Hugh Kearney – An Appreciation

Historian with deep interest in Irish and British cultural identities

During his time at UCD, my father developed a lifelong love of Irish history

During his time at UCD, my father developed a lifelong love of Irish history


One of my earliest memories is being taken by my father to feed the ducks in Stephen’s Green. It turned into a memorable afternoon as we were captured on camera for footage being gathered for the first night of RTÉ. As he would always say, “You were on Irish television before Eamon de Valera was!” He was passionate about sharing his love of Dublin with us.

In the 1950s Hugh Kearney (January 22nd, 1924, to October 1st, 2017) was a history lecturer at UCD, a job he took after leaving Peterhouse, Cambridge. He had won a scholarship there from a grammar school in Liverpool. Those years in Dublin were some of the happiest in his life, working in a very lively history department. Garret FitzGerald once told me that no party was complete without someone falling down the steps outside his house.

During that time at UCD, my father developed a lifelong love of Irish history. His first book Strafford in Ireland (published in 1959 and reprinted in 2008) was about a man , according to my father, “who still remains, three centuries after his execution in 1641, one of the most controversial figures in the history of these islands”.

That passion for Irish history and culture remained when he moved from Dublin to the newly built – and muddy – University of Sussex in the early sixties.

Together with a colleague from the English department, he taught a course in Yeats and Joyce, which he told me in a BBC radio programme was one of the most intellectually stimulating times he had had as an academic.

During those years my father also became interested in the history of science and published Origins of the Scientific Revolution in 1967 and Science and Change 1500-1700 in 1970. Not long afterwards there came Scholars and Gentlemen: Universities and Society in Pre-Industrial Britain.

After we moved to Edinburgh, where he became the Richard Pares Professor of History, my father began to develop his interest in the many different cultural identities which developed over time in the islands of Britain and Ireland. It was there he began to learn Irish, which certainly didn’t come naturally but he relished the etymology of words, like “pogue”, being derived from the Latin pax vobiscum, the kiss of peace.

He and my mother Kate went to Irish summer school at Lisdoonvarna.

His time in Edinburgh and a later sabbatical in Wales meant he was very well placed to write his most important book which took nearly two decades of work. The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, ranges from prehistory to the present day. It stemmed from his conviction that much of British history was far too Anglocentric and ignored the “archipelago” of identities in these islands. He believed that many crucial historical events like the Roman and Norman conquests transcended modern political boundaries. These were ideas which he developed further in his final book, Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History.

Teaching was as important as writing and research to my father.

In his 20 years as Amundson Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, he enjoyed being able to focus on classes rather than administration.

While my brothers Jamie, Peter and I are very proud of Dad’s academic achievements, it’s our funny, kind father we shall miss: the man who enjoyed embarrassing his children by imitating John Cleese’s silly walks in the street, who was equally at home watching Liverpool FC as at high table at a Cambridge college.