Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1993), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 1

A SCHOLAR AND A GENTLEMAN 1HM: Could you tell us about your background?


ATQS: My father was a Belfastman. He had emigrated to Australia but in the middle of the first world war, he enlisted in the Australian Expeditionary Force and was brought back to Europe. When the war ended, there was a problem getting Australian troops home so a plan was drawn up giving men born in the British Isles the option of instant demobilisation if they stayed. My father chose to return to Belfast. He was already a widower when he married my mother in 1926 and I was born three years later. All my ancestors on the paternal side were bakers and confectioners in Belfast from about 1819. We had a shop and my mother and father worked very hard. Eventually during the second world war, he sold up and took paid employment in bakeries. In his later years, he was a commercial traveller for bakers’ sundries. It was quite a struggle and that was relevant to my education and why getting scholarships to Inst. and Queen’s was so important.


HM: Was your family socially or politically active?

ATQS: Not in my time but my father held socialist views and he certainly was not a conventional Unionist. He had been fairly active in the trade union movement. He knew Larkin at the time of the strikes in Belfast. He was an unusual man, self-educated, an omnivorous reader and lowe a good deal to that. My father’s people were Presbyterians. They belonged to Fisherwick which was a pretty wide congregation. My mother was born in Stockport in England and came from a Methodist background.


HM: What inspired you to become a historian?

ATQS: I came to the History Department in Queen’s in 1949-50 and liked it. At first it was fairly hard slogging and I had all the disruption of my father’s death and having to support myself and my mother out of the scholarship money. I was not particularly enthusiastic about Irish history. What I really wanted to do was medieval history and was interested in people like Abelard and St Bernard of Clairvaux. I graduated with a first in 1952 and was offered a research grant by the university but could not afford to take it – I just had to go out and earn a living teaching. That was very disappointing. I felt like Lucifer being thrown out of heaven. After two temporary jobs, I got a post as history master at Belfast Royal Academy and I stayed there for the next five years. When I went into teaching, J.C. Beckett, my tutor in Irish history, suggested that I carry on research part-time and look at the problem of why the Presbyterians were nationalists and radicals at the end of the eighteenth century and conservatives and unionists at the end of the nineteenth. At that time, nobody was particularly interested in this question. The Unionist establishment was trying to forget about the United Irishmen. I remember Professor Semple telling me that the time had come for Protestants to take up this history, that they had forgotten about Drennan and company. I limited it to 1792 -1825, so a large part of my MA thesis was about the channels into which radicalism was dispersed. It was completed in 1956 and called ‘The transformation of Presbyterian radicalism in the north of Ireland’. Nobody was interested in publishing it. After five years at the Academy, I applied for a post in the College of Education at Stranmillis. I was appointed and spent seven years there. I was a senior lecturer when I left in 1968. In the meantime, the Wiles Trust set up this wonderful scheme of sending a schoolmaster fellow to an Oxford or Cambridge college. I was the first one in 1965. I was sent to Peterhouse for a year which was a terrific experience, full of historians. Socially, however, it was very off-putting. I found most of the dons cold and superior. But some of them were very nice. Indeed the ones with the most ferocious right-wing views tended to be the nicest ones. Intellectually it was very stimulating. I spent an enormous amount of time in the Cambridge University Library. Borges says somewhere that he would have lived his whole life in a library if someone had brought him his meals. There is a bit of that in me.


HM: A recent question has been the influence of Herbert Butterfield of Peterhouse over visiting Irish historians.

ATQS: Butterfield was very close to Desmond Williams, formerly professor at UCD. The year that I was in Peterhouse, Ronan Fanning was there and I got on very well with him. Also Patrick Cosgrove was there working with Butterfield on diplomatic history. He went on to be Thatcher’s political advisor and a writer of biographies and detective stories. Butterfield gave you the impression that these were the important people and he paid virtually no attention to me at all. The first night I dined at Peterhouse, I had no gown going in and someone grabbed one hanging up and said, ‘Here have Kingsley’s gown’. This was Kingsley Amis who the week before had fled from Cambridge, declaring publicly that he was fed up with academic life. So on the first night in Peterhouse I dined in Kingsley’s gown and Butterfield kindly put me at his right hand and the first question he asked was – ‘Have you any right to wear those strings?’.


HM: Did the year at Peterhouse help you get the job in Queen’s History Department?

