Professor J. Otway-Ruthven (1909-1989)

In the coming months, Tinteán will attempt a short, ‘Brief Lives’, series on ‘Irish History Professors in Irish Universities’. The essays are written by distinguished historians about scholars who inspired them. Let’s see how the series develops. It will be good to include some Australian-Irish historians as well.

I would like to thank Deirdre McMahon for her permission to use her entry on Professor Otway-Ruthven in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia (slightly adapted here)

Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven (1909-1989)

by Deirdre McMahon

Creative Commons-Share Alike 4.0 International. author Jane Maxwell63

Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, who would be named one of the first women fellows at Trinity College, was born in Dublin in 1909, the second of four children of Captain Robert Mervyn Birmingham Otway-Ruthven and Margaret Casement Otway-Ruthven. Her youth was marred by family tragedy; two of her sisters died young, and her father died in 1919 when she was only ten years old. In 1916, one of her mother’s relations, Roger Casement, was hanged for treason in the aftermath of the failed Easter rebellion in Dublin. (Otway-Ruthven never tried to hide the family connection with Casement and would occasionally mention it in conversation, to the pained surprise of some of her more conservative colleagues in Trinity.)

Otway-Ruthven belonged to the second generation of women who entered Trinity, following the example of such predecessors as Constantia Maxwell (whom she succeeded as Lecky Professor of History in 1951). Her career was marked by achievements, such as being appointed a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. Beginning as a lecturer at Trinity, and she was appointed Lecky Professor of History in 1951, named a fellow of Trinity College 1968, served as dean of Faculty of Humanities from 1969 to 1973), was a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission and was a member of International Commission for the History of Representative and Parliamentary Institutions. Her publications include A History of Medieval Ireland (Benn, 1968).

Trinity College (Creative Commons)

Writing in 1977, Otway-Ruthven recalled what Trinity was like for the 200 women students who were carefully segregated from the men when she first entered the college 50 years earlier. “We must wear coats and hats or gowns…. [W]e might not speak to a man, even if he were our brother (it was explained that the citizens of Dublin, looking through the Front Gate, would be scandalized); any parties must be chaperoned; we must be out of College by 6 p.m. In lectures and in the library we sat apart…. No provision whatever was made for meals for women members of staff.

Academically, her time at Trinity was more rewarding, and she later paid warm tribute to her first teacher there, Edmund Curtis. Following graduation, Otway-Ruthven went to Cambridge to study for a doctorate. In 1937, she won the Thirlwall prize and her prize-winning essay on the “King’s Secretary and the Signet Office” in the 15th century was published by Cambridge University Press in 1939. (However irksome as the restrictions at Trinity had been, Cambridge was even more difficult; women were not admitted to degrees there until 1948.)

When Otway-Ruthven returned to Trinity as a lecturer in history in 1938, the position of women academics had scarcely improved since the first appointment of Constantia Maxwell in 1909. They were excluded from the Fellowship and from the Common Room. Otway-Ruthven deeply resented this discrimination: ‘We were paid less than men doing the equivalent work, and I have been told that this was right since, not being available for consultation in the Common Room, we were less useful to the College.‘ ‘Can you imagine it, Mr Provost,’ laughed A.A. Luce, professor of theology, at the thought of a woman fellow. ‘Mrs Quiverful, FTCD‘ (Fellow of Trinity College Dublin). Ancient institutions change slowly, as Otway-Ruthven was only too aware, and the struggle for equality was a long one. Women were eventually admitted to the Common Room in 1958, and in 1968 Otway-Ruthven was named one of the first women fellows.

Otway-Ruthven built up the Medieval History Department into one of the finest departments in the college. One of her most distinguished students, F.S.L. Lyons, who later became Provost of Trinity, recalled that ‘the first and most valuable lesson she taught us was that history was not a soft option…. However little we made of it at the time, [it] did give us the most valuable of all experiences—a sense of the past, a realization that the past has its own immediacy, its own contemporaneity.’ Another medievalist, James Lydon, who later became a colleague of Otway-Ruthven at Trinity, has left a vivid view of her. ‘She gave the impression of being very cold and aloof. She was a very tall woman and spoke in a terrifying deep voice. But once you got to know her, there was a very different person altogether. As a historian, working through record evidence she was just unbeatable. Her contribution to Irish history at that level will never be surpassed.‘ Lydon also noted her kindness to students who were in difficulties. In her later years, she was active in the affairs of the Irish Federation of University Teachers.

(Creative Commons)

The main focus of Otway-Ruthven’s historical research was the exploration of the impact of the 12th-century Norman conquest of Ireland. However, with the eradication of so many priceless medieval records following the destruction of the Four Courts in the Irish civil war in 1922, the task was often daunting. Otway-Ruthven was determined to fill the gap and to reconstruct as much as possible of Ireland’s medieval sources. She published extensively in a number of scholarly journals. In the foreword to her History of Medieval History (1968), which was the culmination of decades of research, Otway-Ruthven averred that it was ‘no more than an interim report‘ and that ‘there is still an infinity of work to be done.‘ By the time she retired in 1980, she had become one of the legendary figures in Trinity and, indeed, Dublin. Her retirement gave her more time to devote to her interest in alpine plants. She died in March 1989, just a few months short of her 80th birthday.

Lydon, James. ‘Professor J.A. Otway-Ruthven,’ in Trinity Trust News, Vol. 5, no. 2, Dublin, 1980.
——. ‘Interview’ in History Ireland. Vol. 3, no. 1, Dublin, 1995.
Lyons, F.S.L. Foreword to England and Ireland in the Later Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, Ed. by James Lydon. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1981.
Otway-Ruthven, J.A. ‘Women in College 1927–77’ in Trinity Trust News, Vol. 2, no 2, Dublin, 1977.

Deirdre McMahon , sometime lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.
Published with the kind permission of the author.

This first ‘brief life’ is about one of my teachers back in the 1960s. I even remember Professor Otway-Ruthven mentioning her connection with Roger Casement in class. Bill B., one of my roommates, named his cat after the Professor.

Trevor McClaughlin is a member of the editorial team of Tinteán.