Professor Proinsias Mac Cana

Celtic scholar and author of 'Celtic Mythology'

In the seventh volume of
Celtica (1966), Proinsias Mac Cana contributed two articles on philological topics, and also a review of Vivien Mercier's first book,
The Irish Comic Tradition. Then aged 40, Mac Cana was mid-way to becoming one of the foremost Celtic scholars of the late 20th century, confident enough to review publications touching on modern Irish literature in English as well as the tougher diet of philology. His interest in, and engagement with, contemporary culture grew with the years.



Francis McCann (Proinsias Mac Cana), Celtic scholar: born Belfast 6 July 1926; Assistant Lecturer, Celtic Department, Queen's University of Belfast 1951-54; Assistant Lecturer in Early Irish, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1955-57, Lecturer 1957-61; Professor of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1961-63, Senior Professor 1985-96 (Emeritus); Professor of Welsh, University College Dublin 1963-71, Professor of Early Irish 1971-85; married 1952 Réiltín Supple (one son, one daughter); died Dublin 21 May 2004.



In the seventh volume of Celtica (1966), Proinsias Mac Cana contributed two articles on philological topics, and also a review of Vivien Mercier's first book, The Irish Comic Tradition. Then aged 40, Mac Cana was mid-way to becoming one of the foremost Celtic scholars of the late 20th century, confident enough to review publications touching on modern Irish literature in English as well as the tougher diet of philology. His interest in, and engagement with, contemporary culture grew with the years.

Proinsias Mac Cana (Francis McCann) was born in Belfast in 1926, the son of George McCann and his wife Mary (née Mallon). The family was Catholic and nationalist, painfully aware of the extent to which they and their kind were newly isolated by the partition of Ireland in 1920/21.

Belfast was, if anything, more bitterly divided than the island as a whole, with its minority cut off from their co-religionists not only in the Free State but also from the larger Catholic communities of West Ulster. The boy was educated at Saint Malachy's College in Belfast, forcing-house of the aspirant Catholic middle class. The future novelist Brian Moore was a few years his senior, and the atmosphere of this social milieu is ably sketched in Moore's early fiction.

A brilliant student, Mac Cana proceeded to the Queen's University of Belfast, graduating with a First in Celtic Studies in 1948. Though Germany was the philosophical homeland of Celticism, Mac Cana chose Paris, where he spent a year of research at the Sorbonne.

In 1955, after a brief spell back in his Alma Mater, Mac Cana took up an Assistant Lectureship in Irish at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Ireland reclaimed him in 1961 through the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, a wholly research-oriented facility. From a Chair in the Institute's School of Celtic Studies, he moved a mile or so after two years to the Chair of Welsh at University College, in 1971 taking the Chair of Early Irish in the same institution.

Giants still walked the earth in those days, at least in the Celtic Studies zone. When Mac Cana was nominated for membership of the Royal Irish Academy in January 1970, his assentors included David Greene and Máire de Paor, both passionately committed to contemporary sculpture and painting as well as to philology and archaeology.

In one light, Mac Cana looked the very antithesis of these larger-than-life personalities: self-deprecating, ever courteous and considerate of others. In a different light, he was of the same party. He too sought to engage scholarship with social and cultural experience, supporting at one time a civil rights movement for Gaelic speakers in Donegal.

In 1978, he contributed an article on "Notes on the Early Irish Concept of Unity" to the short-lived but influential journal The Crane Bag. This was a critique of traditionalist nationalism with its insistence on political uniformity and institutional centralisation at the expense of cultural nuance and "difference". It is no fault in Mac Cana's argument that the cultural unity which, as a scholar, he could invoke was based on the once island-wide use of a literary and vernacular language (Gaelic) now in apparently terminal decline, and even less a fault that - today - the best hope for contemporary Gaelic lies in the thoroughly new linguistic situation in which Chinese probably outvotes Gaelic as a domestic spoken language in Ireland.

These challenges were not inimical to his cast of mind. Mac Cana cultivated his engagement with the contemporary world through a number of significant collaborations. His first book Scéalaíocht na Ríthe ("Stories of the Kings", 1956) was illustrated by the London-Irish actor and stage-designer, Micheál Mac Liammóir. In 1981, he contributed an essay to Louis Le Brocquy and the Celtic Head, an art- exhibition catalogue published by the New York State Museum.

In retirement, he worked diligently and unobtrusively to ensure the restoration and revival of the Collège des Irlandais in Paris. While his many scholarly contributions to professional journals are too numerous for listing here, his best-known publication is Celtic Mythology (1970).

Proinsias Mac Cana was honoured in many quarters of the academic world he graced, including Sweden, France and the United States (where he was long associated with Harvard University.) He served as President of the Royal Irish Academy from 1979 to 1982, and received honorary degrees from universities including Dublin, Ulster, and Wales.

Presenting the candidate for this last honour in 1995, Professor Geraint Gruffydd rescued from anonymous "urban myth" Mac Cana's authorship of a well-known linguistic witticism. Discussing with a Spanish colleague the profusion of terms indicating time in various languages, Mac Cana observed that, compared with " mañana", Irish had no word conveying the same sense of urgency.

W. J. Mc Cormack

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits