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History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating



[The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating]

Translated by Edward Comyn and Patrick S. Dineen


GEOFFREY KEATING stands alone among Gaelic writers: he has had neither 

precursor nor successor, nor, in his own domain, either equal or 

second. His works show the fullest development of the language, and 

his historical treatise, with which we are here concerned, marks an 

epoch in our literature, a complete departure from the conventional 

usage of the annalists. From the last and greatest of these, even from 

his illustrious contemporaries, the Four Masters, he is, in his style 

and mode of using his materials, as far removed as is Gibbon from 

earlier English writers on European affairs. The period, however, with 

which the English author deals is one for the history of which ample 

authentic materials existed, and nothing remained for the writer but 

to select and present the facts in his own style to the reader. But 

our author has to give an account of a country apart from the general 

development of European civilization, and to treat chiefly of remote 

ages without the support of contemporary documents or monuments. In 

this respect his field of inquiry resembles somewhat that of the 

portion of Dr. Liddell's work relating to the Kings and early Consuls 

of Rome, where the author, in a pleasing style, does his best with 

scanty and unsatisfactory materials, not altogether throwing aside, 

like the German critics, all data which cannot be confirmed by 

inscriptions or authentic records, yet skilfully exercising his 

discretion in the use of legend and tradition which had by earlier 

writers been received as trustworthy evidence. It will be seen, in the 

course of this work, that Keating, though often accused of being 

weakly credulous, and though he was perhaps inclined to attach undue 

importance to records which he believed to be of extreme antiquity, 

while carrying on his narrative by their help (he had no other), yet 

shows as much discrimination as writers on the history of other 

countries in his time. He recounts the story, in his own happy manner, 

as it was handed down in annals and poems, leaving selection and 

criticism to come after, when they have a 'basis of knowledge' to work 

upon. By this term he accurately indicates the contents of his 

principal work, in which not merely history, but mythology, 

archæology, geography, statistics, genealogy, bardic chronicles, 

ancient poetry, romance, and tradition are all made to subserve the 

purpose of his account of Ireland, and to increase the reader's 

interest in the subject. From his style and method, his freedom from 

artificial restraint and his extensive reading, it may well be 

conjectured that, but for the unhappy circumstances of our country, he 

might have been the founder of a modern native historical school in 

the Irish language, the medium employed by him in all his works. We 

may well be glad of his choice, and much is due to him for this good 

service. He might have written in Latin like his friend Dr. John 

Lynch, or Rev. Stephen White, or Philip O'Sullivan, his 

contemporaries, or like O'Flaherty in the next generation; or in 

French, like the later AbbĂ© Mac Geoghagan; or in English, like Charles 

O'Conor, and so many other vindicators of their country and her 

history. He was shut out from any opportunity of printing or 

publishing his work; but his own industry, and the devoted zeal of his 

literary friends and admirers who undertook the duty, secured its 

preservation. Printing in Gaelic was then rare and difficult, 

especially in Ireland, but the reproduction of manuscripts was an 

honourable calling actively pursued, and the copies were so clearly 

and beautifully executed by professional scribes that the native 

reader was never so bereft of literature as the absence of printed 

books might suggest.

Keating's works are "veritably Irish uncontaminated by English 

phrases, and written by a master of the language while it was yet a 

power," as Dr. Atkinson puts it. His vocabulary is so full and varied 

that one of a translator's difficulties must be to find equivalents 

for what appear on the surface to be synonymous terms or merely 

redundant phrases: and though we may admit an occasional lapse into 

verbiage unpleasing to critics, yet his style has a charm of its own 

which quite escapes in any translation, and can only be fully 

appreciated by native readers, among whom his works have always

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