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Home Uncategorized Enabling the Future

Enabling the Future

Neil Buttimer

The Lives of Daniel Binchy: Irish Scholar, Diplomat, Public Intellectual, by Tom Garvin, Irish Academic Press, €22.50, ISBN: 978-1911024224

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.

In Fear and Trembling (1843), a title whose resonances and focus are scarcely remote from what might be encountered below, Søren Kiergegaard (1813-55) presented Abraham’s prospective sacrifice of Isaac in multiple tellings, seeking to establish what truth each different version told. The sage’s example can be followed by claiming that assessment of the book under review yields at least two valid contradictory statements about it. A first conclusion is negative. That determination may appear unsurprising, in deference to the person chiefly involved. Daniel Anthony Binchy (1899-1989) could hardly be looked on as shallow (hollow, perhaps, but if such were the case that is a different argument), or tolerant of the same tendency in others. Little justice would be done to his memory through failing to convey here some flavour of those rigours he might bring to bear if charged with appraising the volume. Readers are advised accordingly that, from time to time, the present report resembles more a medium wherein Binchy’s voice reverberates rather than mine, or one whose writing shows the marks of his formidable sabre instead of my blunter stylus.

By this yardstick, Professor Tom Garvin has not produced the thoroughgoing study for which he is eminently equipped, while, conversely, attempting an investigation requiring competences differing from his particular expertise. The downside also includes a sense that The Lives of Daniel Binchy seems disjointed in its bifurcated direction; liberally sprinkled with take-it-or-leave-it assertions; often indifferently written, testified to by a repetitive prose style, and encumbered with inconsistencies or slips in handling matters needing a modicum of linguistic nous ‑ regarding how Irish surnames are rendered, for example. This suggests weakness in copy-editing of a kind easily avoided if minimal extra attention is applied. I am not in a position precisely to assign responsibility for such lapses or shortcomings. Additional instances of same will be noted.

A constrasting evaluation is positive, with two features standing out in the book’s favour. Its author highlights important strands in Dan Binchy’s treatment of early modern affairs, as well as those contemporary with his own lifetime. Having devoted elsewhere an amount of otherwise absorbing scholarship to exploring how regressive much of twentieth century Ireland became, Garvin is astonished, quite rightly, at finding a fellow countryman of consequence, insofar as the quality of Binchy’s commentary on matters of that nature is concerned. The second advantage lies in linking the subject’s writings on modernity with his core activity as researcher into aspects of the early medieval Irish past, spanning a lengthy career. Struck by the calibre of Daniel Binchy’s observations in one area, The Lives asks, not unreasonably, whether his foray into the other sheds light on topics which are Tom Garvin’s principal concerns. Those latter include understanding who we now are or what we have become, matters of obvious significance. The effort is not vitiated by the fact that Binchy himself could have been able only partially to answer those questions, transcending, as they do, both his range (not abilities) and possible blind spots, and making demands whose dimensions probably remain yet to be realised or addressed, although adverted to briefly in what follows.

But who was Daniel A Binchy? A figure probably unknown to most readers of the drb, I would venture. Hence, a quick tour through Garvin’s account. The book relates the Binchy story from start to finish, but does not set out on that particular journey as and from its own commencement. We wait upwards of forty pages before reaching the first of five chapters allocated to the central task. This opening section speaks of Binchy’s background in north Cork; his education, particularly at Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare; undergraduate and starter postgraduate phase at University College, Dublin; securing a National University of Ireland travelling studentship to pursue medievalism in Munich, then Paris, only to return to a chair in legal history and jurisprudence at UCD during his mid-twenties. His appointment allowed him initiate what would become an enduring commitment, studying the records and traditions of indigenous Irish law. The chapter relates how tutelage by and the friendship of older colleagues such as Osborn J Bergin (1873-1950), together with holidays in Gaelic-speaking districts, facilitated his learning sufficient Irish to tackle the sources. Acquaintance with writers like Frank O’Connor (1903-66) and Seán O’Faoláin (1900-91), interested in the country’s literary inheritance, cemented his interaction with the culture.

