Obituary: Ronan Fanning

Authoritative Irish historian who spoke out on Rising and Home Rule commemorations

Ronan Fanning, professor emeritus of modern history at UCD, who has died aged 75, was "an important public intellectual", Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said this week. It is to be regretted that the country has lost him only half way through our so-called "decade of centenaries" during which he had spoken so authoritatively on Home Rule, the 1916 Rising and other subjects.

Ronan Fanning argued in The Irish Times (August 16th, 2014) that publicly commemorating the enactment of Home Rule in September 1914 would be unwise, contrary to the stance former taoiseach John Bruton had taken on the issue. Also in this paper (March 2nd, 2015), he urged Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour to take pride in their founding fathers' role in 1916. As a Sunday Independent columnist, he engaged with the public for many years.

Historian and long-time colleague at UCD Michael Laffan described him as “exceptionally bright, highly political, charming and great company, a formidable scholar who engaged in serious research and who wrote with a strong, vigorous style” and also as an “inspirational lecturer and powerful communicator on radio and TV”.

The managing editor of the Dictionary of Irish Biography and his UCD colleague of many years, James McGuire, said he was above all "a sources' historian with a deep appreciation of the importance of archives".


John Ronan Fanning was brought up in Sandymount, in Dublin. His father, Paddy, was a medical doctor and civil servant and his mother, Peggy Bristow from Preston in England, had been a teacher before marriage. He attended St Michael’s College, Ballsbridge and, when the family moved to Dún Laoghaire, switched to Christian Brothers College, Monkstown, where he was not happy.

Power plays

At UCD, he initially studied English before emerging with a first-class honours degree in history in 1963. He completed his doctorate in Peterhouse College, Cambridge on Arthur Balfour and unionism and tutored in Exeter University for a year before returning to lecture in Irish history in UCD in 1969.

During his year as Fulbright professor at the school of foreign service at Georgetown University (1976-77), he was introduced by Garret FitzGerald to Michael Lillis of Ireland's US Embassy in Washington. Lillis involved him in the John Hume initiative, together with Speaker O'Neill, Senators Kennedy and Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey, of persuading the US government to reverse its traditional policy of not taking a position on Northern Ireland (in keeping with the wishes of the British government).

According to Lillis, Fanning “immediately understood the enormous significance of Hume’s project. He had an unerring grasp of, and a relish for, the power plays of high politics . . . and became a valued contributor to our strategising sessions”. The United States’ historical announcement of support if a power-sharing administration could be formed in Northern Ireland was a key factor in delivering the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Belfast Agreement of 1998. “Ronan, ever discrete, typically never claimed a role in these matters but his contribution was important,” said Lillis.

The year after his sabbatical at Georgetown University saw the publication of his book The Irish Department of Finance 1922-1958, which broke new ground in research and went well beyond its given remit. Independent Ireland followed in 1983.

Controversial appointment

He was appointed to the chair of modern history at UCD in 1986. It was a controversial appointment as he had specialised in Irish history, of which there was a separate department in the college. Although the academic assessors, the Faculty of Arts and the Academic Council chose another candidate, the governing body and the NUI Senate opted for Fanning. His professorship lasted for 20 years until his retirement in 2007 and he was especially proud to occupy the chair formerly held by his esteemed mentor, Desmond Williams.

From the late 1980s, John Hume had held talks with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin with a view to bringing the IRA campaign to an end and engaging Sinn Féin in the political process. When knowledge of the talks became public, Hume was attacked from many sides but Fanning defended him in the Sunday Independent, for which he was criticised by fellow columnists such as Conor Cruise O'Brien, Ruth Dudley Edwards, John A Murphy and Eoghan Harris. What they did not know was that Hume had shown him notes of the meetings he had been having with Adams.

Fanning later remarked that of his fellow columnists, to his credit only Eamon Dunphy afterwards admitted that he (Fanning) was right and they were wrong.

A member of the Royal Irish Academy from 1989, he coedited their nine-volume Documents of Irish Foreign Policy with Caitríona Crowe, Michael Kennedy, Dermot Keogh and Eunan O'Halpin between 1998 and 2016. He was on the editorial board of the Dictionary of Irish Biography and wrote the entries for Éamon de Valera, Seán Lemass, Frank Aiken and Richard Mulcahy as well as reading all of the 20th-century entries.

Popular in Paraguay

He joint-wrote

Eliza Lynch: Scandal and Courage

, with Michael Lillis, which was published in 2009, about an Irish woman who became a national heroine in Paraguay. A film was made of the book by Alan Gilsenan, which is still very popular in Paraguay.

Following retirement, he published two further books that were very well received, Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution (2009) and Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power (2015). As well as being an avid reader and having an intense interest in politics, he enjoyed all types of sport. He also loved travelling and had an eclectic taste in music. Above all, he enjoyed socialising and good company and was an engrossing conversationalist.

His partner of 44 years, Virginia Caffrey, predeceased him in 2014. He is survived by his children Judith, Gareth and Tim, brothers Adrian and Paul, sisters-in-law Liz and Katherine, daughters-in-law Susan and Annalisa, Judith’s partner Kevin, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.