ATQS: It is possible but I do not think there is any connection. At the time I went to Peterhouse, I was writing something which did not fit in very well with academic history. J.C. Beckett told me Faber wanted a book on the Ulster Volunteer Force which was then an innocuous subject; all the dust had settled and it did not have the connotations it has today. He presumed that I would not be interested as an eighteenth-century scholar. But I said I would give my right arm for a publisher’s contract. I registered the project as a PhD and did an enormous amount of research. The Glengall St HQ of the Unionist Party, with which I had no connection, had just deposited all their records in PRONI. I do not think they would have done it had they foreseen ‘the troubles’. They needed space and they thought that nobody was interested in this stuff from the Carson era. It was purely coincidental. I went through it and found there was a terrific story in it – the Clyde Valley saga and all that. I was not writing an academic book for Faber – it was going to be a kind of political thriller. But I could not shake off the academic training. The manuscript of The Ulster Crisis was submitted for a doctorate at Queen’s. When a lectureship in Irish political history was advertised a few years later, I applied in the normal way and was appointed.

Robin Dudley Edwards and Theo Moody.

Robin Dudley Edwards and Theo Moody.

HM: Which historian do you most admire? You have talked about Butterfield.

ATQS: Butterfield was an immensely gifted man who to his credit took up a number of different areas – George III and the politicians, the history of science, German studies. I remember coming to the initial Wiles lectures Man and his past and being absolutely transfixed by the breadth and penetration of his intellect. What would worry me about Butterfield is the emerging evidence of extreme right-wing views. Which historian do I admire? I think as a profession we have painted ourselves into a corner all this century. We imported the PhD industry from Germany. It is even worse in America. It becomes an industry in itself. You teach people to write PhDs and they teach others to do it. There are certain ground rules that we all know and which I have tried to observe; about how you handle your evidence; you do not fabricate it; you do not draw conclusions that you cannot support from your evidence; you respect the evidence; you present it in as balanced a way as possible. It seems to me that an awful lot of this is very sterile. It is also like everything else subject to fashion. Many people have no idea how to present their thinking or their work and just present it like everybody else’s. Academic historians constitute an exclusive society. They keep watching each other to see that nobody deviates from these very strict rules. I tend to admire the historians who have had the stature or the gift to do something more original. A lot of historical writing is very dull, very heavy going. Outside one or two experts who are interested in the field, nobody reads it. There have been people who have been capable of rising above that. The outstanding example was the legal historian F.w. Maitland who dealt with the most complex and abstruse legal subjects and yet there seems to be a kind of sunlight streaming through. When I was an undergraduate, I found I could understand Maitland and that puzzled me. Some other people like Elton have the gift of writing with great clarity but if you look at Elton’s approach to history, it seems very narrow and circumscribed. That kind of attitude is connected with ‘getting on’ in the university system. You must do it. One trembles for young historians who dare to defy it.


HM: Is history an art or a science?

ATQS: This is the question that has always bedevilled historians, at least from the nineteenth century onwards. I was trained as a ‘scientist’. Most historians this century have been. Historical research has to be conducted like any other kind of research but once you get to the point where you have to put your thoughts before someone else and communicate, you come up against a problem. In a hundred years from now nobody is going to be reading today’s kind of academic book but they will still be reading Carlyle and Macaulay Robin Dudley Edwards and Theo Moody. whom we would not consider historians at all but great literary masters. It seems to me unreal to talk about trying to educate people about the past. You will never succeed in doing that. The most terrible errors have crept into our conception of the past. For example, Columbus never believed that the Earth was flat but somebody about 1820 propagated the idea and so everybody now believes that by discovering America he proved the Earth was round. If some young student writes a PhD thesis showing that this was all nonsense, it is not going to have any effect on the popular perception. There are other things about the academic establishment that upset me. I think our universities today are within a whisper of setting up stakes in the quadrangle and burning their heretics and dissidents. When I came up to Queen’s as lecturer in Christmas 1968, this university was full of dissidents. They disrupted every meeting of the faculty. There were radicals of every kindfree- thinkers and religious maniacs, all sorts of people. The criterion was – can they conduct their classes and lectures? Are they stimulating students? How seriously can one take things like political correctness and the wilder elements of feminism?


HM: How do you regard the current state of Irish history writing?

