The Oxford Companion to Irish History

By S. J. Connolly | Go to book overview
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Preface

THIS volume will serve its purpose if it proves a useful companion to ordinary everyday readers of English literature.' In these modest terms Sir Paul Harvey introduced the first and most celebrated of the Oxford Companions. Six decades later, as the range of the series expands to include Irish history, the notion of 'the ordinary everyday reader' is rather more problematic than it was in 1932. Yet the central conception behind the present volume remains essentially the same: that anyone with a question to ask about a significant individual, event, or institution in the Irish past should be able to search here with a reasonable prospect of finding at least the beginnings of an answer. There is also the hope that, as with Sir Paul's original, the network of cross- references and allusion built into the design will prove to have its own momentum: that for some at least one query will lead on to another, so that the Companion becomes a book to explore rather than merely consult. The nature of the volume requires that the majority of entries should be on fairly predictable subjects. But there are also topics that have not previously figured in standard histories, and that even specialists may find new and revealing. With more conventional subjects, too, there is at least the possibility that a different arrangement, cutting across conventional boundaries of sub-discipline and chronology, will suggest new perspectives. Even the necessarily rigid constraints of space, all too often requiring contributors to attempt what one aptly described as the equivalent of a haiku, may perhaps encourage a clarity of definition less easily achieved in more extended treatments.

To take on a project of this kind means embracing the unavoidable limitations as well as the possibilities. Any feasible one-volume compendium must involve selection and compression. There are thus no prizes for detecting regrettable omissions in what follows; the real test is whether, on a significant scale, what has been included is self- evidently of lesser importance than what has been left out. In particular it was necessary to accept from an early stage that the Companion could not be a dictionary of Irish biography. The original list of individuals seeming to require an entry would by itself have accounted for well over half the projected volume. The revised selection attempts to combine two aims: to include those figures about whom users of the volume are most likely to want to enquire, and to maintain some sort of balance between the different areas of life-political, cultural, intellectual, religious, economic-with which the volume tries to deal. A substantial number of individuals not covered in their own right are identified, with brief biographical details, in entries where their names occur. There are also entries on leading families, both Gaelic and Anglo-Irish, picking out both members important in their own right and the principal links in the chain of succession.

The selection of entries has also been significantly influenced by the existence of a separate Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, edited by Professor R. J. Welch and published in 1996. There seemed little point in attempting what would inevitably be a more superficial general coverage of the field of literary history. Instead, the topic is approached in two specialist entries: Dr Patrick Maume's mini-essay on the interaction between literature and history, and Dr Nicholas Williams's survey of the main developments in literature in Irish from the early middle ages to the present. Coverage of

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