Margaret MacCurtain OP

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Volume 28

born 27 April 1929,
died 5 October 2020

BY THOMAS O’LOUGHLIN

When I was told of Margaret’s death on the morning of 6 October— she had died just before midnight the previous evening—I suddenly realised that we had been friends for nearly 40 years. In the 1970s she had been one of my teachers in UCD, but it was only later when, as a young scholar, I turned to her for advice that I began to recognise that here was someone exceptional. In the midst of a busy schedule as head of the first College of Further Education of Dublin VEC— Ballyfermot College—she took time to phone me back with the sage advice that I then followed, and our friendship began. She was a woman of many roles—an educator, an activist for women’s rights, a pioneer of women’s history in Ireland, a campaigner for reform in the Catholic Church—and, of course, a historian. The many obituaries testify to her energy, her engagement and her ability to be a catalyst of change in all these areas, but here, in History Ireland, I want to confine myself to noting the passing of a great practitioner of the historian’s craft.

My abiding thought about Margaret is that she took change— in people, situations, society—to be fundamental. Nothing stands still, and this is why history, being attentive to change and the implications of change, was so important to her. This might appear a trite comment: who, after all, could deny change? Many cultures, however, have seen change as merely noise that is accidental within a system. The important matters, the ‘verities’, belong in a realm beyond contingency, and changes—both actual and possible— are little more than noting time’s flow. This eternalism, so characteristic of the Catholicism in which Margaret grew up, was anathema to her. Change, and the possibility that tomorrow might be made more just, more equal and happier than today, was a key to the way she lived. One needed history to realise that ‘today’ is not simply the momentary expression of an unchanging order but the outcome of a string of an evolving set of situations. It was this placing of evolution at the centre of
her thought that made her a historian by instinct. It was also the reason why she was always greeted with suspicion, and often with open animosity, by the Catholic clerical establishment and by the clerical professors then in UCD. Their world was static, a vision of semper eadem (‘it’s always the same’); her’s was dynamic, and you could make tomorrow different.

I recall a lunch in a Booterstown pub when she remarked that ‘the shelf-life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt!’ It was a teacher’s exaggeration but it conveyed her historian’s sense in a nutshell. We are moving on, the world is moving on, we make our marks and the journey continues. History, too, does not stand still but it keeps alerting us to change.

If she was a scholar, then she was also a dedicated teacher: she made space for students, she worked for educational reform and she had a special horror of bad history teaching. Typically, Margaret did not simply bewail the problems but acted. The upshot was one of the first user-friendly, interesting and historically aware history textbooks to be used in Irish secondary schools: The birth of modern Ireland (1969). Looking at it today it seems no more than one more textbook, but then—with its notion that history was a set of questions rather than ‘facts’, with its attention to sources (often pictured), its critical engagement with the past (aware of the curse of school history as propaganda) and its attention to the history of women in Ireland—it was revolutionary. How many readers of History Ireland today had their historical sense awakened by this book?

In an interview in these pages (HI 2.1, Spring 1994, pp 52–4) I posed a final question:

TO’L: You have been a teacher who has encouraged many young historians. Have you any words of advice?

MMacC: Do your own research; be courageous and innovative; trust your own thinking; respect originality in yourself and in others.

As an anonymous Jewish poet wrote long ago: ‘Those who teach many, continue to shine: they shine like stars above us’.

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

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