ATQS: When I took up the study of Irish history, there was a movement in existence which had begun with young postgraduate researchers in the 1930s who said ‘To hell with all this sectarianism, this bigotry, the aftermath of the troubles and so on. Let’s put the study of Irish history on a basis which will be interchangeable, which will mean the same thing for Belfast or Dublin or to someone from either of our traditions in the north’. You associate that with people like Theo Moody, who was largely responsible for it, and Robin Dudley Edwards, for whom I had a great deal of respect. There was also at that time a distinct clutch of graduates from Queen’s who all made a name for themselves. J.C. Beckett was in many ways the best of them. The trouble was that, like all things of this sort, eventually there is a great temptation to erect it into an orthodoxy which nobody could challenge. Theo Moody started on this colossal PhD on the Londonderry plantation and it is a fine historical work, a classic. But, as his life went on, Moody became more and more obsessed with that way of tackling a subject. It was the same with Michael Davitt. In the end he produced a work which tells us what kind of bootlaces Davitt favoured, the dimensions of every ship on which he crossed the Atlantic. I may be exaggerating. He was a man of great intellect, great breadth of sympathies. He set up this language in which you wrote Irish history – you avoided all capital letters except where they absolutely could not be avoided. He set this all out in Irish Historical Studies. Everybody had to conform to it in their articles for IHS. McDowell and Beckett did it. Everybody wrote in that way. Now I think it is absurd and pedantic. But it did have political advantages – it was meant to smooth over differences and it worked. When I was a young graduate, that orthodoxy was unchallenged and it worked very well. The Irish academic historians were a different group from the Oxbridge ones and I think sometimes we were looked down on a bit by the English historians. We formed a group of people who thought in the same way and applied the same approach. As it succeeded more and more, it pleased Moody and I think he thought it was his greatest achievement. As with everything in Ireland, it tends eventually to break down and the thing that has distressed me most in recent years is to find that the comradeship is no longer there, whether as a result of the troubles in the last quarter of a century and its politics, I am not sure. To some degree, Irish historians are reverting to intransigent positions; but perhaps I do them an injustice.


HM: But are not the revisionists – the heirs of Moody and Edwards – supposed to be triumphant?

ATQS: I do not understand this thing called ‘revisionism’. It is far too abstract for me but it makes me suspicious of people who talk like this. What is wrong with revisionism? Every historian should be a revisionist all the time. A man called Charmley has got himself into hot water by publishing a book about Churchill. He says Churchill should have sued for peace in 1940. Well I can remember 1940. I think Charmley is utterly wrong but I would defend his right as a historian to say ‘Here is the evidence; this is the conclusion I draw’.


HM: Your best known work is The Narrow Ground, about patterns of conflict in modem Ulster. Rev Ian Paisley held this book up in front of his congregation and said ‘Here is a great book that tells us the truth about the history of Ulster’. As a result you have been labelled an apologist for Unionism and Paisleyism.

ATQS: Obviously I as an individual have no control over what Dr Paisley does from the pulpit. I was astonished when I heard about it. I am not a member of any political party. I am not involved in politics. I have nothing to say publicly about any politician or figure in our troubles today. I am not an apologist for Paisley. No-one has any right to hang the Unionist label round my neck. I never think of myself in that way. I try to work the thing out and then write down whatever is in my heart without thinking whether Dr Paisley is going to like it or not, or whether John Hume is going to like it or not. It is an illustration of what happens. It does not only happen to me. It happens to all kinds of people who are involved in saying anything about Irish history. What is there to apologise for? What of Paisley’s policies am I apologising for? It seems to me to be an over-simplification of him as much as a gross over-simplification of myself. I am an individual thinker. I do not mind anybody saying ‘I do not agree with you’ or ‘I disagree with you violently’. But I do not like being misrepresented and I do not like injustice.


HM: This incident raises the dilemma that we all face in the present situation. How do we remain true to ourselves and the historical record as we interpret it without coming up with something anodyne and banal?

ATQS: It is very difficult to see how one clings to the idea of objectivity but that is the way we were trained and we have got to try to do it. I do not think there is any real objectivity. I used to think there would be progress towards it, even if you did not achieve it. It is not the answer to write something banal and anodyne because then you are saying nothing. Anybody can take up what you have written and wave it and either burn it or say this is a great thing. lf he destroys it, like Salman Rushdie’s book, he is not proving or disproving the argument. It is difficult for a historian to keep his work apart from his thoughts and emotions as an individual. I think a lot of people, and maybe I am one of them, do not succeed in that. Without emotions, one is not human. If you look at history, it is about humanity and it is about emotions, and some historians write as if it were not. Their view has become terribly narrow. You read a study of high politics and it is all about naked greed for power and nothing else. You find people writing theses and books about these things who know nothing about the real world and do not even know how to conduct their own political campaigns to get to a chair in a university. They are writing these books in the hope that it will all add up. It is not just about knowing about politics. They do not know enough about humanity.


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