Roy Foster honoured by National Library of Ireland for his life’s work

Historian praised for ‘almost single-handedly creating the idea of Irish history in Britain’

Prof Foster said the teaching of Irish history is in an “excellent place” as evidenced by the commemorations of 2016. Photograph: Ianthe Ruthven

Prof Foster said the teaching of Irish history is in an “excellent place” as evidenced by the commemorations of 2016. Photograph: Ianthe Ruthven

 

For close on half a century Prof Roy Foster has been one of the most significant figures in Irish academia.

He is the author of the two volume series on the life of WB Yeats, Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, so long a standard textbook for history students, and most recently Vivid Faces, an intimate look at the revolutionary generation, to name but a few works of his works whose influence have spread far beyond academia.

Appropriately having spent countless hours in its reading room, Prof Foster was honoured by the National Library of Ireland at a seminar on Friday.

The library’s director Sandra Collins, said Prof Foster’s intervention had helped persuade a private donor to pledge substantial funds to acquire drawings and paintings to be added to the library’s Yeats’ exhibition.

She suggested he played a role too in the decision by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys to allocate €500,000 for the recent purchase of correspondence between Yeats and his wife George which was due to go to auction at Sotheby’s in London.

The archivist Caitríona Crowe said Prof Foster had “almost single-handedly created the idea of Irish history in Britain”.

His status as an Irish historian in Britain had given him a unique perspective on both areas, she suggested.

“There is no-one else like him that I can think of: enormously talented and productive, highly original, a beautiful prose writer and a passionate believer in the importance of history.”

For his part, Prof Foster paraphrased Peter Sutherland who once remarked when somebody was trying to praise him, “The difficulty is composing your features into the appropriate expression of humility”.

Prof Foster said he was particularly pleased that so many of his former students had appreciated his involvement in their careers and that his books had been praised by historians he admired.

He retired as Carroll Prof of Irish History at the University of Oxford last year and now has a part-time chair in Queen Mary University of London where he will teach on Irish history and literature.

He is also writing a short book about Séamus Heaney as part of the Princeton series of writers on writers.

Prof Foster said the teaching of Irish history is in an “excellent place” as evidenced by the commemorations of 2016.

“The kind of history that came out of it was more probing, more subversive, more interrogative and more nuanced than a lot of the work that 1966 generated,” he said.

He hopes the forthcoming centenaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War will be conducted in the same spirit of inquiry.

“In order to explore the actual reality of what happened, we have to accept there were conflicting commitments, conflicting traditions and conflicting realities,” he said.

“This will be even more so when we look at the conflicts of the disastrous and traumatic Civil War which left such a memory of hurt and agony and was suppressed in some ways in the public mind for decades.

“It is a big ask to take this on in the kind of exploratory way it should be. I am fairly confident we will do so. The way that partition was in part-imposed and in part reflected a pre-existing reality, I would like a lot more recognition of that. It’s been rather a lacuna in our historical writing.”