There were then unanticipated periodic interruptions to that involvement. They included a stint as representative of the Irish Free State to the Weimar Republic; consultant to the British foreign office; sojourns at the universities of Oxford and Harvard, with the remainder of his career spent as senior professor at the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, where he stayed on for years after retirement. Wrapped around this nucleus are various forms of preamble, hinting at or revealing the volume’s purposes. The final chapter, the fifth of the life’s episodes, ought to be unnumbered, as it is, strictly speaking, a closing peroration, symmetrical with the inaugural exordium. One small portion therefrom, dealing with Daniel Binchy’s solitary final days, would have fit better if tacked back onto the fourth.

Lives mixes sketches of Binchy’s cerebral movements with his physical displacement. The former include a master’s thesis investigating 1570s Irish dealings with the court of Philip II of Spain; his personal experience of and perceptive ambassadorial comments about Adolf Hitler, extracts from Garvin’s excerpting of these in newspapers like The Guardian, shared extensively since; book-length treatment, in collaboration with London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, of church-state dialogue in pre-Second World War Italy, embodying reflections on Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini. These are rehearsed before reaching finalisation of the landmark Corpus iuris hibernici, published during 1978, whose six volumes edited the ancient laws of Ireland within 2,343 pages (original text only).

Few Irishmen of his era will have left a comparable scholarly legacy: taking the Corkman’s younger co-religionist medievalists (broadly conceived), perhaps Leonard Boyle (1923-99), former prefect of the Vatican Library, or the Pauline authority Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (1935-2013), of Jerusalem’s École Biblique, although neither discharged the role of emissary in precisely the same way as Binchy, to the best of my knowledge. While we have talented functionaries in this age, none either exhibits the same formation and subsequent curriculum vitae. Conversely, nobody currently working in Irish-language studies enjoys Daniel Binchy’s presence or stature. There is, in fact, I submit, no captain on that particular vessel. Certainly not a helmsman who has discoursed on transnational relations, power politics and social systems, their underlying structures or ideologies, from liberalism to extremism (which latter he eschewed as a governing principle, believing it an urge best confined to academic notices, one suspects), with anything resembling the practical or theoretical outlook at his command. It is Binchy’s use of evidence and conjecture, as Tom Garvin interprets these, that causes the latter to have recourse to his writings in the belief that they suggest the new Irish polity of the early to mid-1900s had a recessive character: its neo-gaelicisation agenda based on the fiction of an age-old egalitarian, representative, Ireland. That mythopoesis became exclusivist and narrow in its remit, if not indeed futile, having regard to the language’s precariousness, to take one or two propositions only from the book’s opening and end segments.

What then of the Garvin offering and its worth? I maintain the same duality of perspective on it associated with the great Danish thinker spoken of at the outset. Fuller appreciation of Daniel Binchy might have been realised, notably the disposition (alert but prone to dogmatism) he brought to his undertakings. How comprehensively Binchy treated the Irish historical inheritance deserves consideration in the context of Tom Garvin’s overall enterprise. Those aspects of the work’s biographic and thematic contents discussed presently are primarily in the debit column, with the next section redressing the balance on the credit side, for other reasons.

Its publication details indicate a book as physical object no longer enjoys the same stand-alone identity as before, but merges imperceptibly into other formats, underscoring ties with wider zones of knowledge. Such interconnectedness enables a reader to check easily and quickly whether relevant data have been adduced to an adequate or comprehensive degree. In the instance under discussion, it looks as though pertinent, readily accessible, domains many not have been mined. Thus the site findagrave.com shows Binchy’s burial place at south Co Dublin’s Cruagh cemetery. That location helpfully presents a photograph of his headstone, with a reading of one of its inscriptions, given there as ex umbris et imaginibus in veritem (the more usual form is rendered instead at the beginning of this review). Both grave-marker and epitaph (like an age-old Irish monolith) seem selected with discernment rather than by happenstance, and are almost certainly the deceased’s choice. If so, they are likely to encapsulate aspects of Binchy’s self-image, a self-representation and its implications deserving further investigation.

