Judging Diarmaid

Tue, Sep 16, 2008, 01:00

THE EDUCATION PROFILE:Controversy surrounds Diarmaid Ferriter's recent appointment to the Chair of Modern Irish History at UCD. But while a media profile and lauded bestsellers might be distasteful to some of the old guard, Ferriter fits perfectly with the university's new order

Celebrity historian Diarmaid Ferriter is the new Chair of Modern Irish History at UCD. A media natural, Ferriter's profile has soared in the last two years, but his critics say that the 35-year-old does not have the gravitas that a UCD professorship deserves. His opponents want a bit more dust and a little less polish on their eminent historians. His supporters say that his powerful communication skills are just what history needs.

There's no denying Ferriter's popularity. His most recent publication, Judging Dev, won in three categories at this year's Irish Book Awards, including the Tubridy Show Listener's Choice Award. A populist category for a populist historian, his critics suggest.

The book spawned a website and inspired a radio series on RTÉ. It so delighted former Fianna Fáil Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin that she went out and bought 2,000 copies to give to Irish schools for Christmas. Her largesse was underwritten by the Exchequer, a point that caused consternation among Fine Gael and Labour TDs. Judging Devis regarded as a sympathetic rendering of the former FF leader; Brian Hayes of Fine Gael described the move as a Maoist attempt to influence the reading patterns of Irish students.

But any of the Fianna Fáil faithful who believe they have a team historian in Ferriter will be disappointed, say his colleagues. One fellow academic insists that Ferriter's benign handling of de Valera was not a labour of love but an attempt to balance the books after Tim Pat Coogan's scathing anti-hagiography, Eamon de Valera: The Man who was Ireland. Ferriter will not become court historian for the Cowan administration, his colleague insists.

"With Judging Dev, Diarmaid was just righting a wrong," says Ferriter's colleague. "Historians often assume a position in order to rebalance an argument." But most Judging Deventhusiasts fell for its presentation rather than its politics. Gift buyers loved the coffee-table production and educators leapt on its imaginative use of primary materials. The work dovetailed nicely with the new emphasis of the Leaving Cert syllabus on source material and social history.

If those who accuse Ferriter of being a populist historian are basing their rancour on the success of Judging Dev, they underestimate the Irish book-buying public. History and biography titles are perennially popular with Irish readers and a dumb-down is not a prerequisite for success. The Irish history books market is worth €20 million, with more than 20,000 titles published in the last seven years across a broad range of specialist subjects. They tend to remain in print longer than other genres, too. Celebrity historians have a willing audience in the Irish.

Ferriter is 35 years old and is married with young daughter. He was born in Dublin and educated at St Benildus College in Kilmacud. He studied undergraduate history at UCD, where he graduated top of his class. He went on to do PhD in the same university, during which time he tutored undergraduate students and gave lectures at the university. On completion of his doctorate, he was snapped up by St Patrick's College in Drumcondra to lecture in history there. St Pat's has been his only foray out of UCD to date. This short CV has been held against him.

A senior academic says that Ferriter has been miscast as an upstart that whipped the Modern Irish History Chair from more learned and worthy contenders. In truth, he says, Ferriter is part of a new young breed of historians and he was simply competing against his peers.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, we are in a new age of Irish historical inquiry in which notions of traditionalism and revisionism are considered outmoded. Ferriter is just one of a coterie of young academics approaching old questions without the paranoia of Troubles politics to dog him. He has also seized on the explosion of new materials and media, which are changing the way we view historical production.

He has already published the massive and critically acclaimed work, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000as well as titles such as Nation of Extremes; the pioneers in twentieth-century Irelandand The Irish Faminewhich he co-authored with Colm Tóibín. He is also the host of the weekly historical discussion programme What If?on RTÉ Radio 1.

Before Ferriter takes up his professorship in UCD, he will spend a year as a visiting fellow at Boston College, a fact that might appease some who have looked askance at his academic pedigree. Meanwhile, he continues to charm his students with his entertaining take on Irish modern history.

"He gave the inaugural lecture of the UCD History Society last year and it was a very powerful performance," says one former student. "The audience was mesmerised. He will be a big draw for students at UCD when he takes up his position next year." He also has a reputation for tenacious commitment to his material. "He is absolutely familiar with his archive material, he knows his sources extremely well. He's always digging out stuff," said a fellow researcher.

UCD President Hugh Brady loves a star performer, and has been modelling UCD in the American university style to draw international attention and funding. High-profile appointments are central to his mission. While radio programmes and bestsellers might be distasteful to some in history's old guard, Ferriter fits in beautifully with the new order.

Phoenixmagazine's Goldhawk went as far as to describe him as the David Beckham of UCD's history department, "a team member with the flair for the big, publicity-generating act and the capacity to sell jerseys and memorabilia (for which in academic terms, read attracting PhD students and global attention), prospering under a management team which will hand the grunt work to the lesser lights".

On grander scale, media darling Richard Dawkins has managed to combine academia and entertainment so skilfully that he has brought glory to his Oxford Chair as Professor of Public Understanding of Science. Ferriter is similarly well-positioned to broadcast his appealing historical products from the rooftops of Belfield, conveniently close the headquarters of the national broadcaster, where he works nights.

As one eminent future colleague remarked, UCD would have been mad not to appoint him.