Friday, January 25, 2019


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This was the 22nd annual Gilbert Lecture in Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street.

The lecture series is named after John Thomas Gilbert (1829-1898) who did much to chart the history of Dublin. His valuable library of books and manuscripts, relating to Dublin and Ireland, was bought by Dublin Corporation after his death and this forms the nucleus of the special collections in Dublin City Library.

It is an honour to be invited to give the Gilbert Lecture and this year that honour fell to Marie-Louise Coolahan, Professor of English Literature at NUI Galway. Her lecture was titled:
"as was taken out of his own mouth in Dublin":
Autobiography and Life Writing in Early Modern Ireland

The day was organised by Enda Leaney, Senior Librarian, seen here in his Clarke Kent outfit. Enda has taken over from Máire Kennedy, to whom I am grateful for her many invitations for me to give (ordinary) talks there over the last decade.

Brendan Teeling, Acting City Librarian, gave us a rundown on the Library and on the Gilbert Lectures. He had much praise for Dublin's public libraries and their dedicated staffs. The libraries provide a wide variety of essential services to the public free at the point of use and it is vital that this be maintained.

Speaking as a former inhabitant of the Department of Finance, I know that the libraries were always at the top of the list for cuts in times of stringency and it is nothing short of a miracle that the free service has been maintained over the years.

Dermot Lacey was representing the Lord Mayor, and no better man for an entertaining master of ceremonies. And he didn't disappoint.

He recounted how he nearly didn't make it as he had to visit his dentist with a sore tooth (him not the dentist). After the procedure the dentist remarked that he had a very small mouth. This brought forth a burst of laughter from the audience who had come to know Dermot well over the years.

Anyway his first duty was to present Professor Michael Griffin, who gave last year's Gilbert Lecture, with a copy of the lecture in book form. Each year the Gilbert Lecture is turned into a book and published on the occasion of the following year's lecture.

And then it was down to business with Marie-Louise.

It was the word "autobiography" in the title combined with the status of the lecture which brought me along. As usual I hadn't read the title carefully and thought I might get a few hints for writing my own autobiography, assuming I last another few years.

Well the talk turned out to be more interesting than that. Marie-Louise was looking at the emergence of autobiographical and life writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

She examined the motivation, format and content of a wide variety of texts. Now, this is not my period and I am not a historian, but one thing emerged clearly to me. All this writing was mediated. None of it was unrestrained stream of consciousness. Each item was defined by its context. Texts were backing up favours sought, exculpation of past misdeeds and so on. They each had a clearly defined purpose. So presentation of autobiographical information was mediated to suit the purpose at hand.

A bit like the way the winners write the history or the church mediated reporting of the Knock apparition of 1879.

So a timely warning to historians to always be aware of the agenda. There is always an agenda.

I have titled this post "Mediatrix" because the lecture was about mediation and it was itself mediated with extraordinary vivacity. If you don't believe me, just skim down the series of photos of Marie-Louise in action below.

The audience listened and watched with rapt attention.

This included Dermot ...

... and Máire Kennedy herself ...

... and Enda.

And all too soon it was over and time for posed photos.

Marie-Louise, with Dermot (and the book), and Michael Griffin (the author).

(l-r) Deirdre Ellis King (former Dublin City Librarian),
Mary Coolahan (mother), Marie-Louise and Iseult (sister)
I hadn't realised until much later that Marie-Louise was John Coolahan's daughter. I had been at John's talk, on the undenominationalising of the primary schools, in the Patrick Finn Lecture series, in St Mary's, Haddington Road, a few years ago. It was an excellent lecture which I reported on at the time, and for which I attracted some flack from the RCC rearguard.

Sadly, John died last June, RIP

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