A perspective on Irish studies

 

When Marianne Elliott was growing up on a mixed housing estate in north Belfast, she little thought that one day she'd be collecting an Order of the British Empire (OBE) from the Queen of England.

She describes her family - a Co Kerry mother and a Belfast father - as romantic nationalists rather than militant nationalists. Her parents had met in Dublin back in the 1940s, when he was in the Army. Her father's ill-health brought them back to Belfast, shortly before Elliott was born.

The OBE - awarded last June for services to Irish studies and the Northern Ireland peace process - startled her.

"It did feel strange," she recalls. "But even though I'm from an Irish nationalist background, I was really pleased that the work I have been doing for things Irish was getting recognition." Elliott is professor of Irish history at the University of Liverpool and director of the Institute of Irish Studies there.

A member of the Opsahl Commission, a citizen's inquiry into the conflict of Northern Ireland (1992-9), Elliott's most recent book, The Catholics of Ulster: A History was shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize. It was nine years in the writing - in the evenings and at weekends. Her current project, Robert Emmet: the Making of a Legend, will take three years, she predicts. She's on the board, too, of Encounter (formerly Anglo-Irish Encounter), a think-tank funded by the Irish and British governments, which brings together experts on issues of importance to both.

In 1976, along with Professor Roy Foster, she set up the Conference of Irish Historians in Britain, to bring together established historians and younger scholars. "A lot of people who are key historians in Britain today came up through the conference," she says.

These days, Elliott lives her life at breakneck speed - writing, administering, teaching, guest lecturing. When we meet in Dublin, she's on route to give the keynote address at an NUI Maynooth conference on civil society and conflict resolution.

Back in Liverpool, she regularly hosts major figures involved in the peace process. "At the institute we've always had an interest in facilitating people associated with the Northern Ireland peace process." Guest lecturers include every Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and many people from the Republic, she says. A collection of the institute's peace lectures is due to be published in April.

Elliott is a product of the Dominican Fortwilliam College, north Belfast, and QUB. Queen's, she says, was a fantastic experience. "It was the end of the 1960s - just before the Troubles. I was in the early civil rights marches. There was such a great atmosphere - before things turned nasty. There were thousands of us - the camaraderie was great. We thought the world was at our feet." Although there were few Catholics on the Queen's staff, the student population was mixed. Her closest friends were Presbyterian.

It was Elliott's plan to do postgraduate studies at TCD and, hopefully, spend the rest of her life in Dublin. Instead, she went to Oxford where Prof Richard Cobb, whose expertise was on the French Revolution, supervised her PhD.

"Coming from a working-class Belfast background, Oxford was a bit daunting at first," she recalls. "I didn't know what to expect. The only other Irish person I encountered was Martin Mansergh." In the event, Oxford proved wonderful. "I was totally accepted. I felt the tutors regarded me as something exotic. They had never come across a female Belfast Catholic before. I made great friends there."

If Elliott found Oxford a cinch, life post-Lady Margaret Hall was problematic. "By the time I finished, there was a real crisis in British universities - the bottom had fallen out of the jobs' market. I was meeting the same people at interviews - people who went on to become leading academics."

Eventually, Elliott secured a permanent post at an education training college in London. "Stupidly I threw it up, because by this stage I was married and my husband was working at Swansea University." Elliott got a fellowship there and stayed on to teach. Not a wise career move, she adds. "Taking on temporary posts is not the way to make progression." The Elliotts moved to the US to Iowa State University and then to the University of South Carolina, where she translated Richard Cobb's The People's Army from the original French into English. When the University of South Carolina offered her a job, she jumped at it. Unfortunately, Trevor Elliott was returning to Liverpool to take up the chair of geology, and she had to spend time in South Carolina alone.

"It's hard if both of you are academics." she says. "There are very few positions in academia and the chances of getting jobs together are minimal.

"I didn't get back on track until Roy Foster was appointed to the Carroll chair of Irish history at Oxford and I succeeded him at Birbeck College, University of London, as a lecturer in modern history."

Elliott describes Birbeck as one of the most vibrant employment experiences of her life. "My colleagues - all top historians - were totally supportive. I was promoted very quickly in Birbeck and was given a readership within 14 months of my arrival."

On the personal front, though, life was tough. "By this stage we had a two-year-old boy, Marc, and I was going down to London on a Monday and coming back on a Friday. It was very hard on family life. I have a saint of a husband." In 1993, Elliott was appointed to the University of Liverpool's chair of history and four years later was invited to assume directorship of the Institute of Irish Studies there.

The institute offers a full range of programmes at undergraduate, postgraduate and continuing education levels. A high proportion of the students are mature, she says. At Liverpool, joint degree programmes are a popular option and offer students the chance to take Irish studies as a second subject.

"People with a whole range of degrees are coming out with some knowledge of Ireland. It's a great way of raising consciousness."

Factfile

Education: Fort William College, Belfast. QUB (BA history), Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (PhD).

Family: married to Dr Trevor Elliott, professor of geology, University of Liverpool. One son, Marc, aged 12.

Hobbies: running and swimming.

Holidays: I felt the tutors regarded me as something exotic. They had never come across a female Belfast Catholic before