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Geoffrey Keating

Life and Work of Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn)

The influence of Geoffrey Keating (c. 1569-1644) on Irish historiography in early modern Ireland was profound, but little is known about his life. He was a renowned priest, poet, prose-writer, and scholar. It is thought that in his youth he studied at a bardic school at Burgess run by the Mac Craith family in South Tipperary, close to his birthplace. In common with many of his educated Catholic contemporaries, he went abroad to pursue his philosophical and theological training as a priest due to a prohibition on Catholic seminary education in Ireland.

Keating received a doctorate of Divinity probably from the University of Rheims, and was later associated with the Irish College established in 1603 at Bordeaux, presumably as a lecturer. He returned to his home diocese of Lismore about the year 1610 and spent much of the remainder of his life there. Between 1613 and 1615, spies reported of a "Dr. Keating in the Countie of Tiperarie", and that there was "in the diocese of Lismore Father Geoffrey Keating, a preacher and Jesuit, resorting to all parts of the diocese". Keating's forthright homilies may have alienated some of the local gentry on whom he relied for his livelihood, and gave rise to later folklore traditions describing him as a fugitive in the Glen of Aherlow living and working in disguise. However, it is clear from his historical writing that his scholarly activities brought him into contact with other scholars, and he had access to an extensive library of English and Latin works as well as to major Irish manuscript collections, in the course of his researches.

Keating's most significant work, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, a history of Ireland from the creation of the world to the coming of the Normans in the twelfth century, was completed about 1634. It is not in the traditional form of annals, but instead presents a lively historical narrative written in elegant Irish prose. It reflects an Old English counter-reformation view of history whilst also serving to defend Ireland against the bias of writers such as Giraldus Cambrensis, Fynes Morrison and Richard Stanihurst. It circulated widely in manuscript in Irish and was also translated in English and Latin by the mid seventeenth century. According to Bernadette Cunningham, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn is amongst the most popular and influential histories ever written, transmitting the idea of an Irish identity combined with catholicism. Although widely appreciated for its literary style and highly skilled use of the Irish language, its historiographical importance has often been overlooked.

The year 1631 saw the completion of his series of moral reflections on death and the conduct of human life, Trí bior-ghaoithe an bháis, and his treatise on the mass, Eochair-sgiath an Aifrinn. Throughout his literary career Keating composed poetical elegies on the Butlers of Dunboyne and Knocktopher. As stated by Breandán Ó Buachalla, Keating's literary works reveal his great knowlege of Irish style, native history, legendary lore and theology, and an adept use of Irish, Latin, and English. Aside from the use of myth and legend in Keating's work, John MacErlean draws attention to the inclusion of significant early ecclesiastical records which would otherwise have been lost. Keating's history is the only source for the Synod of Rath Breasail at the beginning of the twelfth century when Ireland was first divided into its modern dioceses.

In 1644 during the supremacy of the Catholic Confederation a plaque was erected over the entrance to a small oratory, known as Cillín Chiaráin, in the parish of Tubbrid. The plaque commemorates the life of Geoffrey Keating and its inscription would suggest that he was dead at that time. A modern tombstone with inscriptions in Irish and English now stands within the chapel. Despite his reputation as one of Ireland's most significant historians, no manuscript in his own hand seems to have survived. One of the few tangible remnants of his life is a small silver chalice inscribed "Dominus Galfridus Keatinge, Sacerd(os) Sacrae Theologiae Doctor me fieri fecit 23 February 1634" still preserved in the diocese of Waterford.

Keating's works:
Trí Biorghaoithe an Bháis (The Three Shafts of Death), Robert Atkinson (ed.), Royal Irish Academy, Dublin 1890.
Eochair-sciath an Aifrinn, Patrick O'Brien (ed.), Dublin 1898.
Dánta, Amhráin is Caointe (Poems, Songs and Elegies), John C. MacErlean (ed.), Gaelic League, Dublin 1900.
Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (A Compendium of Wisdom about Ireland), text and translation, David Comyn (ed.), vol. I, London, 1902; Patrick S. Dinneen, vol. II and III, Irish Texts Society, London 1908, (reprinted Dublin 1987). 
Available at CELT: Foras Feasa I/II and the English translation
Psaltair Mhuire, Richard Foley (ed.), in Irish Rosary, Dublin, August 1908-August 1909.

Patrick J. Corish, The Catholic Community: Irish catholicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Dublin 1981)
Bernadette Cunningham, The world of Geoffrey Keating: History, myth and religion in seventeenth-century Ireland (Dublin 2000)
John MacErlean, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XVI (New York 1914)
Breandán Ó Buachalla, Foreword to 1987 reprint of Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (Dublin 1987)

Compiled by Benjamin Hazard
Revised by Bernadette Cunningham (February 2003)


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