Professors of history are not usually renowned for their good humour, sunny disposition or genuine warmth towards students in the lecture theatre. Hugh Kearney was such a person however, a historian with a famously light touch who challenged students and readers of his superbly researched books to view the pasts of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales as inseparable.
Professor Kearney, who has died aged 93, taught at Edinburgh University for five years. He argued that key events, from the Roman conquest to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, affected the region as a whole. Through his book The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, Kearney, sought to alter the way the islands’ occupants viewed their past. Before its publication, in 1989, the writing of the histories of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales had tended to be separate, narrowly national projects, with that of England given primacy. Hugh adopted a quite different perspective.
John Joseph Lee, Professor of History at New York University, says Kearney maintained that key events from the Roman conquest, Viking invasions and the Norman conquest to the civil wars of the 17th century and the Industrial Revolution affected the region as a whole, transcending “the national boundaries of a later date”.
His challenge to the prevailing Anglocentricity was better appreciated by the time of the book’s second edition (2006). The pan-Britannic perspective he took of the whole archipelago, from prehistory to the present day, became ever more relevant for contemplating the current state of relations between Scotland and the three other nations of the United Kingdom, and between them and the European Union.
Kearney’s final book, Ireland: Contested Ideas of Nationalism and History (2007), contains reprints of many of his challenging articles on Irish history, revolving around Anglo-Irish relations and based on voracious reading transcending disciplinary and national boundaries, not least on the role of nationalism in eastern Europe.
In this book, he poses questions of enduring relevance, particularly in the current Brexit debate: “Who is included in the Irish nation? How does its soft northern border relate to religion, ethnicity, languages and civic commitment? How should its history be taught?”
Born in Liverpool, Professor Kearney was named after his father, a First World War ambulance driver who went on to work for the Co-op. Martha (née Thomas), his mother, ran a number of market stalls. He attended St Francis Xavier college, from where he won a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge, starting on his history studies in 1942 and graduated from there after Second World War army service.
After working for Manchester University Press, in 1950, he became a lecturer at University College Dublin. His colleagues there included Owen Dudley Edwards. Professor Lee, who was a student there, said: “I heard his lectures which were models of how to inspire students through an almost casual conversational style, to think for themselves, and engage with all sides before venturing to a conclusion.”
It was in Dublin that Kearney met his wife, Catherine (Kate) Murphy, a student from Tyrone, Northern Ireland. They married in 1956, and had three children, Martha, Jamie and Peter. At UCD, he embarked on research, which led to the publication of his thesis, Strafford in Ireland 1633-41: A Study in Absolutism (1959), which has done much to transform views of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who was appointed lord deputy of Ireland by Charles I, but ultimately impeached and executed for his tyrannical conduct.
A series of positive reviews led to Kearney’s appointment in 1962 as a lecturer at the new University of Sussex. In teaching, as in writing, he stuck to the view that “conflicting interpretations are a commonplace of historical writing, but once their existence is recognised, the historian is no longer free to adopt the simplicity of one point of view alone”. Lee says his interests “broadened in this stimulating environment”, and two more books resulted: Scholars and Gentlemen: Universities and Society in Pre-industrial Britain,1500-1700 (1970) and Science and Change, 1500-1700 (1971).
In 1970 Kearney went to Edinburgh University as professor, but Lee says that “after the flexibility of Sussex, he found the rigidity of hierarchical status and disciplinary boundaries deeply frustrating”.
Prof Lee adds: “Hugh’s gentle disposition could conceal an intense ambition to push back the frontiers of historical understanding and, after five years, his preference for collegiality and inter-disciplinarity took him to the University of Pittsburgh, where he had already been a visiting professor. There he did much of the reading for The British Isles, and found much satisfaction in a department that was a pioneering centre of social history.”
Hugh Kearney’s daughter Martha, the television and radio journalist and presenter, said the Dublin years were some of the happiest in her father’s life. Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret FitzGerald once told her that no party was complete without someone falling down the steps outside his house. In Sussex in the early sixties, he taught a course in Yeats and Joyce, which he told her was one of the most intellectually stimulating times he had had as an academic.
She added: “After we moved to Edinburgh, where he became the Richard Pares Professor of History, my father began to develop his interest in the many different cultural identities which developed over time in the islands of Britain and Ireland. Under the influence of Professor Kenneth Jackson, he began to engage with Gaelic culture in Scotland. Always interested in etymology, he often used to quote Macbeth “kerns and galloglasses” which has the same roots as the surname Kearney.
“Scotland provided the opportunity to visit many historical sites. He originally met my mother through their shared interest in archaeology. There were many family outings to Linlithgow Castle, one of his favourites. It was in Edinburgh that he began a lifelong love of sailing at Aberdour in Fife. The family lived in Regent Terrace, which he bought for £12,000 in 1971, a house untouched for 60 years with original gaslight fittings and wooden telephones. He loved the view of Arthur’s Seat from the windows.”
She said teaching was as important to her father as writing and research and that in his 20 years as Amundson Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, he enjoyed being able to focus on classes rather than administration.
Following his retirement in 1999, Professor Kearney and his wife moved to Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk. She and his children, Martha, 60, Jamie, 58, and Peter, 57, survive.