James Camlin Beckett 1912-1996

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), News, Volume 4

Professor J.C. Beckett, who died in a Belfast nursing home on 12 February, was one of Ireland’s most eminent historians. He belonged to that distinguished pleiad of ‘30s graduates who helped to change the character of Irish historical study, lifting it above the maelstrom of Irish politics, and setting it on a plateau of objective scientific inquiry. They were led by Theo Moody and Robin Dudley Edwards, and their gospel was set out in the pages of Irish Historical Studies. Beckett brought to Irish historical research a mind which was methodical, incisive, analytical and just, undeflected by personal or tribal prejudice. He had also the gift of expounding complicated problems in lapidary prose.     Educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and the Queen’s University, he graduated there in 1934 with first class honours in Modern History. He spent the next eleven years teaching history at the Belfast Royal Academy (a rival establishment to his old school) and continuing his research in Irish history for the degree of MA. At the end of the Second World War, in which his brother Frank was killed while serving with the RAF, he was appointed to a lectureship in Irish History at Queen’s, and his first book Protestant Dissent in Ireland,1687-1780 was published in 1948 by Faber as the second in the series of Studies in Irish History edited by Moody, Edwards and Quinn. Articles followed in learned journals on various aspects of political and ecclesiastical history, the emphasis gradually shifting from the eighteenth century to the seventeenth. Then he accepted a commission from Hutchinson to contribute A Short History of Ireland to their University Library series. This little book was published in 1952 and ran through many editions, ultimately being translated, to his great delight, into German and Japanese. Its success turned his mind to the possiblity of writing a larger History of modern Ireland.
The heavy demands of teaching restricted the time available for research, and during the ‘50s Beckett was also collaborating with Moody on the massive two-volume History of Queen’s University, a task not made lighter (as he would sometimes admit in private) by Moody’s propensity to go to the ends of the earth to determine exactly where a comma should come in the title of someone’s paper. The result was an impressive work of scholarship, but praise for it must be tinged with some regret that it absorbed the energies of two of Ireland’s outstanding historians for so long. Queen’s was not ungrateful, however, and Beckett, already promoted Reader in 1952, was given a personal chair in Irish History in 1958. In his Inaugural he observed that the holder of a personal chair was, like the sergeant-major’s mule, ‘a beast without pride of ancestry or hope of succession’, but in fact the chair soon became an established one.
The Making of Modern Ireland, published by Faber in 1965, was Beckett’s master-work and it was immediately welcomed as such by his peers. It had involved an immense amount of hard and skilful work, and was, in the words of Professor David Quinn, ‘not only learned but cool, objective, unimpassioned and yet always alive and compassionate as well’. It gave Beckett a world-wide reputation and it is still a standard textbook in daily use in colleges and schools. The wider recognition of his abilities brought many merited distinctions, membership of the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Manuscripts Commission. From 1960 until 1986 he served on the Royal Commission for Historical Documents. He was invited to lecture and work as a visiting professor at universities in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. More recently, the University of Ulster, the National University of Ireland and the Queen’s University conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature. He took early retirement from Queen’s in 1975.
Professor Beckett enjoyed playing the role of the dry-as-dust academic, out of touch with the modern world. He once contemplated buying a television set, but after watching some programmes in the homes of friends he decided against it. He liked the old gentlemanly courtesies once observed in universities, and did not relish informality. He objected strongly if people he did not know addressed him as ‘Jim’. But one did not need to know him for very long to discover that this was the most innocent of affectations. He took the keenest pleasure in good company, and especially good conversation. His friends and colleagues, and scores of postgraduates who sought his professional help, knew only a man who was extremely modest, kind and good-natured, a source of sage advice and always ready to work as part of a team. He set himself the highest standards, and expected them of others. He liked to give the impression that his non-historical reading was confined to the novels of Miss Austen and Sir Walter Scott, but in fact it was eclectic, ranging from works of devotion to modern Norwegian novelists. Norway was an enthusiasm of his middle years, and he spent a part of every day improving his knowledge of the language. Professor Beckett was a charming guest and a generous host. He allowed himself few indulgences, apart from tobacco and his books, and lived the ascetic life of a devoted scholar. He had strong religious principles, and was a loyal member of the Church of Ireland. Those principles governed his life, and dictated his daily religious observance, though he never made them obtrusive. It seems especially sad that when the inevitable frailty of age overtook him in the autumn of 1994, it should manifest itself in the clouding of so lucid an intellect, and it was some consolation that to the end when one spoke to him about Irish history the mists seemed briefly to disperse.

A.T.Q. Stewart


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