Book review: The lives of Daniel Binchy: Irish scholar, diplomat, public intellectual

Daniel-BinchyBy Tom Garvin

Publisher: Irish Academic Press, 2016

Reviewer: Ruairí Ó hAodha

 ‘Anyone can make history, only a great man can write it’

Oscar Wilde


Daniel Binchy was the son of an affluent shopkeeper from Charleville.  The Binchys of Cork are thought to have originally come to Ireland with Cromwell.  As a family, they have certainly left their mark on modern Ireland.  The descendant of numerous doctors and lawyers, Daniel was the uncle of novelist Maeve Binchy.  Despite embracing Catholicism in the dying days of the penal laws, the Binchys were committed Anglophiles and took a hard pro-Free State line following the Treaty.

This book is a biography of Irish historian and diplomat Daniel Binchy

This had interesting consequences.  During the bitterness of the Civil War, Daniel’s father fairly mercilessly fired any employees who harboured anti-Treaty sympathies.  Amongst those workers was one John Higgins, who was dismissed with a written note to the effect that when all the ‘blackguardism’ then occurring in the country was over, there would be no employment for people like him in the Binchy firm, ‘or anywhere for that matter.’   John Higgins and his young family were left impoverished for a number of years by the dismissal.  His son however is the current occupant of Áras an Uachtaráin.

Daniel Binchy was sent to Clongowes and then to UCD, where he excelled at all he turned his hand to; a BA in politics and MA in Irish history.  Unsurprisingly for a Corkonian, his thesis was a study of the political entanglements behind the Desmond Rebellion of the sixteenth-century.

A travelling scholarship to the University of Munich ensured him a thorough foundation in all aspects of medieval linguistics and law; his doctoral thesis was a study of the Irish origins of the church schools of Regensburg, the university of which remains a major centre for higher learning to this day, and was the site of Benedict XVI’s scholarly but provocative ‘Muhammad’ lecture a few years ago.  Following his schooling Daniel Binchy went on to become one of the most important scholars of early Irish history this country has ever produced.

From a well off family, Binchy was educated at UCD and then won a scholarship to study in Munich, Germany

Professor Tom Garvin’s biography of Binchy is more than that.  In some ways it is really two books in one; a look at the career of the man himself as scholar and diplomat; and a separate study of the development of Celtic Studies in the early twentieth-century.  Through the book, Garvin seeks to restore a small coterie of scholars of Old Irish to what Garvin argues as their rightful place; namely as a previously unacknowledged third pillar of the cultural revival, along with the activists of Conradh na Gaeilge and the litterateurs of the Anglo-Irish literary revival.

Garvin goes some way in his book to show that these two movements were to a great degree dependent on the Trojan work of the Celticists.  Along with the influence and collaboration between each of these parties to Ireland’s cultural rediscovery, there went considerable tensions too.

The book opens with a helpful introductory chapter that gives a series of biopics of the great European Celticists of the era; the Swiss Rudolf Thurneseyen, German Kuno Meyer and Norwegian Carl Marstrander, followed by the native scholars they inspired; Osborn Bergin, Richard Best, Douglas Hyde, Eoin MacNéill, Eleanor Knott, Thomas and Cecile O’Rahilly, James Carney, Myles Dillon and James Delargy.

Best and Bergin seem to have had the greatest influence on Binchy (the ‘three Bs’ did not escape the pen of Myles na gCopaleen), though Garvin gives insight into the profound friendship, both personal and scholarly, between Binchy and Frank O’Connor.  Binchy never married, and it was to O’Connor alone that he confided the story of a lost love.

He was selected by Joseph Walshe of External Affairs to represent the Irish Free State in Weimar Germany between 1929 and 1932

He was selected by Joseph Walshe of External Affairs to represent the Irish Free State in Weimar Germany between 1929 and 1932.  He crossed paths with Adolf Hitler on more than one occasion, and was not impressed.

There was more than a touch of the elitist to Binchy.  He appears to have kept to a fairly small social circle in Munich, and in Garvin’s retelling at least, there appears to have been little comment in Binchy’s correspondence on the dire situation of ordinary Germans during those impoverished inter-war years.  It was perhaps this elitism that also led him in 1921 to dismiss that ‘Austrian soldier’ as a ‘lunatic with a gift for rhetoric’:

Hitler was the principal speaker, and as he sat on the platform waiting for the very prosy chairman to conclude, I remember wondering idly if it would be possible to find a more commonplace-looking man.  His countenance was opaque, his complexion pasty, his hair plastered down with some glistening unguent, and – as if to accentuate the impression of insignificance – he wore a carefully docked ‘toothbrush’ moustache.  I felt willing to bet he was a plumber: a whispered query to my friend brought the information that he was a housepainter. (p. 42)

Garvin at this point of the book digresses into a curious explanation as to why Paul von Hindenburg, with whom Binchy was on good terms, later endorsed Hitler as chancellor.  With the arrival of Fianna Fáil in power, Binchy was succeeded in Germany, by Charles Bewley, a Quaker convert to Irish republicanism, who while perhaps not the ardent Nazi Garvin claims he was, nevertheless naïvely spent much of his time thoroughly annoying the British representatives to Berlin, with relentless pro-German propaganda.

