Professor Proinsias Mac Cana

Celtic scholar and author of 'Celtic Mythology'
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The Independent Online

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

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