Professor J. C. Beckett (1912-96)


Irish History Professors in Irish Universities: Brief Lives Series

I’m hoping this short series on Irish History Professors will make their achievement more widely known among Australian readers. I’m often disconcerted by how few of my friends and colleagues realize just how talented, professional, diverse and inclusive, Irish historians are. Lately I’ve taken delight in searching for some of my teachers from my undergraduate days in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. So easy it is to do that at See for example, T.W. Moody, R. Dudley-Edwards, T. D. Williams, R.B. McDowell, David B Quinn, Xavier Martin, and Liam de Paor, among others. May I encourage readers to have a look for themselves?

The handful of ‘Brief Lives’ in Tinteán is not in competition with DIB entries. Rather, it seeks to complement them by drawing attention to the historian’s humanity, and the personal relationships they inspired.

Here is a very fine example to illustrate exactly this, by Brian M. Walker of Queen’s University in Belfast.

James Camlin Beckett

Professor Beckett on the Quad at Queen’s c. 1975

I first met J.C. Beckett in early 1966. I was a pupil at Campbell College Belfast and I planned to sit the entrance scholarship examination for Trinity College Dublin. As my school taught little Irish history, I boldly wrote to Professor Beckett asking his help with the Irish history paper. He very kindly invited me to his study at Queen’s University and talked to me for over an hour on some aspects of the course. In spite of his efforts, I did not win a scholarship and went to Magee College, Londonderry, for two years, followed by two years at Trinity. Later I returned to Belfast to conduct research on nineteenth-century Ulster politics. I attended the Church of Ireland student centre at Queen’s on a Sunday where I again encountered Beckett who regularly worshipped there. I received a permanent appointment at Queen’s in the politics school in 1979 and often met him on the campus and at his home. His kindness and learning made a great impression on me.

James Camlin Beckett, known as Jim to his friends, was born in Belfast in 1912. His family were members of the Church of Ireland and lived in East Belfast. He attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and entered Queen’s University in 1930, graduating with a first class degree in history. While completing an M.A. by research he taught history at Belfast Royal Academy, 1934-45. In 1945 he was appointed to a lectureship in history at Queen’s. He spent the rest of his career at Queen’s, promoted to a readership in 1952 and a personal chair in 1958. He retired in 1975. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He played a leading role in the Linen Hall Library Belfast and the Ulster Society for Irish Historical Studies. He served on the Royal Commission of Historical Documents, 1960-86, and was a member of the Irish Manuscripts Committee, 1959-86.

Queen’s University, Belfast

Beckett has left us not only a very important body of Irish historical works but also a long series of personal diaries, now deposited in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.  Alvin Jackson has examined these papers to give a good insight into the thinking and actions of Beckett. What emerges very clearly is that he was greatly influenced by his religious faith. He was a devout member of the Church of Ireland.  The Church of Ireland was important not just for his sense of religious faith but also for his sense of identity. He viewed Anglicanism as a middle way between Rome and non-conformity. It was also the faith of the Anglo-Irish whom he greatly admired and would write about. With a unionist background he  saw himself clearly as Irish. Jackson has written that ‘his inclusivist vision of Irish identity’ enunciated in a number of books, may be seen ‘as a reflection of his religious convictions’. He observed that his ‘open vision of Ireland and Irishness has had a marked influence over later historians of the country’.

His first book, Protestant dissent in Ireland, 1687-1780, based on his M.A. dissertation, was published in 1948 as second in the series of Studies in Irish History, edited by Theodore Moody, Robin Dudley Edwards and David Quinn. For Hutchinson’s publishers he produced in 1952 A short history of Ireland in their University Library series. To his great pleasure the book ran into many reprints and was translated into several languages, including German and Japanese. During the 1950s he worked with Theo Moody on a history of Queen’s University. This work was published in 1959 in two volumes numbering over 1000 pages. At the same time he cooperated with Moody on a BBC Northern Ireland radio broadcast series published later as Ulster since 1800, 2 volumes, 1955-7.

The year 1965 saw the publication of his book, The making of modern Ireland, regarded by many as his ‘master-work’. This volume was widely received and welcomed. David Quinn described it as ‘not only learned but cool, objective, unimpassioned and yet always alive and compassionate as well’. It proved very popular, went into several editions  and was reprinted many times. It was regarded as not just authoritative but also accessible. In 1967 he edited Belfast: origins and growth of an industrial city. Described by the author as ‘a work of reflection rather than of research’ his book The Anglo-Irish tradition was published in 1976. His final volume, The cavalier duke: a life of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond, 1610-83, appeared in 1990.

Following his retirement he took up several teaching positions abroad, at McGill University, Montreal, in 1976 and Tulane University, New Orleans, in 1977. Reflecting the esteem he was held in by former students and colleagues, he was honoured in 1979 with a festschrift, Penal era and golden age: essays in Irish history, 1690-1800, edited by Thomas Bartlett and David Hayton. The University of Ulster, the National University of Ireland and Queen’s University awarded him honorary degrees of literature. He died on 12 February 1996.

After his death, tributes were paid to his character and achievements. A Queen’s colleague and fellow historian A.T. Q. Stewart described how he enjoyed ‘playing the role of the dry-as-dust academic, out of touch with the world’, with an old-fashioned sense of formality. But he noted: ‘His friends and colleagues, and scores of post-graduates who sought his professional help, knew only a man who was extremely modest, kind and good-natured, a source of sage advice and always ready to work as part of a team’.  Alvin Jackson observed how ‘he had, in effect, created the study of Irish history at Queen’s’. He described him as a ‘moderniser’ and ‘a patriarch of the ‘new’ historiography pioneered in the 1930s’. With his popular works, which ‘summarized the findings of a critical generation of Irish historians’, his influence over the teaching of Irish history was immense.


Froggatt, Richard, ‘James Camlin Beckett (1912-1996), historian’ in Ulster Dictionary of Ulster Biography, on-line

Jackson, Alvin, ‘Beckett, James Camlin, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy), on-line.

Jackson, Alvin, ‘J.C. Beckett: politics, faith, scholarship’ in Irish Historical Studies, vol.33, no.130 (Nov. 2002), pp129-150.

Stewart, A.T.Q., ‘J.C.Beckett, 1912-26’ in Journal of Contemporary History, Issue2/{Summer, 1996), news, vol. 4. (reprinted in History Ireland}.


Brian M. Walker, Emeritus Professor of Irish Studies in the School of History, Anthropology, History and Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast, sometime Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at QUB, 1993-2002. His latest book is Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration, THP Ireland, 2019.

Trevor McClaughlin is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.