Date of Passing: 22/05/2002
Oliver MacDonagh, one of the most distinguished historians of Ireland and Britain, died at the age of seventy-seven on 22 May 2002. He was born in Carlow in Ireland in 1924 and educated at the Jesuit College of Clongowes Wood, at University College Dublin and at Cambridge University. At the early age of twentyfive he was elected Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he married his beloved wife, Carmel, and where five of their seven children were born. In 1964 he became Foundation Professor at the new Flinders University in Adelaide, and in 1968 moved back to Ireland to take up the Chair in Modern History at University College, Cork. The remainder of Oliver MacDonagh’s long career was spent in Australia, where he was Hancock Professor of History in the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra from 1973 to 1989.
‘Those were glorious days’, he later observed. Oliver’s thirteen books and more than a hundred essays and learned articles reveal his remarkable range and versatility, his formidable intellect, and his superb literary style. He possessed an exceptional capacity to open up challenging new subjects and to throw fresh light on traditional areas. He was a great historian in part because he had a wonderful gift for words; the qualities he valued most in Jane Austen’s writing, ‘her alloy of precision and elegance’, shone through his own work. He wrote clearly and exactly to depict and analyse his chosen topics in the most effective way for particular audiences, well illustrated by his works of synthesis and original interpretation of Irish history. His brilliant States of Mind, published in 1985, offered illuminating insights and fresh perspectives on seemingly familiar Irish subjects, while developing an original focus on conceptual topics such as time and place. By contrast, his Sharing of the Green, written in retirement, sought to educate a popular Australian audience about Irish history, to dispel some of the myths which evolved over time among Irish migrants.
Oliver’s path-breaking work on the nineteenth century revolution in British government marked him out early in his career as one of those rare historians who open up significant new territory by a combination of brilliant insight and meticulous primary research.
His original model for the growth of the collectivist state, developed in a seminal article in the Historical Journal in 1958, stimulated an important and extensive historiographical debate; to this he contributed his own classic, Pattern of Government Growth, in 1961, and his interpretative synthesis, Early Victorian Government, in 1977, written for the ‘plain reader - the sober undergraduate’.
Oliver was also a masterly biographer who re-evaluated his subjects and their worlds, skilfully counterpointing their private and public lives. The Inspector General: Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick and Social Reform, 1783-1802, published in 1981, remained one of his favourites among his own books. One of his greatest achievements was his outstanding two-volume biography of the Irish nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell, a towering figure in Irish history whose extraordinary political contribution was not previously appreciated.
Oliver MacDonagh’s splendid study of Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds (1991) reveals an entirely different dimension of his art as an historian. Jane Austen had long fascinated him as ‘the finest “historian’s novelist”’, born with ‘microscopic vision’ of English social life from 1792 to 1817. He adopted a ‘circling technique’ which involved the exploration of six major topics through chapters focused on Austen’s novels – religion was studied through Mansfield Park, the female economy through Pride and Prejudice, and families through Persuasion. The interplay was between Jane Austen’s ‘real world’ as she experienced it, and as historians have reconstructed it, and the ‘imagined world’ of her novels, with all their subtle connections and counterpoints. Also in retirement he wrote a series of autobiographical essays on aspects of his childhood in the west of Ireland in the 1930s, again employing the oblique ‘circling technique’, including an essay on Irish rugby. It is to be hoped this volume of essays will be published.
Oliver excelled at everything he did. He was a powerful public lecturer, and a superb and generous supervisor of his graduate students at the Australian National University. His talents in administration and committee work, in his various universities and at the Academy of the Social Sciences, were impressive, if sometimes underestimated because of his quiet courtesy and his self-deprecating manner. He was a creative administrator, highly respected and trusted. His diplomatic and legal skills combined with his rapid mastery of complex paperwork to make him a firm, even tough, leader when required.
He was responsible for two significant initiatives in the wider promotion of History during his years at the Australian National University. He actively encouraged Irish-Australian immigration history and organised a series of successful biennial conferences on Irish-Australia, bringing together scholars of both, as well as enthusiastic members of the community. He also conceived the idea for the grand bicentennial project, The Australians, jointly carried through in an effective partnership with Ken Inglis, with Oliver as chair of the management committee. This was an innovative multi-volume collaborative history, drawing on Oliver’s experience with the New History of Ireland project, modified by the ‘slice approach’ suggested by Ken Inglis, which offered a cross-section of society across many themes at fifty-year intervals. Oliver’s career concluded with a two-year term as Executive
Director of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia from 1991 to 1992. Peter Sheehan, then President of the Academy,considered that Oliver’s contributions were immense. ‘He brought quiet but incisive insights to how the Academy should proceed and was always acutely conscious of its good standing and professionalism. His words and actions were always totally divorced from self-interest and unerringly in touch with what was best for the Academy’. Oliver was elected to three national academies in addition to ASSA – the British, the Royal Irish and the Australian Academy of the Humanities – and was honoured by the award of Hon DLitt by Flinders and Sydney Universities and the National University of Ireland.
Oliver MacDonagh’s life and his work were profoundly influenced by his devout Catholic faith, and above all by his loving and supportive family. His strong family life was the foundation, for him, of all else, providing a superb balance to a demanding scholarly and administrative career. Oliver was a kind and gentle man, a loyal and supportive friend, and a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather to Carmel, his seven children and eleven grandchildren. He is sadly missed by us all, though he lives on through his books and in our memories.