were destroyed in 1922. When I was an undergraduate, I used to say that the Four Courts were burnt but as my lecturer reminded me, "no-one knows exactly what happened." Anyway, the Four Courts were destroyed. It was like burning a hole in the memory of the entire island because like all colonising powers, when the British were here, they were very good at controlling history and that, of course, meant that they tended to centralise everything so they centralised everything in the Four Courts just in time for our Civil War. Since then, under the first chair, Eoin MacNeill, the work of the commission was, essentially, to put out the fire in the head of the Irish people - in other words, to try to find what was left. As bits and pieces of paper and parchment rained down over the greater Dublin area in the wake of 1922, the first thing was for people to bring in the burnt bits and pieces. In fact, we are engaged in a project at the moment with the National Archives to recover the burnt bits, as it were. Since then, there is a great opportunity for us and Ireland in what we have been trying to do because what the British had assembled was the official record and now we are left with the unofficial record and that includes the voices of the poor; the marginalised; women, whose voices have been increasingly recovered; and all sorts of other groups who would not have got a hearing at all if all our stuff had remained.

I have been working on manuscripts in this area for over 20 years. My work in UCD is concerned with taking care of the National Folklore Collection; the massive collections of the Irish Franciscans, including the Annals of the Four Masters; and some of the earliest and most important material relating to the Irish language. That is where I come from and what I want to do with the Irish Manuscripts Commission. To finish my initial statement, the Irish Manuscripts Commission is an act of retrieval. What we are trying to do is get our memories back. The commission has been working away and produces about four or five volumes per year online and in print, essentially to give back the first draft of history to people.

I will close by saying that I think this is really important now because the commemorative cycle started with 1916, which we could all get behind, but we are entering the Civil War period and civil wars are terrible and awful. Countries like Spain have tried to deal with civil wars. The initial Spanish response to the civil war was one side won and tried to wipe the memory of the other. Then one entered a period of Spanish history where socialists tried to retrieve the anti-Franco side. What the Spanish ended up doing is what I propose we do, namely, simply putting all the evidence out there, contextualising it and letting people make up their own minds on what is out there and try to get past all the pain, hurt and feeling we have about the Civil War period.

Míle buíochas.

I would like to make an observation. Professor McCafferty has tremendous strength and great passion and interest in this area. He makes it come alive. He is exactly the type of person who should be teaching young minds in UCD and be a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. He is extraordinary. I have learned so much from him in the last five minutes in terms what we are told officially and what is the reality. I congratulate Professor McCafferty on that. One of the strengths of this committee is that we have the privilege of meeting people who are to lead or be involved in particular areas that really matter, as Mr. Parsons said, to who and what we are and where we came from.

I would also like to put some questions to Professor McCafferty. Is the Proclamation our most important manuscript? In regard to 1922, in Professor McCafferty's opinion, apart from the Book of Kells, what is the most precious manuscript that we have? If I were asked during a quiz what was our most precious manuscript, should I respond that it is the Book of Kells, or am I on the wrong track?

Professor John McCafferty

In regard to the Senator's first question and by way of evading it, the Proclamation is a printed document and not a manuscript.

Professor John McCafferty

That is just me being clever while I think about something else. In my view the Book of Kells is not a particularly valuable manuscript in one way because the text therein is a book of gospels and they are two a penny. It is a rather nice manuscript but the most revealing manuscripts in Irish history are those that contain the collective memory of the people. In that instance, I could name a few. The Annals of the Four Masters are incredibly important because at the point at which Gaelic civilisation is collapsing in the wake of plantation - I am not as upbeat about plantation as Mr. Parsons might have been - the annals preserve the collective memory of Gaelic society. In addition, Seathrún Céitinn's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn is probably one of the most important of all Irish manuscripts because it essentially invents modern Irish. He is the Shakespeare of modern Irish. He gives modern Irish its form, verve and calibre.

To return to the Senator's distinction between the official and unofficial memory, the most important thing about the manuscripts is their relationship to one other. In other words, like people, one person of him or herself is of little consequence but people in their webs and networks are what make groups and collectivities of people, such as this nation, important. That really is where preciousness lies. One could say the laundry list of a 19th century Irish strong farmer could be conceived to be as important as, for instance, the Lord Lieutenant's invitation list. One could make a good case about those. Does that help?

Yes, of course. I was only indulging myself in conversation.

There is a wealth of manuscripts, especially Gaelic manuscripts, most of which, in truth, would be invisible to 99% of the population. Only those who seek out those particular documents and who have the language skills would get an opportunity to understand the light they shed on the lives of the everyday individuals and government structures of their time. How do we open the door and make them accessible? People who buy History Ireland and similar magazines will know that they often reference particular manuscripts. It strikes me that we have an opaque glass behind us which no other country has because of the language transition. Is there any way we can resolve that?

Professor John McCafferty

I think it is very laborious and a lot of work. There are two issues about which I have been talking to colleagues lately. First, there is the language issue in and of itself and, second, since the spelling and alphabet reform in the 1960s, the number of people who can read the seanchló is declining. We are seeking to create new generations of researchers and scholars who can do that. The reality is, and it sometimes hurts us to admit this, we probably will have to translate. We will need to undertake fairly large acts of translation. We are now in a position - this is hurtful perhaps to one's psyche - that there are no monoglot speakers left. I spent the summer in Connemara: there are no monoglot speakers left. There is no one untouched by English and so must live in a bilingual environment and deal with the consequences of that and act appropriately. The most important thing is that we give people access to their collective memories.

In regard to digital access, if a person had the particular skill sets would he or she be able to digitally access the documents mentioned?

