James Camlin Beckett (1912 - 1996):
Professor JC Beckett, one of the most distinguished of Irish historians, was born in Belfast and educated at The Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Queen's University, Belfast, where he graduated with First Class Honours in Modern History in 1934. He taught at Belfast Royal Academy for 11 years, and was appointed Lecturer in History at Queen's University in 1945, having completed an MA dissertation, later published in book form as Protestant Dissent in Ireland 1687-1780. He was promoted to Reader in 1952, was a Fellow Commoner at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, 1955-1956, and was awarded a personal chair in Irish History at Queen's University in 1958, which he held until his retirement in 1975, when he was designated Emeritus Professor. He then spent some time abroad, including in such posts as Cummings Lecturer at McGill University, Montreal in 1976 and Mellon Professor at the University of Tulane, New Orleans, in 1977.
Beckett's significance as an Irish historian starts with his being one of an energetic and ambitious generation of Irish historians who came to prominence in the 1930s, and who brought a new and groundbreaking approach to Irish historiography, one described, not least by the historians themselves, as "scientific", and which sought objectivity based an rigorous fact-based methodologies, to sit alongside and even directly challenge the two dominant paradigms of Irish historiography in the early 20th century or, as a later Queen's historian expressed it, to lift the study of Irish History above the maelstrom of Irish politics, and to set it on a plateau of objective scientific [a common refrain] inquiry. The two then-predominant paradigms have been described as being one rooted in separatist Republicanism, the other avowedly Unionist. Probably the principal proponents of the new approach were TW Moody at Queen's University and Robert Dudley Edwards at University College, Dublin, though Beckett was without any doubt a highly significant "lieutenant". This new "voice" was expressed principally through such media as the journal Irish Historical Studies.
His long tenure as a teacher meant that he influenced a younger generation of historians. But his teaching duties did not get in the way of Beckett's writing: his list of publications represents a prolific output. Possibly his most significant single work was The Making of Modern Ireland published in 1965. It was immediately peer-accepted as a masterwork, the fruit of the most assiduous and skilful work. Professor David Quinn (who had been a lecturer in modern history at Queen's University for five years) described it as ‘not only learned but cool, objective, unimpassioned and yet always alive and compassionate as well'. Not only did it secure Beckett's international reputation, it is still regarded as little less than as a canonical textbook a secondary as well as tertiary educational institutions. It had a predecessor in Beckett's A Short History of Ireland which had appeared in 1952 and was by any standards a publishing success, running to several editions, a German translation and even a handsomely-produced Japanese-language version (Airurando shi, 1978). Another magnum opus, written together with Moody, was the imposing and impressively scholarly Queen's, Belfast 1845-1949: The History of a University (published 1959), whose nearly 1,000 pages run to two volumes and occupied the writers for two years, alongside their teaching loads.
Other publications included The Anglo-Irish Tradition (1976), his personal favourite among his books, which examined this section of Irish society down through the independence of the Irish Free State in 1921 and argued that the Anglo-Irish tradition is an essential part of the life of Ireland, whose "roots ran deep into the Irish past...to a little band of Anglo-Norman adventurers who arrived in Ireland in the reign of Henry II" (that is, the later 12th century and hence nothing generically to do with Protestantism). He described the book in the Prologue as "a work of reflection rather than of research", adding that the reflection in question had covered a period of 30 years.
In one way he was certainly abreast of the times: his use of the radio. Working with Moody, he edited two radio series for the BBC as early as the 1950s. They were later published as two books: Ulster since 1800: A Political and Economic Survey (1954) and Ulster since 1800: A Social Survey (1957). A further series was created, with Robin E Glasscock, then of the Department of Geography at Queen's University, which was published as Belfast: Origins and Growth of an Industrial City in 1967. He was a frequent contributor to other books and learned journals. His last published work was another personal favourite: The Cavalier Duke: a life of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, 1610-1688 which appeared in 1990.
Beckett, it was said, rather cultivated a persona of a rather fusty academic, refusing (though as noted he was certainly not averse the medium of radio) to own a television, and insisting on more traditional notions of formality and courtesy - one was discouraged from addressing him as "Jim" until a certain level of acquaintanceship had been attained - though all who knew him attested to his warm personality and hospitality, modesty, kindness and love of good conversation. A man of religious and ecclesial sensibilities and convictions, he was a devoted member of and from 1948 a lay reader of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. His literary interests were not confined to the heritage of the English language: he was a keen student of Norway's language and literature.
Beckett was honoured by his membership of, and brought his distinction to, the Royal Irish Academy, the distinguished all-Ireland learned body - in fact, Ireland's premier organisation of its kind - dedicated to studies in the sciences and humanities. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the leading scholarly historical organisation in the United Kingdom. He was a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1959-1986, and of the Royal Commission on Historical manuscripts, 1960-1986. He was also a Vice-President of the Linen Hall Library, Belfast. He was awarded honorary doctorates by Queen's University, Belfast (DLitt, 1980), the New University of Ulster and the National University of Ireland.
He died on 12 February 1996 and was buried at Ballinderry, near Lisburn, County Antrim.
A Jackson & DN Livingstone, Queen’s Thinkers, Belfast 2008; History Ireland, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 1996); Beckett, The Anglo-Irish Tradition
© 2018 Ulster History Circle