McDOWELL AT EIGHTY

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1993), Volume 1

DD: How important was family background and schooling in the development of your historical interests?
 
RBMcD: I was born in the middle of the middle classes, so from the very earliest days I was aware of how the business world thought and lived. I also grew up in the Protestant world of the North of Ireland, not, so far as I was concerned, a particularly grim world. My father’s business was largely with Catholics in the South, and he developed many personal relationships with his customers. The atmosphere was fairly tolerant. As a matter of eccentricity in my later teens, I became rather fascinated by Catholicism, not specifically Irish Roman Catholicism but Catholic philosophy and the Gothic churches. I read pamphlets of the Catholic Truth Society with gusto: I liked the dialectics and I liked ceremonial, and possibly given a slight pressure I might have drifted, as some of my generation did, into Roman Catholicism. But what were much deeper, both emotionally and as strong moral and intellectual convictions, were my unionist feelings. Looking back I am thankful that I grew up in an area and in a world which was proudly provincial. I am putting it bluntly – you were able to combine strong local attachments with cheerful, exhilarating and encouraging membership of a greater world. The context of my loyalties, my political ideas, my prejudices and way of life, became and remained the British Isles. I had very few nationalists to clash with in my youth, so I never had to express my unionism very energetically. But it was there, pretty deep-set.
 
DD: At that stage what did you know of Irish nationalism?
 
RBMcD: A fair amount. I had an interesting and stimulating school-master from the South who had been on the fringe of the Irish literary movement, Fitzgerald Studdert, and he had a remarkably wide knowledge of literature; he encouraged me to read people like Davis and Lalor. A friend of my father from the South, coming for tea, was horrified to discover that I had never heard of Pearse, and he sent me the four volumes of Pearse to read. As an undergraduate in Trinity, I read An Phoblacht and The Catholic Bulletin. So I was not developing my ideas in complete ignorance of the other side of the fence. But it confirmed me – this I am afraid many people will think a case of invincible ignorance – in . my
DD: Who were your early heroes?
 
RBMcD: My heroes were the police. I realised this recently on reading a certain amount on what in my youth was tactfully called the Troubles’. I do not know if many people have read Tales of the RIC. They were written in a simple ‘cowboys-andindians’ formula – the indians were the IRA; the cowboys, or rather the American cavalry, were the police and the auxiliaries. As a little boy of about eight or nine, I first read these stories in Blackwood. They joined Walter Scott, Dumas, Stanley Weyman and Fitchet in moulding my mind at a most impressionable age.
 
DD: Your school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institute, has also produced   D.B. Quinn, Jc. Beckett andT. W Moody – a remarkable ron of Irish historians. How did it influence you?
 
RBMcD: I had two superbly good history teachers. One was John Pyper who was grey looking, always wore a grey suit and had rather a grey face. He was a quiet man but had a very strong intellect and a powerful personality. The other was Archie Douglas who was exuberant and entertaining. Neither man had, I suspect, any theory of teaching. As far as I can remember, they talked and we talked with them, and both were extremely widely-read. The school had a very good library, and there was the Linen Hall down the street. I had plenty of books at my disposal. At the age of fifteen I read almost the most stimulating thing I have ever read, Macaulay’s Essays. Suddenly I saw the key to all eighteenth-century political history. I mentioned to a school-master that I was reading Macaulay and he said: ‘journalism, read Gibbon’. So I went off and read Gibbon. In my later school days I read Carlyle (at seventeen his French Revolution was wonderful, and I was so impressed that I ploughed with intermittent pleasure through his Frederick the Great- I recommend it), Clarendon and Churchill’s World CriSis, which had just come out. Going through the same mill at about the same time were Moody, Beckett and Quinn. We all knew one another at school, but our standings were different. Moody was at one end and I was at the other but we did meet.
 
DD: You came to Trinity in 1932. Was this a natural progress ion?
 