Binchy himself denounced Hitler and Nazism in uncompromising terms in an article for Studies.  It is at this point in the book that Garvin quietly drops a minor bombshell, when after repeatedly recounting how much Binchy desired to return home to aoibhinn beatha an scoláire, we are told that in 1937 he was ‘recruited by the British Foreign Office to undertake a study of Fascism’ in Italy (p. 108).

Binchy was later employed by the British foreign office to study fascism in Italy.

Garvin then speculates that given Binchy’s experience that it was curious that the British did not send him to Germany and that it was perhaps his critical essay on Hitler that ensured that he was not, so as to keep him out of harm’s way.  Yet, if there is an obvious oversight here it is surely that the Binchy would never have gone to Berlin when the new government in Dublin had their own man on the ground already.  One gets the impression that there is more to this episode than is apparent from Garvin’s account.

In any case Binchy’s sojourn to Italy does not appear to have had significant implications, for as Garvin explains, he was on good terms with De Valera in later years.

In fairness to Binchy, he was a perceptive assessor of contemporary European Fascism; while not playing down the significance of any of the fascists, he judged at a very early stage that Hitler’s regime would prove far more evil and murderous than its allies.  While acknowledging that there were few angels on either side, Binchy, believed that the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War was probably the lesser of two evils.

In the case of Italy, Binchy recognized Mussolini for the buffoonish thug that he was, but also suspected that the Italian regime would ultimately prove far less steely than its German ally.  He correctly foresaw that Mussolini would be finished off by his own people.  Chief amongst Binchy’s concerns was the effect the ascension of all these rhetorical lunatics throughout Europe would have upon the Catholic Church, the freedom of the papacy especially, and it was purportedly for this reason that the British sent him to Italy.

His attitude to the church was interesting.  He appears to have had what might best be described as a vicarious attitude to religious practice; according to Garvin, he would frequently leave his home early on a Sunday morning so that his housekeeper would think that he had gone to Mass, only to spend the mornings in Frank O’Connor’s house.

Binchy the academic

The second section of Garvin’s work details Daniel Binchy’s contribution to the understanding of early Christian Ireland; work which has proven deep and long-lasting.  His devotion to his craft can be seen in his tendency to publish very lengthy articles in journals, as opposed to slick books.  There were the usual academic spats, in particular with his one-time protégé James Carney, but by and large Binchy was a polite critic.

The second section of Garvin’s work details Daniel Binchy’s contribution to the understanding of early Christian Ireland

His expertise in medieval law did much to clarify Eoin MacNéill’s pioneering studies of early Ireland.  His ‘scientific’ if not consciously sceptical approach did much to burst the bubbles of previous romanticisms.  He sought to separate the true history of Gaelic Ireland from medieval and early modern chroniclers, whom he recognized were frequently (re)writing past times according to the desires of their contemporary patrons.

His description of early Ireland as ‘rural, tribal, patriarchal and familiar’ is now itself almost legendary to those who study medieval history.  He was what might be termed a constructive revisionist.

There is a danger of taking the ‘scientific’ approach too far though, and in Garvin’s hands many of Binchy’s conclusions are made to fit too snugly with the author’s own assumptions, which if one may be cheeky about it, place him firmly in the tradition of his medieval predecessors.

Garvin shows his own hand when he criticizes the disconnect between the man-on-the-street’s understanding of the past with the scholarship being carried out at third-level.  He admits that (excepting Galway) all the national universities since the foundation of the state were firmly in the grip of Fine Gael; he states that Fianna Fáil was a party ‘that remained bereft of any real intellectual tradition’, but later admits that it was only through Dev’s initiative that the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies was founded, which not only went on to employ Binchy and his friends, but remains one of the preeminent centre of Celtic Studies in the world.

Garvin criticizes the disconnect between the man-on-the-street’s understanding of the past with the scholarship being carried out at third-level.

Mention is not made of the other ‘people’s history’ initiatives of the same period, the Folklore Commission and the school’s studies of the 1930s.  Nor is there any connection made between what if any the schools of thought that have dominated the Irish universities have had on the second-level curriculum.