The Latin phrase replicates one inscribed on the memorial stone of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90), interred at the Rednal country house of his Oratorian religious order, southwest of Birmingham. A number of implicit parallels here are intentional probably, including Binchy’s predilection for the churchman’s homeland; their shared Catholicism, or the Irishman’s fidelity to Newman’s university (opened in 1854 and later to become UCD), and its educational aspirations. The epitaph’s translation as “Out of shadows and phantoms into the truth” reveals other relevant layers. John Henry Newman seemingly adapted the phrase from Athanasius of Alexandria (d 373), the early Church Father renowned for combatting Arianism’s questioning the exact nature of Jesus’ divinity. Binchy should have known of the controversial North African priest Arius (d 336), from continuing hostility to his teaching by the famous Irish missionary cleric Columbanus (d 615). He may have been content to be cast in his own right as an adversary of other heresies, and was unapologetic regarding the degree of vehemence required for the task. What then of the struggle’s psychological toll? Newman’s post-conversion advocacy and ongoing discovery of his new belief and verities are stated not to have spared him “trials, misunderstandings, restiveness and weariness” (Bruno Forte “‘Historia veritatis’: on Newman’s Essay on the development of Christian doctrine”, in Ian Turnbull Ker and Terrence Merrigan (eds), Newman and Faith). Those sentiments, if applicable to his Irish acolyte, might amplify, while not necessarily negating, Garvin’s innovative take on Binchy’s frequently dyspeptic, occluded postwar mindset.

Daniel Binchy addresses us from his youth through the Internet as much as from the hereafter. A further search, this time of census.nationalarchives.ie, may hold additional unexploited potential. The 1911 Census gives his residence as Clongowes Wood, where he received his secondary education. There, Daniel Anthony is one of five attendees bearing his surname. While a familial peer group ought to have provided its own security, this representative was the youngest of the Binchy cohort. Does that point up comparative detachment on his part, Joycean in its poignancy, formative then and enduring in time to come? All the more so in light of the young man’s primary schooling with a French order of nuns based in Co Offaly rather than closer to or within his ancestral environs.

Unlike other institutions, county homes or mental asylums, let us say, whose inmates are anonymised in censal returns, forms completed for boarding schools name instructors and pupils. Competence in Irish among both teaching staff and students seems to have been relatively better attested in 1901 than a decade later at Clongowes, however that deduction is to be evaluated as far as the young Binchy’s awareness of Gaelic as a living means of communication is concerned. In the 1901 return, where the infant Binchy makes an early entry from privacy into a sphere since gone viral, he was classified “Not married”. The statement is not so much tautological, perhaps, or maybe even humorous, unintentionally or otherwise, as potentially prescient. He would remain unwed for the rest of his days, a station somewhat unexamined in this volume regarding whether it might reveal aspects of his personality germane to the account: self-absorption, perhaps, with the aforementioned Kierkegaard as model.

Underutilised sources are located in conventional storage besides electronically. The late and as yet best-known member of her clan is now surprisingly well analysed by Piers Dudgeon in Maeve Binchy: The Biography. Daniel, the novelist’s paternal uncle (if not all that avuncular), features here, with arresting family and other recollection of his early third-level student activism, even some incipient radicalisation, during the ferment attending the execution of fellow UCD students throughout the early moments of the War of Independence. What may be remarked on is not solely those developments but rather Dudgeon’s publication’s highlighting, by implication, untried avenues of enquiry in Garvin. Among the latter are those courses of instruction Daniel followed when an undergraduate, or, more to the point arguably, what he taught during his professorial tenure, insofar as all such elements could mirror his reading and thinking. Did Binchy, in his lectures, employ Outlines in historical jurisprudence (1920) by the Russian Pavel Gavrilovitch Vinogradoff (1854-1925), Oxford’s Corpus professor of jurisprudence, or his Outlines in historical jurisprudence (the jurisprudence of the Greek city) (1922), for example? If so, not alone would Sir Paul Vinogradoff’s work have strengthened Daniel’s resolve to examine early Irish law but increased his exposure to such topics as the interplay between law, social anthropology and social psychology, or the evolution of optimal systems of governance. Whether prior familiarity with those problems, arising from the Oxford don’s stimulating and well-constructed publications, underpinned the strength of Binchy’s ante-bellum European reportage might also be examined more closely. Not to forget those monographs’ role in deciding the temporal and thematic sequencing he adhered to when embarking on native Irish law investigations.

