Professor Ronan Fanning: A giant of Irish historiography
Ted Smyth reflects on the incisive intellect and modern mind that was Prof Fanning
Prof Ronan Fanning: Had a low tolerance for mediocrity. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The death of Ronan Fanning, a member of the Royal Irish Academy, professor emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin and former president of Irish Historical Sciences, is a serious blow to Irish historiography, to Irish political analysis and a tragic loss to his many friends.
The son of an Irish doctor and English Montessori teacher, Prof Fanning received his undergraduate degree from UCD and his doctoral thesis on “Balfour and Unionism” from Cambridge University. He was not only a brilliant scholar, but also a stylish writer who brought to his research a critical and independent judgment and an understanding of the intrigue and power struggles that characterise politics.
Possessed of a quick wit and a low tolerance for mediocrity, he took a special pleasure in understanding the personalities of politicians, generals and civil servants as they managed profound and unexpected challenges. Those who were lucky to be his friends or colleagues will remember his lively curiosity, his relish for good political gossip, his vivacious energy and love for being in the thick of things.
These qualities enabled Prof Fanning to provide invaluable context when he wrote on current or historical affairs. Last June, for example, he wrote in the Irish Times, “Brexit is Ireland’s biggest policy test since the second World War . . . the only global crisis since the establishment of the Republic in 1937-38 that has seriously threatened our pursuit of an independent foreign policy.”
In 1978, he wrote the outstanding book, The Irish Department of Finance, (1922-1958), hailed as a pioneering work on the transfer of power from the British government to the Irish administration of William Cosgrave and later to that of Éamon de Valera. The book describes the perennial struggle by politicians and civil servants to balance the budgets while also trying to fulfil the developmental promises of the Irish revolution. Sadly, it would not be until the 1960s that Ireland would escape the economic disadvantages of being a small, agricultural economy subject to the cheap food policy of Britain and beset by the Great Depression, the second World War and the recession of the 1950s.
Perhaps Prof Fanning’s most arresting book was Fatal Path, British Government and Irish Revolution, 1910-1922, published in 2013. The book illustrates how Ireland was a pawn in the efforts by Asquith and Lloyd George to preserve their prime ministerial careers.
As Prof Joe Lee wrote in the Irish Times’ review of the book, “Both (Prime Ministers) had to spend more time calculating the consequences of their policies for internal British politics, and their own positions, than for Anglo-Irish relations.” Prof Lee continues: “All this Fanning delineates with superb command of his material, not least in decoding the significance of what is not said as well as what is said in the innumerable documents he fillets, making it a joy to savour the brushwork of a master of his craft at the top of his form.”
Prof Fanning had a keen understanding of the importance of Irish American nationalism on Irish politics in the 20th century. This is well illustrated in chapter seven of Fatal Path, “Blood in their Eyes: The American Dimension”, a reference by the British ambassador to the US regarding Irish American attitudes to Britain.
On a personal level I had the privilege of getting to know Professor Fanning and his late wife Virginia (and young toddler, Timothy) when he was Fulbright Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 1976-1977, researching the triangular relationship between Britain, Ireland and the US.
Prof Fanning’s timing was particularly good as he received a unique insight into the diplomatic manoeuvring that led to the August 1977 groundbreaking statement by then US president Carter (strongly resisted by the British government and state department), which recognised an official role for Ireland in a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. Prof Fanning later documented the enormously positive role that then US presidents Reagan and Clinton made to the peace process as it developed following the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
In a review in the Guardian, Diarmaid Ferriter described Professor Fanning’s most recent book, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power, as “stylishly written, accessible, full of clarity and mature assessments”.
Roy Foster in a review in the London Spectator described it as a “crisp, economical but deeply thought-provoking biography”. In an earlier entry on “Dev” in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Fanning gives De Valera credit for protecting the security of the State.
However, he does not shrink from describing how De Valera inflamed the Civil War: “De Valera, in other words, was largely responsible for the dimensions, if not for the fact, of the civil war. By allowing those who took up arms against the treaty to draw on his authority, he conferred respectability on their cause it could never have otherwise attained. His behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty, in sum, was petulant, inflammatory, ill judged, and profoundly undemocratic.”
Anyone who wants to read a short but brilliant account of Ireland since 1922 should obtain Prof Fanning’s Independent Ireland published in 1983 in the Hellicon series of Irish History. The book cover depicts a cartoon in Dublin Opinion from July 1948 showing the removal of the statue of Queen Victoria from the front of the Irish parliament building. She is looking down at an enigmatic De Valera saying, “Begob, Eamon, there’s great changes around here.”
For many years Prof Fanning wrote on current affairs in the Sunday Independent and in 2009 co-wrote with former diplomat, Michael Lillis, a biography of Eliza Lynch. The book uses primary sources to rescue the Cork-born “Queen of Paraguay” from her notorious reputation invented by Paraguay’s enemies in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
As the relationship between Ireland and Britain changes post Brexit, and as US president-elect Donald Trump takes office in the United States, it remains to be seen what international role Ireland can play as the sole English-speaking member of the EU.
It is our loss that Ronan Fanning will not be writing authoritatively and incisively on these challenging times.
Ted Smyth is a former Irish diplomat and chairman of the Advisory Board of UCD Clinton Institute.