"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Humanism Comes to Town

Toby Barnard

Dublin: Renaissance City of Literature, edited by Kathleen Miller and Crawford Gribben, Manchester University Press, 256 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-526113245

These essays arose from the wish to buttress Dublin’s claim to be a city of literature, recognised by UNESCO in 2010. The explorations seek to trace a bookish ancestry back to the Renaissance of the sixteenth century. Given the position of Ireland as a part of western Christendom and its constant traffic – in ideas as well as commodities – with much of Europe, it would be surprising indeed if Dublin had not participated in such a pervasive international movement. Yet, as the essayists and editors admit, there were obstacles. Most obviously, Ireland’s position on the edge of Europe may have delayed the arrival of novelties, whether goods or notions. Dublin, unlike Paris, Rome, Antwerp, Augsburg or Rotterdam, was not a staging post on longer journeys, nor a particularly popular destination in itself. Accordingly the buzz which came from strangers who passed through or lingered was not loud. Yet wars and their aftermath, notoriously the expansion of the apparatus of English authority in the kingdom, drew soldiers and administrators, many of whom already knew the Low Countries, Central Europe and even Italy. Moreover, St Patrick’s Purgatory lured intrepid pilgrims, including at least two from Hungary.

The account of one of these pilgrimages undertaken in 1411 and compiled by a Dublin bureaucrat named James Yonge is discussed by Theresa O’Byrne. She suggests that a brisk demand for scribal publications, such as Yonge’s, existed among educated Dubliners. Turbulent politics, with English rule regularly resisted and then forcefully reimposed, were not in themselves an impediment to intellectual innovation. Indeed, as many continental cities suggest, they could stimulate speculation. But, as this volume concedes, some of the features that elsewhere assisted or resulted from the Renaissance were missing from Dublin: no vibrant centre of learning; only an attenuated court to patronise learning and literature; a slow and feeble development of local printing. Yet the place was populous and, for a minority, prosperous. Traders, administrators, soldiers and clerics arrived from overseas, as did manuscripts, engraved images, and – gradually but in increasing quantities – printed books.

It was the pace at which the Renaissance might infiltrate, and the depth to which it might penetrate, that were – and remain – uncertain. Also, and here the collection is less forthcoming than might be wished, what the formulation of a “Renaissance city” entailed is open to varying definitions. Substance is given to the rather woolly concepts of “Renaissance ideals” and “Renaissance spaces” by Raymond Gillespie’s incisive essay. New editions of ancient texts, and more exacting analysis and interpretation of them, were central in the Renaissance. So too were belief in the desirability of communality, often referred to by the shorthand of “civic humanism”, and the need to provide more education, and to improve its quality.

Insofar as the Renaissance involved the recovery and refinement of ancient learning, this was occurring in sixteenth and seventeenth century Dublin, sometimes overlaying classical myth with indigenous legends. The venerated Greek and Latin texts were certainly studied and gradually became available in the improved editions emanating from continental European presses, such as Plantin Moretus in Antwerp or Aldus Manutius in Venice. Through travel and correspondence a few from Ireland were admitted to the universal commonwealth of letters, but even fewer contributed to it. Notable among the latter was James Ussher, Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh. Equally important was Sir James Ware, the subject of an illuminating essay by Mark Empey. Ware’s library, rich in both manuscripts and books printed outside Ireland, was made available to the interested in Dublin and beyond. As Dr Empey demonstrates conclusively, curiosity about the past, especially that of Dublin, and current speculations were shared across the confessional fissures.

A familiar procession of figures parades through the volume – Spenser, Bryskett, Ware, Richard Bellings, James Shirley, Henry Burnell and (later) Bishop Bedell, Katherine Phillips and Lord Orrery: familiar because the known writers who exemplify the Renaissance in Ireland are rarities. Novel is the retrieval by Jason Harris of Caesar Williamson, a Cantabrigian intruded into Trinity College, who emerges as an accomplished and unexpectedly ironical panegyrist in Latin. Revealing too are the examinations of translations into Irish of works by Ovid, mediated – it is suggested by Micheál Mac Craith – through published English versions rather than the classical originals. As a number of the contributors demonstrate, loans of scarce books and the copying and circulation of manuscripts diffused a wider range of writings than the derisory output of the Dublin printing presses suggests.

The collection ends with a pungent comparison of what was printed in Ireland (and Scotland) with the situation elsewhere in Europe. Professor Alexander Wilkinson makes telling – and subversive – suggestions when he relates the surprisingly large output in Catalonia and Valencia as members of their elites adopted Castilian in preference to Catalan. He further reveals the enthusiasm of the Portuguese to read works in Spanish and printed in Spain. Startlingly, presses in sixteenth century Mexico were more productive than in Dublin. However, he rejects, having perhaps implied it, any pejorative dismissal of peripheral and underdeveloped territories such as Ireland as “passive cultural sponges”.

If the contributions confirm rather than dispel the notion of a tardy and feeble embrace of the Renaissance in Ireland, they do succeed in demonstrating the lively and diversified literary culture of sixteenth and seventeenth century Dublin. The upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century exposed some in Ireland to outside influences, intellectual and literary as well as diplomatic and military, either through the arrival on the island of strangers or through exile to the European continent. French fashions especially became a fad in Charles II’s Dublin and spread into plays in addition to dress and cookery. Professor Wilkinson insists on the pluralism of the literary cultures current in early modern Ireland and the transnational nature of the book trades. Others emphasise the resilience of the handwritten, whether in letters, official records, chronicles or romances and verses, and also the willingness of colleagues, neighbours and friends to share them. Much of this activity, so important in forming and changing ideas and behaviour, remains frustratingly elusive. But thanks to these essays it is possible to grasp more of the materials and methods to which Dubliners’ (and Irish) minds were exposed. Delving deeper into manuscripts in which verses, essays and romances survive, frequently only in fragments, is now the best hope of substantiating the bold claim to the title of a “Renaissance city of literature”.


Toby Barnard's latest book is Brought to Book, Print in Ireland 1680-1784, published by Four Courts Press.