Professor John McCafferty

Yes, some of the documents mentioned can be accessed. Most of our backlist can be accessed online. A lot of work has been done. Digitisation proved to be a really good thing for Ireland because it came at a late stage but it allowed us to leap a generation because we were able to move directly to digital material.

Professor McCafferty mentioned collective memory, which is one of the most important aspects of this. There is also a commercial aspect to this to a certain extent. Earlier we discussed county museums and local access to documents. It strikes me that the Book of Kells is in Trinity College and not Kells.

Professor John McCafferty

I can tell the Chairman about that.

The Chairman is getting very territorial.

This is not about Kells per se because it is not even in my constituency.

I understand that Trinity College is, in many ways, the best location for the manuscript. There are four volumes to that particular manuscript. Were there a safe, climatically controlled space within Kells, a volume on loan could be provided by Trinity College which would allow local access. Trinity College makes millions of euro per annum from access to that particular document. I accept that money is well spent and I do not begrudge it that money but there are many towns and cities throughout the country that could have a massive heritage link to a particular document and could provide a space locally for access to it in a controlled and safe manner.

Professor John McCafferty

There are two issues arising, one of which is conservation. I cannot speak to the whole issue. The reason the Book of Kells is in Trinity College is related to the terms of a 17th century will. The Chairman can make of that what he wills. There are several ways forward, including digital access. However, while digital access is fine, people do not only listen to CDs or to live streaming; they still go to live concerts. Some of these documents are very delicate and vulnerable and so on. The provision of high-quality facsimiles is possibly one way around the issue. For example, the original diary of the flight of the earls in 1607 is in UCD. The National Library wished to display it so we made a facsimile. It was so indistinguishable I could not tell it was not the real document and I am an expert in the field. I would have had real trouble distinguishing between the two. There are creative solutions and partnership solutions to those kind of issues. The Chairman is correct that the early manuscripts in particular are tied to specific places. They are the work of the hands of those places. After all, to produce a manuscript such as the Book of Kells, one has to kill approximately 2,000 cattle, and 2,000 cattle do not come cheap. A huge local investment went into these manuscripts in the past.

As I understand it, it is difficult to obtain a full census picture for the State before 1900.

In other words, a good chunk of those censuses was part of what was destroyed in the Four Courts.

Professor John McCafferty


Professor McCafferty mentioned that a great deal of work had been done to fill in those gaps. I imagine there would be other reflective documents that would shine light into that empty space. Will we reach a point when we might be able to get access to much more information on family history, for example, who one's family was and what situation they might have been in in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s?

Professor John McCafferty

The short answer to that is yes. We will not get a full picture and there will still be holes in our collective head, as it were, to return to my original analogy. One of the developments raised by the Chair, namely the digital world, provides us with the ability to link up disparate projects. Next month, for instance, we will be publishing the religious censuses of Ireland as taken by the Church of Ireland, then the State church, in the late 18th century. We are currently finishing this. There are chunks and chunks of information about individual families in these records. One can start to put these together with the 1654 civil survey and with other material from the 19th century. One does all of this online and then gradually one begins to be able to establish where, for example, one's family came from. We start to get, perhaps not entire runs of records, but certainly partial records.

Is there anything that we as a committee can do for the Irish Manuscripts Commission and for Professor McCafferty's objectives for his tenure?

Professor John McCafferty

Goodwill is possibly the most important thing. I should mention the fact that our income was previously in the region of €260,000 per year and was subsequently adjusted down to approximately €230,000. We would like to see it recover slightly and I am not entirely without hope on that front. We are a board of unremunerated experts, which we are happy about as it gives us freedom of action. The most important thing from our point of view as people who are interested in history, and I think I can speak for my colleagues here, is that we feel passionately that history should not become commodified. It should not become the handmaid to tourism. We can do an awful lot for tourism and heritage but there is something integral about history and it should be free. What I would say to bring all of that together then, is that what we would like in terms of the goodwill of the committee in this regard is to ensure that the collective memory of the inhabitants of this island remains free and accessible to all of them, as far as possible.

Hear, hear.

My questions also largely relate to the digital sphere. I do not want to be competitive on that front so I simply wish Professor McCafferty the best of luck in his role.

How does one define a manuscript? I was aware that the Proclamation was not a manuscript because even as children we were taught about its typesetting. Could Professor McCafferty define what he means by a manuscript?

Professor John McCafferty

Technically a manuscript means a handwritten document.

Professor John McCafferty

Matters have got a bit fuzzy since typewriters came along. We talk now about the manuscripts of plays, for example, but I am quite sure that my colleague Frank McGuinness types up his plays. The definition has grown a bit fuzzy. I was being slightly facetious.

I was thinking of John McGahern. There are poets and playwrights who write or wrote all of their work by hand. I thank Professor McCafferty very much.

Professor John McCafferty

I should have stated earlier that much of the material is in private hands. That is where we have concentrated much of our work.

Professor John McCafferty

One of the things that we do is publish material that is in private hands so as to make it publicly accessible. Generally speaking, we do not pay the holders of those manuscripts for access. They either make them available to us or they do not.

If it were possible, it might be interesting for us as a committee to pay a visit and have a look at some of those documents. That would be a real buzz for us.

Professor John McCafferty


I thank Professor John McCafferty very much for coming here today.

We wish him great luck in his role.

Professor John McCafferty

I thank the Chairman.

I propose that we suspend for a few minutes before resuming in private session. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 2.34 p.m. and resumed in private session at 2.36 p.m.
The joint committee adjourned at 2.55 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 4 October 2017.