RBMcD: The bulk of the boys from Inst. went to Queen’s, a few very bright ones to Oxford and Cambridge, and Trinity was the compromise. I did not really want to leave home, but I probably wanted wider horizons, and there were several masters who had been to Trinity for whom it was something marvellous, unique and outstanding – almost a religion more than an institution. Trinity still had romance, and on the political side there was no problem. After all, Trinity still flew the flag on suitable occasions, and ‘God save the King’ was frequently sung either in the baths or the college chapel, depending on the circumstances. I moved in the ex-unionist world of Dublin, a fair-sized enclave. Among my contemporaries, few were fervent nationalists; most, especially the tougher, less intellectual ones, were ex-unionist (it is very difficult to have a convincing political faith which starts with the word ‘ex’, but they were in many cases still going into the imperial services); then there were those you might call the more intelligent, or at least the ones who claimed to be intellectuals. They had adapted themselves to post-1922 Ireland which, as is now frequently  pointed out, did not appeal to intellectuals – especially not to those who were aficionados of the New Statesman; they regarded the ex-unionists, many of whom were keen rugger players, as horribly archaic and slightly barbaric. DD: What of the history course which you took as an undergraduate? RBMcD: It consisted of what nowadays would be called great survey courses on European and British history, some economic history which came up to about 1920 (political history stopped about 1900), and, what was highly stimulating, political science. By modern standards it was very rudimentary – no statistics, no computers, no models. It consisted of reading Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli, Rousseau, J.S. Mill and Marx. There was only one special subject: The French Revolution. A modern undergraduate would probably think it was rather Spartan fare. As for teaching, you had lectures; that was all practically. I read extremely widely and somewhat indiscriminately. There is a good side in that, and a bad. You might find an unexpected highway, or get an unexpected insight.
But you might also waste a lot of time. I read Lecky while I was working for Scholarship, and I was able to answer a whole question from my reading of Lecky; I think that tipped the scales, so I have always had a particular veneration for Lecky. I read Froude at about the same time. People who really impressed me were Mill, Hobbes, Marx, Weber, Mannheim and Spengler. I was given Das Kapital in my last year by Constantia Maxwell: I found the first few pages exasperating, and came to the conclusion that they were wrong-headed, but for the rest I admired and enjoyed Marx as an economic historian. Like many at the time, I was very influenced by the whole concept of the economic factor in history and was fascinated by class divisions.
 
DD: Did your long-abiding research interest in eighteenth-<: entury Ireland grow out of the French Revolution course?
 
RBMcD: I think so. With an interest in the French Revolution, living in a real eighteenth-century city, having as both lecturer and friend Professor Maxwell who influenced my intellectual life, it all came naturally. I was her first and, I think, only research student. That allied me to produce a thesis on the influence of the French Revolution in Ireland, and I quickly found that the boundaries widened out and out. I decided to handle political thought in Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century. I then became a little dissatisfied with thought in a vacuum, and in the next book dealing with the early nineteenth century, I extended myself a bit. I had been engaged to do a chapter on Ireland before the Famine, in which I had to grasp everything. Working on that led to an interest in administrative history which carried me into a book on that subject. I was asked to write on the Church of Ireland because I was always interested in theological discussion. I cannot really remember what persuaded me to write about the 1917 Convention except that I was fascinated by the idea of trying to come to agreement by discussion.
 
DD: How important was Moody’s arrival?
 
RBMcD: Moody arrived as Professor in 1939 (I had already completed my Ph.D. thesis). He was at least twenty years younger than his colleagues Alison Phillips, Curtis and Maxwell. So he came of a new generation and his aims were to bring the course up to date, allow a much wider variety of choice and a greater degree of specialisation, closer contact between teacher and taught, to promote essay-writing and criticism, and to encourage research. It was very much the programme of the day at all other British and Irish universities. It took time to implement; it was just beginning when I became a lecturer in 1945. Now while I enjoyed teaching, I never had great interest in the techniques; I was prepared to fall in – in other words, I was a typical mercenary who would use any weapon that was provided, or would fall into any form of military organisation where my services would be of use. I thought on the whole that the changes were good but, now, my instinct might be to say, well why not leave a bigger margin for individual time? One of his colleagues, a devoted medievalis t, was resolutely opposed to a great many of Moody’s suggestions, partly I think on prinCiple. She had grown up in the generation where constitutional history was treated as the subject which gave stamina to ‘ordinary’ history; it resembled law, or even mathematics, in that you had to work at it, whereas the other things for her were rather flimsy. There were also considerable differences in temperament.
 
DD: Had Moody a clear agenda for the development of history in Ireland?
 
RBMcD: I doubt if he had a conSCiously formed agenda, but he and Edwards, who co-operated with him in founding the Irish Historical Society and Irish Historical Studies, had both been research students at the Institute of Historical Research in the Pollard age – an era which fervently believed in the value and attainability of objectivity and which emphasised unflagging industry, precision and bibliographical thoroughness. IHS was very much Moody’s creation. Its appearance and layout reflected his sensitive interest in typography, and for nearly forty years as editor he persuaSively encouraged the authors of articles and reviewers to bring their contributions into line with his high standards. Also when the number of research students in the TCD history department multiplied – in my day I was the only post-graduate – Moody spent endless time and trouble as a supervisor of his students. However I feel it would be a mistake to assume that a revolution occurred in Irish history about 1940. After all, when the Irish Historical Society and IHS were launched, some of Moody’s and Edward’s contemporaries, competent historians, were already at work – not to speak of the older generation (Falkiner, who died tragically young, Eoin MacNeill, Orpen, Aubrey Gwynn and Curtis). What happened was an updating, not a revolution.
 