Information on the Irishman’s pedagogy must be forthcoming from the appropriate Dublin archives; the same probably holds for Chatham House on his Italian researches, or for additional repositories relating to others of his overseas stays. Revisiting all elements of the UCD story specifically, Binchy’s but also the institution’s generally, with the benefit of Tom Garvin’s intimate awareness of that centre, would fill a sizeable gap in scholarship at large. This Dublin college is the foremost Irish education facility lacking a comprehensive history, despite its preponderant impact on life here. Bringing all these elements together (resulting, one may aver, in accounts of metropolitan-based dramatis personae being better integrated into the narrative) reflecting Binchy’s diplomatic and political œuvre, and its genesis, and expounding on them to the full, is, I surmise, the major project not undertaken in the present biography, but still waiting to issue forth from its confines. Tom Garvin’s documents trawl, while not inconsequential, thus appears a shade perfunctory. The volume’s “Select Bibliography” lives up to one term only of that heading.

The message becomes a factor in the Garvin volume as much as the agent of its delivery. Professor Garvin relies on Binchy when questioning the reality behind 1900s ideals in claiming he demonstrated that pre-Norman Ireland was deeply unequal. This may give the impression that reactionary forces such as twentieth-century clientelism were survivals from prior hierarchical social structures. Although that inference is not without its foundation, other trends might have created a dependency culture, or facilitated its persistence, which neither Binchy’s nor his biographer’s researches would appear extensively to consider. In this connection, the Irish past consists of various phases besides the early medieval, whose potential influence on shaping the present cannot be discounted at will. One of these is the post-classical era, extending, in terms of the Irish language, from approximately 1700 onwards. Gaelic verse and other compositions of that age consistently express the disadvantage under which speakers of the vernacular felt they laboured, subjected to a regulatory framework which the literary critic and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008), likened to apartheid. Contemporaries’ visionary wish for an altered state is now receiving the requisite attention, for example in Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin’s Utopianism in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, their circumstances being also conducive to the rise of millenarianism, demonstrating that the post-independence Irish aspiration to a Gaelic Risorgimento (whathever the modalities of its realisation) had a long pedigree. It is, accordingly, no wonder to see various forms of patronage, or even familism, endure afterwards. Resort to those strategies during conditions like ones accompanying the Great Famine and its sequel may well have secured communal or individual survival, staving off absolute calamity.

It is not as though Irish speakers failed to realise there were methods of organising society apart from status-based personal relations, by such means as social contract, for example, that hallmark of mankind’s advancement in the eyes of Henry James Sumner Maine (1822-88). As it happens, the volume wherein this English comparative jurist treated contract theory, Ancient law: its connection with the early history of societyand its relation to modern ideas (1861), was probably the template for the Brehon Law Commission report (a direct predecessor of Binchy’s Corpus) being entitled Ancient laws of Ireland (1865-1901). Michael Brown’s The Irish Enlightenment, published this year, recently initiated investigation of Irish-language testimony for awareness of the pan-European philosophical experiment so-called, although much more evidence could be furnished than he makes available, including further references to readings of the works of Montesquieu or Voltaire by Charles O’Conor (1710-91). This Connacht aristocratic scion was never slow to share documentation with others lower down the pecking order. One of the ironies of early twentieth century commentary is the degree to which it extolled the era’s Gaelic storyteller while excoriating his forebear, the eighteenth  and early nineteenth century manuscript copyist, for his simplicity, including amateurism in dealing with Irish law texts. Not alone would Daniel Binchy and his successors want for medieval textual sources had such figures not contributed positively to their transmission. Scribes’ own accounts unfold for us pre-Famine civilisation’s multiple dimensions and complexities, of a kind likely to have informed those of later eras as well. For all their fascination with Enlightenment’s advances, neither O’Conor nor his peasant counterparts were citizens yet in the fullest sense, of course; when finally enfranchised, it was to membership of an imperial rather than a national parliament.

