The Canny approach welcome


THE EDUCATION PROFILE: PROFESSOR NICHOLAS CANNY, PRESIDENT ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY:He has been described as ‘our most prominent international historian’, but now he must secure the future of one of the Republic’s quiet institutions – the Royal Irish Academy

PROFESSOR NICHOLAS CANNY has been described as our most prominent international historian. However, he is not part of Ireland’s celebrity scholar set. The names of Diarmuid Ferriter and Richard Aldous will be more familiar to the public.

Last year Canny took over the presidency of an organisation that once retained a similar distance from the plain people of Ireland: The Royal Irish Academy.

Now that funding streams are dammed and taxpayers are reading the bills, State-supported institutions such as the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) cannot afford splendid isolation. In his new role, Canny will have to project his image and that of the Royal Irish Academy into the public mind.

There is already progress. The RIA publication Judging Dev and Our War reached a huge audience, amplified by savvy tactics such as a tie-in TV series and a teachers’ pack. Other projects such as the CNBC series The Irish Mind demonstrates how the academy is speaking in the vernacular. Next time you hear an astrophysicist on Gerry Ryan, thank the RIA. However, there is more to be done before the academy is publicly recognised as the “university of universities” that Canny wants it to be.

“The Royal Irish Academy has not defined itself clearly enough,” says one leading academic. “The academic community generally has failed to explain the purpose of research – especially in the art and humanities. The RIA needs to take leadership in this regard. It’s nice to bring scholars to Dawson Street, but the time has come to speak to a wider audience.”

Canny’s academic journey recommends him to the task. An Ennis man and a vice-president of research at NUI Galway, he is the first RIA leader to come from beyond the Pale in more than a century. Canny has studied at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Yale and, with Séamus Heaney, is one of only two Irish fellows of the British Academy and the American Philosophical Society. Canny is comfortable with wide audiences.

His grasp of the big picture informs his scholarship and explains his international renown. Canny is, with DB Quinn, a founding father of Atlantic history; a distinct branch of historical research that connects the Irish experience to that of the Americas, Africa and Europe. Atlantic history compares economics, politics, science and society across a vast area of the globe and builds on new notions of global history. There is nothing parochial about Nicholas Canny.

His new position demands a great deal of him. His words in the RIA annual review have left him hostage to some intrepid goals. He makes no secret of his antipathy towards the commercialisation of the university sector.

“This agenda, to which all university heads subscribe, is clearly enervating, but I do not think that sufficient consideration has been given to the feasibility of this great leap forward, either in its totality or in its detail,” Canny writes. He goes on to suggest that the academy, as an independent broker in higher education, should take on the debate about the role of the university in society free, as he puts it, of the “inter-institutional rivalries that have become exacerbated as the transformation drive has proceeded.”

A greater challenge for the RIA, however, is holding on to its money. All core funding comes from the Higher Education Authority. Finance for individual projects comes from a variety of sources, but some wells have run dry. “We used to have corporate sponsorship from the banking sector. As you can imagine, that’s gone now,” says an insider. “All our core funding is from government and like a lot of groups, the academy is under pressure to justify its expenditure to the public.”

Achieving that will take a forceful personality and absolute commitment to the venture. Canny’s passion for the task is not in question. In his role as VP for research in NUI Galway he raised funding for a variety of projects and was credited, along with TCD president Dr John Hegarty, with pushing the development of State funding for humanities research. (Hegarty has been accused of abandoning the humanities watch in Trinity, but his work with Canny challenges that view).

The president of the RIA receives no salary, and after 65 accomplished years, the eminent historian is hardly concerned with adding to his CV. Professor Canny has been regarded as the leading authority on early modern Irish history for 30 years. His 1976 study The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland, based on his PhD studies in the US, brought him international acclaim. He is the only two-time winner of the Irish Historical Research Prize.

In 1971 Canny was awarded a Fulbright-Hayes post-doctorate fellowship to Harvard and Yale. He became famous for his work on the ideology of colonisation, which broadened the Irish experience and connected it to a global readership. His ability to take local themes and connect them to far-flung audiences has defined his scholarship, according to his fans.

“Nicholas has done a huge amount for the reputation of Ireland as a centre of humanities research,” says a fellow historian. “He is a meticulous empirical researcher and always connects his work back to the source.” He has nine major books and more than 55 academic papers and reviews to his name.

Canny has been known to kick up the dust in academic discourse. His debates with fellow historians, such Brendan Bradshaw of Cambridge University and Ciaran Brady of TCD, are infamous in scholarly circles. His assessment of the impact of the Plantations in Ireland has been slammed, notably by Ray Gillespie, and he also sparked an academic furore with his views on the failure of the Reformation in Ireland.

To the average Gerry Ryan listener, however, these are arcane squabbles. Canny will need to help the public connect with Irish research. “The promotion of humanities research is Nicholas’s pet project,” says one educational leader. “His heart and his head are in it. However, he has proven, through his work in NUI Galway, to be more than a scholar. He’s a formidable administrator and powerful communicator, too.”

Since coming to the academy, Canny has established two major national research projects – the Digital Humanities Observatory and the Art and Architecture of Ireland project. Both are designed to bring scholarship into the public realm.

Telling people why they should spend money on history is a tiny part of Canny’s remit. The RIA is charged with advancing research across all disciplines. Atlantic history is, by its nature, multidisciplinary and Canny has recently focused his attention on the sciences. He is currently comparing French and English writing on the natural history of the Atlantic world.

“Nicholas embodies the notion of creating networks of knowledge that erase traditional borders of scholarship,” says a former colleague. “He looks outward, both geographically and academically. He is the 21st century equivalent of William Petty, Ireland first statistician.”

Most importantly, says an old friend, Canny is a gossip. “He’s warm and positive and loves to gossip. He knows how important it is, when making decisions, to be aware of what people are saying on the ground. He doesn’t like managerial speak. He has a great capacity for making friends.”

If Canny can befriend the Irish public over the next two years he will have done a very important job at the RIA.