The Mighty Quinn

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), Volume 6

EM:    Tell us about your background.

DBQ:    My mother was from Cork and my father from Tyrone. I was born in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin in 1909, but until I was fourteen we lived in Clara, County Offaly, where I attended the local Protestant primary school. My father was a head gardener and, when he got a job in Belfast, I was fortunate to be accepted by a good school, the Belfast Academical Institution (‘Inst’). I was there from 1923 to 1927 and did well enough to get a Queen’s University scholarship. My parents were very good to put up with me not earning for many years. I got a First from Queen’s and took up a studentship in 1931 at the Institute of Historical Research at King’s College, London, emerging with a thesis on early Tudor rule in Ireland, which has never been published (There is a copy in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin). Then I was fortunate enough to get an assistant lectureship at Southampton in 1934, where I primarily taught British colonial history, as it was called at the time, but also British and European history, since it was a very small college with a very small staff. However, I was working over a fairly wide field at Southampton: local and medieval records and the port books of the fifteenth century of which I published two volumes, The Port Books or Local Customs Accounts of Southampton for the Reign of Edward IV (1937 and 1938). I developed an interest in Sir Humphrey Gilbert and published my first major collection of documents on him in 1940, The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, just after I’d left Southampton and moved to Belfast. I took the place there of T.W. Moody who’d gone to Trinity College, Dublin. With a few breaks I stayed there till 1944, teaching Irish and American history and lots of other things too. Fortunately in 1937 I had met and married Alison Robertson and we created an active research partnership that lasted for over fifty years. I was appointed a professor at Swansea in 1944 and mainly taught nineteenth-century British and European history, while writing on early American history. In 1957 I got the opportunity to move to Liverpool and accepted very readily as there was more opportunity to develop my research work in early American history.

EM:    What led you to become an historian, as I gather your first interest was geography?

DBQ:    At Queen’s I was pretty evenly divided between English history and geography. I was attracted to history as I’d enjoyed it at school and I’d developed an amateur interest in local history. But I was tempted to go ahead with something in geography. In this I was influenced by Professor Charlesworth in geology and particularly by E. Estyn Evans in geography. Evans had been appointed in 1928 and introduced classes in geography for the first time. He proved to be a stimulating teacher and his interests were wide, including a certain amount of sociology, anthropology and even archaeology, as well as the more orthodox regional geography. I attended classes in geography in three out of my four years at Queen’s but there was no honours course.

EM:    How did you become interested in early North American history? Did this take you away from Irish history?

DBQ:    I had developed a certain interest in colonial aspects of British and European history and also in local history. As an undergraduate in Belfast I’d worked on a seventeenth-century local family and on sources for early modern Irish history, like Spenser. But this was a private venture because there was no teaching of Irish history as such in Queen’s at that time. When, in 1931, I was going to London to do research, I thought I might consider people who were involved in both Irish and North American adventures during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But, my supervisor, A.P. Newton, the professor of imperial history, encouraged me to concentrate on purely Irish history as there had been no systematic work on Tudor history, and for practical reasons it had to be the early Tudor period. Yet, as I was writing, in his lectures and seminars I was being trained in colonial history. In a sense, when I went to Southampton I had a substantial grounding in a small area of Irish history, from 1460 to 1550, or you might say Anglo-Irish history, as I’d mainly dealt with the English in Ireland, and I was teaching British and imperial history from the fifteenth century up to the 1930s. So I looked around for someone to work on who had Irish and American connections. Gilbert had a good many connections with Southampton and it was because of those that I picked on him. In my two volume collection published by the Hakluyt Society in 1940 I did include a number of documents on his projects for Irish colonies.
I had been closely in contact with Moody and Robin Dudley Edwards, who were graduate students with me in London for part of the time. I corresponded with them when they were involved in working out plans for new societies of Irish historians and for the publication of a journal. I’d also published quite a number of papers here and there on Irish topics. I wasn’t primarily an Irish historian in the sense that I’d been teaching Irish history in Southampton, but I did steep myself in Irish history when I got to Queen’s in 1939. I was in the thick of the Moody and Edwards’ revival of Irish history. We kept in close touch and there were constant meetings with the two of them, myself and others to talk about the journal and the societies. I contributed articles to Irish Historical Studies and also to the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, as well as Analecta Hibernica. I was very much honoured to be elected to the Royal Irish Academy as early as 1941 and I am now, I believe, the oldest member. I was initiated by Eoin MacNeill himself, who had given me advice during my graduate work.