Missing equally from the present account and Daniel Binchy’s own output is any mention, much, of a third age in the Irish story, that of Ireland from approximately 1200-1650. The country then exhibited continuity with its preceding era, but also pronounced innovatory trends, even throughout the Gaelic world. Among these were growing social mobility via the church and secular learned cadres; not inconsiderable empowerment of women; expanding mercantilism; travel, if not indeed globalisation, together with a questioning of the establishment associated with Protestantism, as Dr Marc Caball’s 2010 reflections about late sixteenth-century “self-fashioning” suggest. All of which reveal implicit steps towards modernism rather than any necessary suppression of the process. This country’s contact with the neighbouring island would have brought such progression forward a great deal, but the opposite, the retarding effects of Britain’s participation in Irish affairs, is also a determinant.

To have overlooked this latter phenomenon in the biography under review in favour of a preceding period during which British involvement was not operative to an equivalent extent, removes vast swathes of the historical record from interrogation. It is not as though the Free State and its inhabitants could jettison within a mere seven years or so, between 1923 and the beginning of the 1930s, an antecedent seven centuries of associated behavioural patterning or conditioning. No one might doubt the persistence of serious drawbacks in the conduct of Irish life during the early 1900s, or even down to the present, particularly those leading to repeated, recidivist, failure, or the burdens placed on all obliged to deal with their emotional and physical consequences, for the latest manifestations of which, see Gerry Kearns et al (eds), Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis. Establishing the parameters of our predisposition to chaos remains Tom Garvin’s ultimate preoccupation in this work, as in his previous publications. Each feature at play in that orientation, rather than select instances of same, must be canvassed on behalf of an enquiry of such undeniable urgency.

There is every likelihood that an appetite for analysis of this kind exists among the community at large instead of its being confined to the ivory tower. In 2015, the Charleville Heritage Society held a festival of history weekend, chosing “Remembering Dan Binchy” for its theme (http://www.corkcoco.ie/co/pdf/739147659.pdf). While embodying pietas, this was no mere exercise in adulation but an effort to contextualise the life and times of the town’s celebrated native son. Thus family members spoke, but so also experts in German-Irish relations and trade and authorities on Irish historical studies. The event in question and Garvin’s book are complementary, each bringing to the table data missing from its counterpart. Charleville’s colloquium was notable, however, for an absence not felt entirely or similarly in The Lives of Daniel Binchy. None of its speakers was an Irish-language scholar pur sang. A key aspect of the honorand’s career and interests must have been signally under-represented, therefore.

The omission should not be credited to the programme’s drafters only, or possibly at all, who have made space for such a point of view in previous history weekends. I submit that much of the problem lies with practitioners from my field: their minimal presence, frequently, in wider discourse. Scholarship in the Irish language is a domain characterised by a certain lack of external communication or engagement, together with internal coherence as regards its overall trajectory, however assiduously its professionals attend to their individual assignments. In this respect, Tom Garvin has shown commendable leadership when highlighting a need for the subject’s exponents to contribute where issues of considerable moment are at stake. His outreach seems more accommodating than that of others who co-opt the Corkman, his UCD colleague Professor Bryan Fanning, for instance, principally concerned with Binchy’s myth-busting propensities rather than his scholarship’s greater remit (“Daniel Binchy and the limits of cultural nationalism”, Studies, Vol. 102, No. 407 [Autumn 2013]). A different imperative seems also to the fore here: de-gaelicising the country’s educational system. Given the language’s resourcefulness when informing us about existential experience and selfhood, I believe Professor Garvin, long dissatisfied with the humanities’ diminished standing throughout our universities, is unlikely to be convinced by the merits of that ambition.

Neither was the aforementioned memorial conference one of unrelieved seriousness. Its Saturday evening activities included a “Fancy Dress Disco”. I wonder how Dan Binchy might have looked if a participant there. Probably a model of sartorial elegance (of necessity in a different guise), judging by Garvin’s biography’s cover. The Getty image which adorns it, drawn from a Berliner Morgenpost number of October 1929, shows the Corkonian on the steps of the city’s Reichspräsidentenpalais, presenting diplomatic credentials, immaculately attired, focused, quizzical, perhaps faintly bemused. I envision him similarly well turned out at the Charleville soirée, but perhaps as scarecrow. For him to appear by that stage as marcach uasal uaibhreach óg, in the timeless words of his erstwhile neighbour, the poet Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill (1691-1754), would strain credulity.

