One of the first priests to attend Cambridge since the Reformation
Rev. Dr Brendan Bradshaw – Born: May 28th, 1937; Died: December 10th, 2017
Liz Kendall MP said that he had a huge impact on her life, that ‘he opened my eyes and my mind and gave me the confidence to always think for myself’
Rev Dr Brendan Bradshaw, the eminent historian of early-modern Ireland, has died aged 80. He was to the forefront of the long-running debate about “revisionism” in Irish history, a debate which showed the robust good health of Irish historical studies during his lifetime, to which he contributed greatly.
In an interview in History Ireland (spring, 1993), he said: “I feel that my mission is to show that you can interpret Irish history another way, to attempt to capture the reality of that experience in all its grandeur and nobility, in all its tragedy and pain, as well as in all its shame. I want to show you I can do that in a fully scholarly way and that there is a rational conceptual framework which will justify that approach to history.”
He spent most of his teaching life at Cambridge and many of his former students have paid tributes to him. Caroline Humfress, Prof in Medieval History at the University of St Andrews, described him as her inspiration and a most wonderful teacher; “if it were not for him, all those years ago, this girl from Hexham would never have even dreamt that she could be a teacher herself”.
Liz Kendall MP said that he had a huge impact on her life, that “he opened my eyes and my mind and gave me the confidence to always think for myself”. Dr Margaret O’Callaghan, of Queen’s University Belfast, referred to his sense, wit, humour, edge and warmth being all of a piece. “Though he was a proud Limerick man, he was most proud, I think, of being an Irish man who sought to give the Irish past its truth.”
He was reared in St Mary’s Parish in Limerick city. His father, Kevin, took the anti-Treaty side and fought in the Civil War, afterwards becoming a local Fianna Fáil politician and twice mayor of Limerick. He ran a small mineral-water business. His mother, Annie Harrison, worked in her family’s retail business before becoming a full-time homemaker; she was pro-Treaty.
After attending primary school at Creagh Lane Boys’ National School and secondary at Sexton Street CBS, he joined the civil service. Following five years in the then Department of Posts and Telegraphs, he joined the Marist Order in 1960. He did a BA in Irish and History and an MA in History in UCD. He was ordained in 1969 and the following year, his UCD tutor, Rev FX Martin OSA, arranged for him to apply for a scholarship to do a PhD in Cambridge.
He became one of the first Catholic priests to study at Cambridge in almost 400 years, ie since the time of the Reformation. The subject of his thesis was Irish constitutional change in the 16th century, for which he received a doctorate in 1975. Having spent two years teaching in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, he returned to Cambridge, where he remained in different roles until his retirement due to ill health in 2001. For some years, he was Director of Studies at Girton College.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he delivered a critique of contemporary Irish historical scholarship that could be broadly described as anti-revisionist. In the History Ireland interview mentioned above, he expressed the belief that Irish historiography took a wrong turn in the 1930s when it tried to treat history writing as a science. The result was not only a debunking of the history that had been written up to that time but also a debunking of the reality behind it. It drained Irish historiography of its emotional and moral content, he felt. The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the violence in Northern Ireland exacerbated the situation, he believed, because historiography was made to serve a contemporary political agenda. He described historians such as David Fitzpatrick, Roy Foster and Ronan Fanning as “aggressive” and “anti-traditionalist” in their revisionism.
Among his major publications are The Dissolution of the Religious Orders in Ireland under Henry VIII (1974); The Irish Constitutional Revolution in the 16th Century (1979); Humanism, Reform and Reformation: The Career of Bishop John Fisher (ed., with Eamon Duffy, 1989); The British Problem c. 1534-1707: State Formation in the Atlantic Archipelago (ed., with John Morrill, 1996); British Consciousness and Identity: The Making of Britain 1533-1707 (ed., with Peter Roberts, 1998); Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the Story (ed., 2003); Representing Ireland: Literature and the Origins of Conflict 1534-1660 (ed., with Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, 2009); And So Began the Irish Nation: Nationality, National Consciousness and Nationalism in Pre-Modern Ireland (2015).
Earlier in life, he had a passion for classical music and loved to attend recitals and, being a Limerick man, also had a keen interest in rugby. But as time went on his work became his life, to the ultimate detriment of his health.
He is survived by his brother John, sisters Maire Bradshaw Tierney and Claire Scott-Lennon, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.