EM:    Would you call yourself an Irish historian or an American historian or something else?

DBQ:    While in London in 1943 I was invited by A.L. Rowse to write Raleigh and the British Empire (published in 1947) That shifted me from Gilbert to Raleigh very sharply and in 1955 my two volumes, The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-90, were published by the Hakluyt Society. This took me away from Irish history towards early American history, though Raleigh had a part to play in Ireland as well. I became less of an Irish historian, though I continued to contribute articles to Irish periodicals and to review for IHS. My gradual drift towards America was largely due to the availability of grants and fellowships but I kept up with what was going on in Irish history through contacts with Moody and Edwards and also with Gerard Hayes-McCoy, whom I liked very much.

EM:    You’ve done a lot of work on men like Gilbert and Raleigh; indeed a book published in your honour in 1987 is titled Raleigh and Quinn and refers to you as his ‘Boswell’. But their reputations in Ireland are rather different from their reputations in England and the US. Which view do you favour?

DBQ:    You tempt me to give a lecture because it’s not easy to sum up their relative parts. Gilbert had a lot of projects for Ireland, but he didn’t do anything about them. He was a good soldier, but a pretty brutal one. Raleigh had a rather good record in Ireland, as far as his own behaviour was concerned. In Munster he was, on the whole, a conscientious English soldier, albeit on the side of the English invaders. Later on, his very greedy plans to exploit a large part of Munster preoccupied him for a while. Although he obtained nominal ownership of a vast area in Cork and Waterford, it was only really between 1586 and 1589 that he took a personal interest in it. His one or two visits in 1589 showed that he did really think of setting up as a great landowner. But it was an area that would have required an enormous amount of attention, for little immediate profit. He leased most of his land to English merchants, who had Irish tenants and didn’t disturb the existing situation more than marginally. Raleigh installed his own people on the Blackwater and around Youghal, but he doesn’t appear to have been particularly aggressive towards the Irish, even if he dispossessed some of them. After 1590 he lost interest in Ireland and was an absentee landlord.
Gilbert has no particular reputation in the US, where very few people have heard of him. He’s much more recognised in Canada for his activities in Newfoundland which he formally annexed thus initiating the English invasion of the Americas. As far as Raleigh is concerned, he is a figure of considerable reputation in North Carolina, as he brought the first English colonists there. Although the Roanoke colonies faded out, he is regarded as a pioneer.

EM:    Was Ireland a stepping stone to North America for English explorers and colonists?

DBQ:    Yes. The establishment of colonies in Ireland, as a means of occupying surplus English population, gave rise to the idea that a similar venture was possible in America. In neither case were the interests of the existing population, the Irish or the Native Americans, considered. In Ireland when opposition arose it was considered perfectly legitimate to seize the land after resistance had been crushed. In America the land was regarded as vacant and the rights of the native peoples were scarcely considered at all. In the sixteenth century the Irish contribution was appreciable, but I think not crucial. Nicholas Canny has thought and written more on this than I have. But by the early seventeenth century the Ulster plantation was taking place in parallel with attempts to settle Virginia and New England, parallels worth keeping in mind when studying either country.

EM:    Do you think that historians should sometimes get out of archives and explore historic places at first hand?

DBQ:    Yes. I have travelled a good deal in Ireland and know its topography and character well. With regard to America, I visited the places the early explorers had been to, with the help of the Institute of Early American History at Williamsburg, the US Coast Guard and friends I’d made in America. In 1948 I made a long reconnaissance of the Carolina Outer Banks and of the Massachusetts offshore islands. My background in geography was very useful during my American work and I gained considerable knowledge of the eastern American coastline.

EM:    What do you think is your most important publication and, also, is there a topic you regret not being able to tackle?

DBQ:    Roanoke Voyages (1955) has never been superseded and is constantly referred to. A general textbook, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements (1977), became a standard in American universities. It was the first modern attempt to look at North America as a whole down to about 1612, covering all the early European contacts, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English. The most elaborate work I’ve ever done, which I couldn’t have completed without a great deal of assistance from my wife and a former student, was the five volumes of New American World: a Documentary History of North America to 1612 (1979). I would have liked to have tackled Elizabethan Ireland. I did do some incidental work on it, like The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966), but I agreed to go back to my earlier work on the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries for my contribution to the New History of Ireland, II.