DD: How would you characterise your own approach to the writing of history?
 
RBMcD: A lot of people, including many of the people I know, would approach history in terms of questions and answers, and of the possibility of revision, of revising a view. Influenced by the Car lyles and the Clarendons and by interesting novels, I have always seen a piece of historical work as painting a picture and describing it. I know it is perfectly easy to say: is there any difference really between answering a question and describing? A person with a good philosophical mind would possibly point out that you cannot describe without asking the question: what do you see? But there is a slight difference in approach. History to me is a grand Tolstoyan unrollingrather than cold analysis.
 
DD: Do you feel that the writing of history should be primarily for public consumption, something that reaches beyond the student and the specialist?
 
RBMcD: Now I do not wish to appear a rogue elephant. I have always conformed outwardly to the rules of academic history and have never denied the fact that I am an academic man. With certain of my acquaintances, I would even stress that I am an academic historian compared to people who are, to put it bluntly, journalists with an eye not only on the public but on their publishers’ accounts – they want to see a good statement. They are not only trying to lead the public in the right way, but they want to make money. But, having been careful to guard myself against charges of either culpable disregard of the rules of the game, or of a readiness to pander to the lowest possible denominator, I feel that history should be addressed to what I would call the educated world. To me the educated person is not one who has necessarily got a university degree; he or she is a person who has usually gone to a decent school and has kept in touch with reasonably intelligent and active people throughout life. I use the word ‘educated’ to indicate the generally intelligent, alert, pub-licly-aware individual – those are the sort of people you want to be read by. I rather shiver when I discover the kind of work where you feel the writer is almost deliberately shutting out the public, and it is an esoteric game which I have seen practised at its best by philosophers. A word which Americans are fond of using, the guild, suggests craftsmen under control. I do not think Michelangelo or da Vinci belonged to guilds – they went off and did their work without much respect either for wage settlements or anything else. There can be the danger of getting into a closed room in which the experts chat to and fro, and impinge very little on the outside world. I do not want to see history in that room.
 
DD: You have recently done much of your work on Burke and on Tone. How do you feel they stand one against the other?
 
RBMcD: Of the two, Burke is a much more profound thinker, on a different intellectual and even cultural level. Tone was a competent pamphleteer, a man with fairly conventional radical views which he expressed well, and had occasionally perhaps a trace of original thinking. His major qualities, the qualities that mattered, were first that he was a man of action; unfortunately for himself, he had to act on a small sphere and unsuccessfully. He was unlucky as a man of action. Second, he was a superb diarist; he belongs to the world both in time and in spirit of Boswell and Rousseau, that world which gloried in expressing your own feelings and emotions. He even once or twice has a Joycean attempt to represent what it is like getting drunk. He was a very, very polished stylist with extraordinary powers of self-expression. If he had lived I venture to think that he might well have become one of the well-known novelists – there were at least two – who served in the commissioned ranks of the French army. But one cannot think of him, at least I cannot, as. a significant figure in the intellectual life of Europe. For obvious reasons he became a hero, one of the nationalist pantheon – but then it was  Burke – ‘one of the most impressive figures in the history of thought. ‘ your doctrinal stance and your behaviour which got you into that, not your importance in European culture. Burke on the other hand is one of the most impressive figures in the whole history of thought. I read Burke as a school-boy: I heard about the Reflections on the Revolution in France when I already knew how to debate a point (in the school debating society and perhaps listening to Presbyterian sermons with my father, I learnt how one should layout a case under several heads, each leading logically to the next). I plunged into Burke and was absolutely at sea, swept along with this torrent of rhetoric, finding it very hard to abstract arguments from it which I could use in the school debating society. It was not perhaps the right way to approach Burke, but he delighted and fascinated me. I really learnt what rhetoric was, and how deep and complex were many historical problems. In the case of Tone, you are dealing with an extremely pleasant and amusing man who you feel you are not altogether removed from. In the case of Burke, you realise that you are dealing with somebody whose powers of thought, emotional awareness and imagination are of the highest possible potency.
 
DD: Which of your own books do you look upon with the greatest satisfaction?
 
RBMcD: May I fall back on what Somerset Maugham said once when he was asked to write a preface to one of his earlier novels? He said he read it with great interest but he scarcely
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