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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 709-710

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Book Review

The Diocese of Elphin: People, Places and Pilgrimage

The Diocese of Elphin: People, Places and Pilgrimage. Edited by Francis Beirne. (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Columba Press. 2000. Pp. 403. £30.)

Recent years have seen a spate of Irish diocesan histories. In 1995 Oliver Curran produced her substantial, but largely unusable, update of Dean Cogan's classic nineteenth-century diocesan history, which itself was reissued by Four Courts Press in 1992, accompanied by Alfred Smith's interesting biography of [End Page 709] Cogan. Ignatius Murphy's remarkable three-volume work on the diocese of Killaloe from the eighteenth century (Dublin, 1991-92) has come to constitute the modern model for diocesan histories. Also very impressive is James Kelly and Dáire Keogh's History of the Catholic Diocese of Dublin (Dublin, 2000), which contains some of the most important essays written on religion in Ireland in recent years. Henry Jeffries and Ciarán Devlin co-edited and published an important but uneven collection of essays under the title History of the Diocese of Derry from Earliest Times (Dublin, 2000). To this rich production has recently been added the present work, edited by Francis Beirne.

This is a substantial book but is neither a conventional chronological history (who would attempt that today!) nor is it a collection of essays by specialists. It is rather a mixed bag of primary and secondary historical sources, with no consistent organizing theme apart from the celebration of the identity and achievement of this West of Ireland diocese. Because of this, the book is of limited use to historians. True, they will find some interesting source material reproduced. There is, for instance, a taxation list from 1306, some bishops' reports to Rome from the early-modern period, and a list of registered clergy of 1704, supplemented by a report on the state of popery in the diocese, prepared in 1731. However, all of this material is already available elsewhere, and there is neither a proper introduction nor a scholarly apparatus. However, it is useful that these documents have been made available to a wider audience.

In fact, there is much to interest the casual, non-specialist reader, and a worthy effort has been made to reproduce a few articles which would ordinarily be difficult of access. The most interesting of these is Canice Mooney's essay on Elphin, published in the Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques in 1963. This has been nicely re-edited by Ignatius Fennessy, O.F.M. Also included in the book is a gazetteer of parishes, potted histories of orders of religious, and lists of contemporary clergy. Unfortunately, the index is not very substantial, and consequently the book is rather difficult to use. The major redeeming feature of the work is the very good use of illustrations. These pepper the text and give the history an important visual dimension. This is a popular 'history,' aimed at a wide audience, painting an absorbingly varied picture of an ancient diocese.


Thomas O'Connor
National University of Ireland, Maynooth



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