He denounces the ‘mass education’ of present university culture in Ireland, without wishing to admit with whom its origins lie.  In spite of the success of TG4, the proliferation of Gaelscoileanna and a spate of new translations and publishers in recent years, Garvin has all but buried the Irish language.

As with Binchy himself, he has ignored the warnings of Osborn Bergin, that an appreciation of Modern Irish is a prerequisite to unlocking the mindset of the Old Irish world, although to be fair, he allows for a dissenting voice in the form of Alfred Smith, who has partially blamed the ‘stultifying emphasis on philology’ that all but tragically replaced ‘[w]hatever liberalism remained within the Gaelic League in the appreciation of literature’ (p. 186).

This was a situation that led to what were effectively academic dead-ends – like the ‘two Patricks’ thesis – unprovable theories that were squabbled over for decades.  Little wonder that Myles na gCopaleen acidly observed that Binchy & Co. after years of study had established that ‘there was no God, but there were two St. Patricks.’

In his assessment of Binchy’s work one can detect the long hand of Sir Herbert Butterfield, at whose feet in Cambridge sat Quin, Moody and Dudley-Edwards, who went on to become the heads of Irish history at Queens, Trinity and Garvin’s UCD respectively.

A critic might note that apparent ‘value-free’ history deconstructs nationalist history while leaving the British ‘whig’ interpretation of liberty and progress intact. 

A critic might note that Butterfield’s apparent ‘value-free’ and ‘scientific’ critique of the ‘Whiggish interpretation of history’ has borne remarkable fruit in recent decades in former British colonies, nowhere more so than its oldest colony, in that it has resulted in academic circles in the rigorous deconstruction of native cultures, to the point where it is sometimes asserted that they never in fact existed as culturally distinct communities, while leaving the Whiggish interpretation of British history (and by extension its radically individualist, consumer-capitalist Anglo-American heir) itself remarkably intact.

It is something of an irony too to observe many of Butterfield heirs on both sides of the Atlantic are currently loudly decrying the fruits of the system they have for so long upheld; ‘mass education’ being just one of many examples.  Herein lies the reason, as this reviewer perceives it, why the ordinary man-on-the-street still doesn’t buy this ‘triumph of failure’ school of thought.

One can see in Garvin’s reading of Binchy much of the same process.  And yet, there are numerous inherent contradictions.  Early Ireland was a perennially dying, permanently warlike society, ruled by an oppressive patriarchal elite, upheld for centuries by a rigorous and conservative learned class who apparently kept rewriting dead laws ad nauseum, producing in the process what remains the largest (excepting perhaps Iceland) vernacular literature to be found anywhere in Europe.

Binchy was a tremendous scholar and a sensible diplomat who served his country well.  Tom Garvin has written a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man. 

This all apparently built upon the backs of a population, the vast majority of who were permanently enslaved.  Binchy is quite correct no doubt in seeing the hand of the Uí Neill dynasty in the pens of the annalists, but how does one explain the continuation of their dominance in the text of native chronicles when most of the surviving annals were written in Connacht after the Dál gCais under Brian Boru brought an end to the six-century dominance of the Uí Neill over Ulster in the early eleventh century?

Nor can anyone who has so much as walked past Kilmore, Clonfert, Clonmacnoise, Lismore, Boyle or Tuam assert that the Gregorian reforms of the twelfth century had no impact upon the Irish church.  Has Garvin never heard of the synods of Rath Breasail or Kells-Mellifont, of Ss. Malachy of Armagh or Lawrence O’Toole, the school of Lismore, the Cross of Cong?  One is assuming that these were not the product of a twelfth-century equivalent of the Islamic State.

The narrative as outlined in the latter part of this book is all too neat and reaches a crescendo with the English conquest, which the Irish were apparently only waiting for.

One is reminded of Paul Johnson’s ludicrous assertion in the opening paragraph of his History of Ireland that the invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century was the result of the inherent failure of Irish society to develop a centralized monarchy.  Leaving aside the question of just how ‘centralized’ the English monarchy of that period really was, never mind what that actually means, this is the equivalent of telling a home owner that you robbed his house because the doors and windows were open at the time, ergo it’s your fault.

If The lives of Daniel Binchy proves anything it proves that there can be no such thing as ‘value-free history.’  Binchy was a tremendous scholar and a sensible diplomat who served his country well.  Tom Garvin has written a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man.

Moreover his work throws interesting sidelights on a formative and maturing period of the independent Irish state, that in fairness, others as of yet, have been reluctant to visit.  He has placed the early twentieth century Celtic scholars at the centre of the cultural and national revival.  Binchy has left firm foundations that we can only hope others continue to build on.



















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