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Irish names added to new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


A number of high-profile names from the North of Ireland are among the latest to be added to the newest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The lives of 217 men and women who died in 2008 are now part of the dictionary series, which includes 53,084 articles telling the life stories of 58,094 people.

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The new additions include a selection of people who shaped or commented on the recent history of the North. They are Sir John Hermon, Brian Keenan, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Basil Kelly.

The four Irishmen take their place alongside other new additions to the Oxford DNB including the dramatist Harold Pinter, science fiction and science writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the broadcast journalist Sir Charles Wheeler, jazz trumpeter and radio performer Humphrey Lyttelton and television performer Jeremy Beadle – all of whom died in 2008.

The Oxford DNB is updated three times annually and published every January, May, and September.

The dictionary, a research project of the University of Oxford published by Oxford University Press, has been available to view in England and the North of Ireland in public libraries since 2006.

The dictionary is online at


Biographies added with links to the North of Ireland are:

Sir John Hermon (1928-2008), chief constable of the then Royal Ulster Constabulary

Brian Keenan (1941-2008), Irish republican activist

Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008) journalist and politician

Sir Basil Kelly (1920-2008), judge



Sir John Hermon served as chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the height of the Troubles.

Clearly marked out as a high-flyer, in 1964 Hermon was posted to Belfast’s Hastings Street police station. His tenure there was dominated by the Divis Street riots which erupted after extreme Unionist pressure, volubly stimulated by the emerging Reverend Ian Paisley, forced the police to remove a tricolour from an Irish republican election HQ.

The incident had a profound effect on Hermon’s thinking. He warned his superiors that Stormont’s unwillingness to address social inequalities would ignite the sectarian and political tensions.

This, he argued, would have unhappy consequences for the community but above all for the RUC, which was neither trained nor equipped for the coming challenge.

As chief constable from 1980 Hermon’s overriding aim was to continue the policy of ‘Ulsterisation’, expanding the RUC’s capability and acceptability to enable the British army to leave the streets.

In the mid-1980s Hermon clashed fiercely with John Stalker who led an enquiry into an alleged ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.

Stalker believed Hermon held the line by ‘clumsy autocracy’ and resented outside interference. Hermon believed that conventional policing standards, as represented by Stalker, were wholly inappropriate in the circumstances then prevailing in the North of Ireland.


Brian Keenan was among those arrested and imprisoned following the Divis Street riots in 1964.

Four years later he joined the IRA, later identifying his principal motivation as the civil right movement. The IRA’s English bombing campaign of the 1970s was run by Keenan, at which time he was described as ‘the biggest single threat to the British state’.

In 1980 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for conspiracy to cause explosions, but re-joined the IRA army council following his release in the early 1990s.

Though he authorised the 1996 Docklands bombing in London, in July of the following year he supported the calling of a second ceasefire.


In the mid-1960s the Dublin-born diplomat and academic, Conor Cruise O’Brien returned to Ireland just as violence broke out in the north. O’Brien knew the North of Ireland better than most Irishmen, and wrote at length about the discrimination Catholics there had suffered, up to the brutal repression of the civil rights movement.

Nevertheless he was also appalled by the new Provisional IRA, an opposition which intensified during his time as an Irish government minister in the early 1970s.

His shifting stance was also expressed in States of Ireland (1972), a book which influenced a generation. O’Brien saw that partition, while not desirable in itself, at least recognised the reality of two different communities, and that the Dublin’s claim on the North was undemocratic. In the late 1990s O’Brien was to join staunch Unionists in campaigning against the Belfast agreement.


In 1973 the barrister and former Unionist MP for mid-Down, Basil Kelly, was appointed a judge of the High Court of Northern Ireland and began a 22-year judicial career.

Kelly proved to be a careful and thorough judge, who earned respect for his handling of difficult criminal trials—many of them non-jury ‘Diplock’ trials of terrorist offences.

He conducted a number of celebrated trials, but one of the most taxing was an important ‘supergrass’ case in 1983, in which almost 40 defendants were charged with terrorist offences.

The atmosphere in court was tense and hostile and the Kelly was guarded by armed police officers and wore a flak jacket under his robes.

Even so, he had many Catholic friends and gained respect from across the political and religious divides.

As one nationalist lawyer commented, Kelly ‘had a great sense of justice and he was very independent. He was old-style, liberal, paternalistic.’





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