EM:    You were involved with Irish Historical Studies in its early years and also later with the New History of Ireland. Looking back, what were the strengths and weaknesses of these enterprises?

DBQ:    Through Irish Historical Studies Moody and Edwards laid the foundations for a more serious and professional approach to Irish history. So much earlier work had been either parochial or biased in a nationalist way. IHS has maintained a very high standard and I don’t think there are many national historical periodicals that are better. The New History of Ireland is another story. I was a member of the editorial board from its initiation in 1969 (I still am, though it’s dormant at present). I attended many meetings in Ireland to discuss the project and helped organise volumes II and III and my wife was involved in the indexing. The NHI was to be thorough and objective. The aim was to get the political history straight, then to link in economic and social history, and particularly to make sure that the Gaelic side was properly represented. Unfortunately, volume I has never been completed.
There was a constant problem of getting people to produce material by the deadlines they’d agreed to. Moody also became a very demanding editor. He insisted on sub-editing articles to an extent that wearied contributors. His editing improved chapters marginally, but slowed up production enormously. He must be blamed for a lot of the delays, though by no means all. He wore out people’s patience to a considerable extent with his rigid standards. But the quality of the published volumes has been very high, even if they have been attacked as revisionist by some historians wanting a more nationalist view. Still, it’s a pity that the early Gaelic material has never been published.
I remained good friends with both Moody and Edwards, even though they parted harshly over the organisation of the NHI. Edwards was rather unrealistic, always planning vast arrays of research which would have taken generations to complete. Moody on the other hand was far more practical and precise, if, I may say, somewhat domineering. Mind you, a co-operative effort like this in Ireland is extraordinarily difficult to achieve without a great deal of drive and tenacity.

EM:    Is there a particular historian whom you particularly admire or one who has influenced you more than others?

DBQ:    The person who set standards for me and inspired me to become a conscientious historian was James Eadie Todd, my professor in Belfast when I was an undergraduate. He did a lot to develop Irish history in the 1930s, first sponsoring Moody, then me and then J.C. Beckett. He had an uphill struggle as there was a lot of opposition at Queen’s from those who regarded Irish history as too nationalistic to talk about in the atmosphere of Northern Ireland at that time. My supervisor in London, A.P. Newton, was very influential in directing me towards Irish history, on the one hand, and British imperial history, on the other. Despite his quirks and rigidities, Moody influenced me most in Irish history. We didn’t always agree, but I knew him through school, university and graduate study—he was a year ahead of me at ‘Inst’, Queen’s and London. Edwards was closer to my wife and I than Moody in later years. He was extremely erratic, went through phases of drinking far too much and upsetting the meetings that he went to. Many people in Ireland fell out with him in later years. But he was very learned and deeply friendly. He came to Liverpool to see his occultist regularly and he always stayed with us. It was through him that I began examining in Irish history at the National University, which kept me in touch with Irish history at the grassroots level. As for the Americans, there are so many who have guided my footsteps that I couldn’t pick one. Many are still in contact with me.

EM:    What do you think of recent work on sixteenth-century Ireland?

DBQ:    I think that people like Ciarán Brady and Steven Ellis have done absolutely first-rate work. Nicholas Canny has kept Ireland in the context of English empire and linked it to America and has been very influential in maintaining the broad perspective. Even the NHI has been a little narrow in that regard. But it is Roy Foster who continues to inspire us all.

EM:    You’ve worked in a number of universities, spending the longest period in Liverpool. Which have you particularly enjoyed?

DBQ:    I’ve worked in Hungary, at the Academy in Budapest, and in Spain, Italy and France on American history. In the 1960s I visited New Zealand under the auspices of the British Council. I taught at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1969/70. After I retired from Liverpool, for eight years on and off between 1976 and 1984 I taught a course on early American history down to 1640 at St Mary’s College of Maryland and in 1979 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. So I didn’t retire from teaching until I was seventy-five. But my closest ties have been with research institutes and libraries, like the John Carter Brown Library, the Folger Library, and the Huntington Library, which offer short fellowships. The main focus of my American studies for long was North Carolina. I’ve never been closely involved in local history in Liverpool, but I appreciated its trans-Atlantic liners. I sailed from Liverpool to America and back several times in the 1960s. I suppose my roots in Liverpool go deep now. I’ve lived in the same house, in a Victorian backwater of suburban Liverpool, for more than forty years.

Elizabeth Malcolm lectures in history at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.


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