The Yeatsian image was my penultimate impression of Binchy from a late summer’s evening in 1978, at the main entrance to the School of Celtic Studies on Burlington Road, pensive, if not forlorn. On that doorstep stood an unsmiling near eighty-year-old senior, his car out of petrol, the result of advanced forgetfulness, most likely. I bought him a stop-gap supply from the filling station still on Mespil Road, close by what was then Parson’s Bookshop, which he possibly frequented, across from Caffolla’s chipper, whose former threshold one doubts he ever crossed. An invitation to lunch at the club followed. I recall a conversation peppered with observations about personalities in Irish scholarship, where three-lettered words were adequate for the great man’s aims rather than anything lengthier. Traces there, perhaps, of the ennui uttered in the preface to his magisterial Corpus iuris hibernici, published a mere few weeks beforehand, its introduction speaking ruefully of a burden discharged and transferred, reminiscent of earlier moments of abandonment, perhaps. The effigy was both watchman as well as defender, however. Binchy’s asperity failed to colour an interlude dominated by kindness and reciprocity, his proffering guidance for my benefit because about to embark on a travelling studentship, similar to the award he held over half a century earlier. A reminder of other, constructive, aspects to Binchy besides anomie: his state- (if not nation-) building and the reconstitution of a discipline. His life’s work ultimately opened the entrance to vast Elysian Fields rather than a wasteland. Would that one had such a Nachlaß, or even – reservations noted above notwithstanding – Garvin’s.


Neil Buttimer lectures in the Department of Modern Irish, UCC.  His research and publications are in early Irish saga literature, pre-Famine Gaelic Ireland and contemporary cultural policy.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Philip O’Leary’s essay from 2015 on translations of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1949 masterpiece Cré na Cille. Here is an extract:

If the same rules apply in Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery as in the Conamara graveyard of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain should soon be hearing that a second English translation of his classic novel has appeared ‑ a little over a year after the first. There is, of course, nothing unusual about multiple versions of significant works of literature hitting the market at the same time. What is unusual, however, is how long it took for Cré na Cille to be made available to the wide audience with an interest in Irish writing but without a knowledge of the Irish language. After all, readers of Danish and Norwegian were able to enjoy Ó Cadhain’s novel in their own languages for more than decade at a time when readers of English could not share that experience unless they had access to Joan Trodden Keefe’s unpublished translation in her PhD dissertation. The frustration of such readers and scholars can only have been exacerbated by having to listen for nearly seven decades while those with Irish smugly told them what they were missing.

This lack of an easily accessible English version of the novel has created several significant problems. Those unable to read Cré na Cille really were missing something, both a great work of literature and an essential statement about the continuing importance of the Irish language and its speakers in the evolution of a modern Irish culture. In its own time and place, Cré na Cille was more than a sui generis comic masterpiece; it was also Ó Cadhain’s zestfully successful attempt to subvert what was then and still is now an influential but pernicious view of the language and its speakers – the idea that the Gaeltacht was a site of stasis, sclerotic fixation on the past, impending silence and linguistic and cultural demise.

In Cré na Cille, Ó Cadhain allowed the proponents of this view the playing field of their choice. If they insisted on seeing the Gaeltacht as moribund, he would go a step further and set his novel in a graveyard, with all its characters dead and buried. If they wanted to lament the encroaching silence as emigration drained the Gaeltacht of its population, in particular its youth, he would repopulate it with characters unheard by those above ground but in their own subterranean realm creating a cacophony of distinctive wrangling voices as fundamentally real and generative as the roiling quantum flux beneath the apparent vacuum of interstellar space. Indeed virtually the whole novel is dialogue in the richest and most rambunctious of Ó Cadhain’s native Cois Fhairrge Irish.



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