David Fitzpatrick obituary: ‘The most influential Irish historian of his generation’

Fitzpatrick made an outstanding and, at times, controversial contribution to Irish historiography at Trinity College

David Patrick Brian Fitzpatrick  
Born: May 25th, 1948 
Died: February 20th, 2018

Described by Roy Foster as “the most original and influential Irish historian of his generation”, David Fitzpatrick, who has died aged 70, was an Irish-Australian who made an outstanding and, at times, controversial contribution to Irish historiography in a career at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1979, where he was elected to fellowship, very unusually, after just three years, and which culminated in the university creating a special chair of history for him.

Starting at the University of Melbourne, he proceeded to Dublin via a PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge and post-graduate fellowships at Nuffield College, Oxford and Melbourne from 1971-1979.

His Cambridge thesis, a study of Co Clare during the revolutionary period from 1913 to 1921, resulted in his first full-length book, Politics and Irish Society (1977), one of the first works of professional history on an Irish theme to benefit from a rigorous application of statistical material to an often emotionally-charged narrative. His TCD colleague, Dr William (Bill) Vaughan, remarks of this that “you would be hard put to find a book” dealing with Irish history, published any earlier in the 20th century, which achieved this.


Careful and fastidious

UCD economic historian Prof Cormac Ó Gráda told The Irish Times this week that “David Fitzpatrick was a careful and fastidious historian. He will be remembered for his deep, sometimes contrarian, insights and for his takes on a bewilderingly wide range of themes.”

Viewed at from today’s perspective, Foster wrote in a paper delivered last year at TCD, at a symposium to mark Fitzpatrick’s retirement, that politics and Irish society “now seems to mark an important moment in Irish historiography . . . representing a new way to write about the upheavals of 1916-23: astringent, impartial, alert to contradiction and paradox, . . . widening the comparative and theoretical perspective on Irish experience”.

Very critical of previous historiography by some well-known Irish historians of earlier generations, Fitzpatrick eschewed hagiography and sentimentality, Foster remarking that “it takes apart the different worlds” of its subject matter, with a “caustic edge” and “sarcastically lapidary descriptions” of many of the people involved.

Fitzpatrick’s further work was especially distinguished by his studies of Irish emigration. Starting with a brief study in 1984, Irish Emigration 1801-1921, it culminated in what is probably his best-known and major work, Oceans of Consolation, (1995), another ground-breaking book, this time about Irish people’s experiences of emigration to Australia, based on exhaustive researches of letters sent home to relatives and friends in Ireland by people who had made new lives there.

It was a success both with the general public and with professional critics in journals including the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times Review of Books, bringing out another striking aspect of Fitzpatrick’s writing, well described by Foster last year in his TCD paper as “the ability to listen to the human voices of history” which sprang from “a unique sense of empathy [which] re-creates the world of forgotten people”.

Fitzpatrick also contributed two chapters on Irish emigration, one on the Irish in Britain, to the Oxford New History of Ireland, published under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he was elected a member. A new book, on the “Americanisation” of Irish culture, is due for publication this autumn.

Fitzpatrick’s interest in people was to the fore in his study of Irish Protestants after 1796, Descendancy (2014), which dealt with the lives of the ordinary Irish Protestants in the last two centuries, working and lower middle class people rather than the landed gentry; and in his three noted biographies, of War of Independence hero Harry Boland (2003), the Irish-speaking Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, Frederick MacNeice (father of the poet, Louis) (2012) and, most recently, of Ernest Blythe (2018) who had been, Fitzpatrick sensationally discovered, a member at one time of the Orange Order.

Sheer eclecticism

This sheer eclecticism manifested itself also in his lecture rooms and tutorials. Convinced that he had to understand his undergraduates better, Fitzpatrick became an avid fan of the Harry Potter series of novels, reading them on trains from Belfast, where he resided after his marriage to military historian Jane Leonard in 1999, and often dividing up his tutorial students into “wizards” and “muggles”, the better to get them to vigorously examine a subject for discussion.

A man of very wide interests, Fitzpatrick was a multi-instrumentalist musician, and, while at Oxford, learned how to programme a mainframe computer.

Fascinatingly, another academic colleague in historical studies, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes that crucial to Fitzpatrick’s story was his fraught relationship with his father, Brian Fitzpatrick, a famous Australian socialist journalist and historian of the mid-20th century, who had left his family while David was still a child, and who may have bequeathed a dislike of authority to his only son.

“David was very easy to deal with as a colleague, [but] he . . . always spoke his mind,” he says of this, adding that this independence of spirit probably influenced Fitzpatrick’s aloofness when it came to university politics – he refused, for instance, to join his colleagues in membership of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, and also his stout – and for him unusual – public defence of his former graduate student, the late historian Peter Hart, whose study of the IRA in Co Cork during the War of Independence and the Civil War, Violence and Community in Cork, attracted the ire of some staunchly nationalist commentators.

Fitzpatrick’s mother Dorothy (nee Davies) was also an historian, as was his only sibling, Sheila, who was renowned for her work on Soviet Russia. He is survived by his widow, and their children, Julia and Hannah, and by his first wife, Georgina (nee Haigh), also an academic, and their children, Brian and Meg, and by his sister.