The trials of academe or rot at the top?

Published in Issue 5 (September/October), Letters, Volume 22

Sir,—Professor Morgan Kelly—famous as the man who predicted the banking collapse and was brushed aside for his pains—recently suggested that the reason for the downward slide in the international ratings of both UCD and TCD was grade inflation, as it is called: more simply expressed as ‘the failure to fail’. But there may also be another factor: the failure to correct errors at the top. It is commonly assumed that academics fall over each other in their haste to correct their own errors when these are pointed out to them, but this is not always the case, as I have learnt to my cost. Certainly some, such as the late Professor Basil Chubb, can be a model in this regard. He actually invited people to point out any errors that may have arisen at the end of the preface to his book The government and politics of Ireland (1970). H.G. Wells was another model in this regard: see his Outline of history.
Today, at least in Ireland, it is different. Turning up reference to my late brother, David Thornley, Associate Professor of Political Science at Trinity College, Dublin, Ph.D, FTCD and TD, in Professor Diarmaid Ferriter’s book Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s I was shocked to read that ‘he never actually visited the North’. This makes him appear a know-all pontificating on a subject of which he knew nothing. David’s first visit to the North was when he sat his London matriculation at the Belfast centre. Our father was also the inspector of taxes for Derry for six years, providing David—and me—with an immense amount of background knowledge of the province.

I wrote immediately to Professor Ferriter. His response to my request that he insert a correction slip in every copy of his book was to refer me to a colleague who had first put this canard into the public domain. I wrote to the colleague, asking him who had furnished him with this misinformation; he acknowledged my letter but did not answer my question. I wrote again to Professor Ferriter, repeating my request for a correction slip. There was no reply.

This is bad enough. Almost as bad is the failure in Professor Ferriter’s book to mention what was possibly the finest moment in David’s career: when he presented on RTÉ the figures prepared by Patrick Lyons, Ireland’s future first competition commissioner, showing that the abolition of proportional representation (PR) proposed in the forthcoming referendum (Fianna Fáil’s second attempt to abolish PR) would confirm Fianna Fáil in power virtually for ever. This broadcast was stated unequivocally on at least two occasions by Jack Lynch himself to have swung the referendum against abolition. David’s decisive action is given full prominence on p. 74 of John Bowman’s book on RTÉ, Window and mirror (2011); Professor Ferriter does not appear even to have heard of the matter.

No individual is to blame for all this; it is the system that is at fault. Where there is no corrective mechanism, almost anything can happen. Books, as they become bigger and bigger, will tend to become like gigantic vacuum cleaners, sucking in fact and pseudo-fact willy-nilly. Professor Ferriter argues that my book on David, Lone crusader: David Thornley and the intellectuals (Ashfield Press, 2012), was not available when he was writing his book. But I was available. He could have done what David himself did in 1972. Dissatisfied with the information in the public domain about Tom Clarke, the first signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, he got in touch with Clarke’s widow and recorded what she had to say on a cassette tape. She died a few months later. That was historical research.

The problem, at least in Ireland, is that there is no system of quality control at the top. The ‘cosy academic club’ guarantees that there will never be a breath of criticism of a member of the club by fellow-academics; and reviews of academic work by journalists invariably adopt a posture of abject admiration. Since we apparently can no longer live without acronyms, may I present the world with a new one: CAC for the ‘cosy academic club’? If we are not careful, CAC—except possibly in medicine and science, where Irish brains will always find a place—will be the death of our international ratings.—Yours etc.,

EDWARD THORNLEY

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