Historian of insight who enhanced scope and detail of Irish studies in US


Emmet Larkin:EMMET LARKIN was one of the major modern historians of Ireland and supporters of Irish studies in the United States. He taught at Brooklyn College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before going to the University of Chicago in 1966 where he was professor of British and Irish history until his retirement in 2006.

Born in New York in 1927, he served in the US army at the end of the second World War. His family were from Galway and his father had been involved in the Troubles.

Graduating in history from New York University (BA, 1950) and Columbia University (PhD, 1957) his first interest was in Jim Larkin and resulted in his 1965 book, James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, 1876-1947.

As a scholar, Larkin’s great contribution was in investigating the role of the Catholic Church in 19th-century Ireland. In 1972, he published a ground-breaking article, The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-75. In this he argued that the Irish people only became practising Catholics in the full sense outlined by the Council of Trent after the Famine. This was the time when Sunday Mass attendance rates and reception of the sacraments soared to levels maintained until the late 20th century. It was also the time of the institutional consolidation of Catholicism under Cardinal Cullen with the building of new churches and the founding of religious, educational and medical institutions.

In 1972, this seemed like a shockingly radical thesis when set against the myth of the unvarying constancy of Irish Catholics to their faith.

However, backed by Larkin’s gargantuan archival work, the notion of the devotional revolution took hold as a central way of interpreting the religious, social and political development of 19thcentury Ireland. It irritated him, however, to encounter degraded versions of his thesis shaped for current ends, particularly the notion that before the Famine Irish people were joyfully pagan, Celtic Tigerists avant la lettre though without the cash.

Properly understood, his work is equally subversive of current nostrums. According to his friend and fellow Irish-American historian, Lawrence J McCaffrey, Larkin believed that the Catholic Church “provided an impoverished and oppressed people with consolation, hope, discipline, and cultural and national identity”.

Over the years several arguments were made for locating the beginnings of the devotional revolution in the 1830s or even the 1790s. There had even been a devotional revolution of sorts among the Old English in the early 17th century. Ever the scholar of integrity, Larkin considered all these contributions and even admitted that perhaps his devotional revolution was a revolution with a small “r”. However, the work he did for his last book The Pastoral Role of the Roman Catholic Church in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1750-1850 (2006) convinced him his original thesis had been correct and that, with fewer clergy and a higher population, the devotional revolution could not have begun pre-Famine.

At the time of his death, Larkin was working on a further book, The Devotional Revolution in Ireland 1850-1880. Though unfinished, its central finding, reaffirming the importance of parish missions, has been published in journal article form. In his early writing Larkin saw the turn to Tridentine religion in functionalist terms, as a compensation for the loss of the Irish language as a marker of Irish identity. Latterly, he became more sympathetic to understanding the devotional revolution in terms of the self-declared motives of those involved to address a perceived “spiritual destitution” in the Irish population.

Between 1975 and 1996, he published seven volumes, with over 3,000 pages cumulatively, which charted the interaction of the Catholic Church, the British state and Irish nationalism between 1850 and the fall of Parnell. This was not religious but constitutional history. Larkin’s point was that the church and nationalists reached an accommodation that laid the foundation for the surprising political stability of modern Ireland and that, for example, enabled Ireland to resist fascism and remain one of the very oldest continuous democracies in the world.

Larkin was an inspiring teacher and generous to younger scholars. He was deeply committed to the scholarly and career success of his numerous graduate students. He was a New-Deal Democrat and this showed in the egalitarianism of the organisation he founded with McCaffrey in 1960, the American Conference for Irish Studies. The past 20 years has seen the development of well-resourced Irish studies programmes in the US.

Larkin and McCaffrey’s vision for the conference was different. They wanted to gather together scholars of Ireland working in a variety of institutional settings.

Larkin could sometimes be mischievous. When people would ask him if he had read a particular new study, he would cheerily reply that he was too busy writing history to read it.

Emmet Larkin was blessed with a happy family and was wonderfully cared for by his wife. He was, to use a term he employed of others, a great man and a friend to many. He is survived by his wife Dianne, his daughters, Heather and Siobhan, and his granddaughters, Alexis and Erin.

Emmet Larkin: born May 5th, 1927; died March 19th, 2012.