Irish historian who investigated exploits of British explorers

PROFESSOR DAVID BEERS QUINN: Professor David Beers Quinn, who died on March 19th aged 92, was a pre-eminent authority on European…

PROFESSOR DAVID BEERS QUINN: Professor David Beers Quinn, who died on March 19th aged 92, was a pre-eminent authority on European exploration and settlement in the Atlantic from the earliest Norse voyages to the outset of the 17th century.

An honorary fellow of the British Academy, he was the only historian from Ireland of his generation (and one of only two over the 20th century) who achieved international distinction in an area other than Irish history.

His career began with a King's College London Ph.D thesis on Tudor Rule in Ireland, 1485-1547. Between 1939-44, he lectured in Irish history at Queen's University and he was proud to accept honorary doctorates from both the University of Ulster and the National University of Ireland as well as those from several North American universities. Recently, he was one of four scholars awarded the prestigious Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he had been a member for nearly 60 years.

David Quinn maintained contact with Irish historical scholarship during a busy career in Britain, where he served as lecturer at Southampton, 1934-'39, as professor at Swansea 1944-'57, and latterly as Andrew Geddes and John Rankin professor of modern history at the University of Liverpool, 1957-'76.


During his occasional returns to Irish history he brought to it fresh insights, original perspectives, and novel methods. Some of these derived from his interest in geography and anthropology which had been quickened by his early association with E. Estyn Evans at Belfast, but he also consciously strove to link scholarly inquiry on early modern Ireland to that being pursued in British and US universities.

His most tangible contributions to Irish history are his book, The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966), and substantial essays in both the second and third volumes of the New History of Ireland (one in association with Kenneth Nicholls). His enduring influence on Irish history was to link England's involvement with Ireland with contemporaneous adventures in the Atlantic, and he was one of the prime movers behind the establishment of the Institute for Irish Studies at Liverpool University.

David Quinn's interest in the history of colonization was cultivated by Professor A. P. Newton, his Ph.D. supervisor at London, but the initial interest may have derived from his childhood years. He came from a colony within a colony, being of Church of Ireland parentage in the town of Clara, Co Offaly, then a predominantly Catholic town dominated by the Quaker Goodbody family.

He was born on April 24th, 1909, to Albertine (née Devine), and David Quinn, originally from Derry, who was a gardener for the Goodbody family. His mother came from Bandon, Co Cork.

He has written affectionately in Offaly: History and Society of his childhood years in Clara. The family moved to Belfast in 1922 in the interest of procuring further schooling for their son. David Quinn attended Inst (the Belfast Royal Academical Institution), where he was a close contemporary of both R.B. McDowell and Theo Moody, and later Queen's Belfast, where he followed in Moody's wake. He was again preceded to King's College London by Moody where they, along with Robin Dudley Edwards, studied for Ph.Ds in history.

David Quinn remained friendly with both Edwards and Moody (and also with McDowell), after the notorious rift of 1958 between those two doyens of Irish historiography, and made a point of staying on alternate turns in their houses whenever he visited Dublin. However, his career deviated from theirs not only because of their diverging interests and locations, but also because David Quinn, and his Scottish wife Alison (née Robertson), whom he married in 1937, became committed anti-fascists and dedicated participants in British politics of the left.

He was an active Labour Party member at constituency level, and a supporter of Tony Blair, but in his earlier years he was one of the Marxist academics who established the Past and Present Society, and was a member of the editorial board of the historical journal Past & Present during its early radical years.

His commitment to Marxism did not affect his concern for precise citation of historical evidence, but David Quinn obviously saw merit in bringing Ireland into the bigger picture of colonization to better expose the crass greed and blind prejudice which had been given scant attention in previous jingoistic treatments of English overseas endeavour.

His commitment to the left also explains David Quinn's concern to reach out to a popular audience while catering for an academic one. At least three of his books, Raleigh and the British Empire (1947); North America: From Earliest Discovery to First Settlement (1975), and his edition with Paul Hulton of The American Drawings of John White (1964), succeeded in meeting these dual objectives.

The academic reputation of David Quinn rests, however, on his close editing of documents (especially for the Hakluyt Society for which he served as president for many years) concerning individuals associated with England's great overseas explorers, ranging from Raleigh and Gilbert to Drake, Frobisher, Thomas Hariot, the Hakluyts and legions of others.

He also became deeply immersed in the controversies concerning European overseas endeavours such as the authenticity of the Vinland map; the whereabouts of the American landfall of Columbus; whether anonymous sailors from Bristol had preceded him to North America; and the precise location of the Jamestown landing of 1607.

Most of his contributions were brought together in his scholarly England and the Discovery of America, 1481-1620 (1974). His ultimate academic ambition, the massive five-volume New American World; A Documentary History of North America to 1612, which he edited with Alison Quinn and Susan Hilliard (1979), was published by a subsidiary of the New York Times, and was quickly sold out.

While his publications will be his monument, David Quinn devoted most of his time to teaching at undergraduate and graduate levels, to assisting Alison in raising their three children, Nicholas, Brigid, and Rory, and to encouraging younger scholars who shared his interests.

Particularly after their children had been raised, Alison moved beyond indexing his work (for which she had become a prize winner), to becoming co-author and co-editor of several of his later publications.

David Quinn's wife Alison died in 1993 and he is survived by his three children.

David Beers Quinn: born 1909; died, March 2002