Historical texts go on-line

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Remarks of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin


Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 11th December 2013


“Just fifteen years ago, many around the world were celebrating the end of the Cold War as The End of History.  It is not uncommon that major changes in the world’s political and economic landscape become identified if not as the end of history, at least as an end-point in human history.  They are understood or misunderstood as major stepping stones on the road to true utopia. But utopia is always a long way off.


 In today’s rapidly changing world where yesterday’s news is just that, yesterday’s news, and where products are often deliberately made with the intent of them not lasting, then the idea and the importance of history can be undermined.  The very accessibility of so much data and information can imprison one in a narrow present.


 Without history, however, we can never really contextualise the present.  Without history our estimations of the present become superficial.   When history becomes a little more than short-term memory, then stereotypes can flourish.


 I like archives.  My staff do everything in their power to prevent me form visiting my own diocesan archive, knowing well that, if I go, they may not see me for the rest of the day.


 Archives are unique places of learning and discovery.  They document our rich and varied history.  Archives are like jigsaw puzzles and if one piece is extracted then the full story will never be known.  I lived for many years in the Vatican, a place where manuscripts have been collected since the early centuries.  In such an environment, it is not hard to imagine the initial scepticism and then concern and even a sense of sacrilege that emerged when e-communication exploded on the horizon.


Archives are not really about documents:  they are about people and lives and culture and language.  The letters, manuscripts and texts were written by people living at a particular moment in time.  Their handwriting, style of language, grammar can sometimes be very different from what we are used to today but this all adds to the story of who we are and what our shared history is.


Sadly many archives are no longer complete. Records have been lost through fire, flood, political upheaval and so forth.   Every effort must be made to ensure that, those records that have survived, are managed, preserved and made available for current and future generations.  It is our duty to care for and look after our Irish cultural heritage which is unique to us.  The Royal Irish Academy, especially those working in Foclóir na Nua Ghaelige are to commended for their specialised work which we celebrate today.


In Italian there is the verb archiviare.  It means technically that a file is closed.  It also has undertones that once closed, the file will be forgotten; that it will find its way somehow into a bottomless pit from which it will hopefully never emerge again.  The word archiviare is also linked with another verb insabbiare, to be buried in deep sand, to be forgotten.   But archives are not tombs:  they are living entities and belong to everyone. That is why the Online Archives of Irish Language Texts is such an invaluable resource. 


With this online archive documents can be studied in the digital environment or downloaded in their entirety.  People all over the world have access to them, to engage, study, and be inspired by their contents. 


One of the texts is the Old Testament whose translation was commissioned and supervised by William Bedell.  This was the first Irish translation of the Old Testament. In 1603 the New Testament had been translated by Archbishop Daniel Ó Domhnaill of Tuam.  In 1685 the two translations were printed for the first time and they became known as Bedell’s Bible.


Dr. Bedell was an Anglican clergyman who served as Bishop of Kilmore.  He was a great lover of the Irish language and would only appoint Irish speakers to parishes.  He died in February 1642, as a result of injuries sustained during the 1641 Rebellion, having saved the lives of many Catholic and Protestant families.    Bedell belonged to that important group in Irish history which was often overlooked, protestant Gaelic scholars, for whom the stereotype version of history found only little room.


The presence here of two Archbishops of Dublin is an indication of our desire to read and witness history together, so that we can build future together.  We Archbishops and our communities face the challenge of re-reading history together so that we can overcome certain remnants of our history.  We as Archbishops have the challenge to ensure that we and our communities do not become trapped in what we think is our history, but may only be yesterday’s short-sightedness.   We as Archbishops can find indeed in this archive many texts and prayers which predate our divisions and which form part of what we share in common.


Archives are not tombs.  They are the perennial anti-chambers of something new, of understanding our common past, with its misunderstandings and failures, and of rediscovering history as wealth.  History never ends; burying history is flight from reality.  Opening archives can serve to open minds.” ENDS