Irish History Professors in Irish Universities: The Third one in our Brief Life Series. Professor G. A. Hayes-McCoy.

Professor Hayes-McCoy (photograph courtesy of the family)

Gerard Anthony Hayes-McCoy (1911-75)

by Nicholas Canny

My first encounter with Professor Hayes-McCoy (for so I always knew him) was in October 1961 after I had enrolled as a student of the Faculty of Arts at University College, Galway (now the University of Galway) with no career path in mind. Students in those days were required to choose four subjects from a broad menu for their first year of study.  I was, from the outset, firmly committed to English and Irish, and I was on the lookout for two further subjects to fill my first-year quota when I drifted into the classroom of G.A. Hayes-McCoy, then Professor of History.

Although he had been born in Galway, and taken his initial degrees at University College, Galway, Hayes-McCoy lived in Dublin and stayed in the Great Southern Hotel (now the Hardiman) three nights a week during the academic term. This left him free to lecture in College on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. He was a strikingly tall, slender figure with moustache and angular Roman nose, and stood apart from most of the other academic staff both because he was an outspoken opponent of their aspiration to have University College Galway conduct all of its teaching in the Irish language, and because he dressed impeccably in a range of well-tailored suits, with co-ordinated shirts and ties, when most of his colleagues (male and female) –and indeed most colleagues in other Irish universities- presented a dowdy appearance. Hayes-McCoy’s array of hats, many with colourful feathers to the side, was even more striking, and he habitually doffed whatever hat he was wearing to each lady he encountered as he strode purposefully with gabardine coat and umbrella from his hotel room across the Salmon Weir Bridge towards the porter’s desk in the College archway and thence to his office. There he changed from coat to a flowing black academic gown that he always wore in the lecture hall, possibly to protect his suits from chalk dust. I considered him fascinating from the outset, and he proved engaging in classroom situations whenever he broke from his routine to discuss a particular point or to answer a student question. On such occasions it became clear that he was more interested in adding to existing knowledge than in regurgitating information he had culled from books on historical subjects remote from his research interests. Such considerations endeared me to History. 

With the passage of time, I came to recognize Hayes-Mc Coy as a role model because he too had commenced his university studies at University College, Galway. Unlike me, he was a native of Galway City (really then a provincial town) where he had been born 15 August 1911 the third child of Thomas McCoy and Mary Kathleen McCoy (née Wallace). His parents lived on Eyre Square – then the principal trading area in Galway- where in the 1911 census the family was enumerated under the name Hayes Mc Coy, and from which they ran a business that went by the description ‘hairdressers to gentlemen’. From there, their youngest child Gerry attended at the primary and secondary schools of the Patrician Brothers that catered principally for pupils from the families of the shopkeepers and artisans of the town. Hayes-Mc Coy spoke appreciatively in later years of the encouragement he had received from some of his teachers, even as he attributed his abiding interest in military history to the tattoos of the Connaught Rangers – a regiment of the British army – that, as a boy, he had seen enacted on Eyre Square through the windows of his parental home.

Once his schooling was complete, he matriculated at University College, Galway, a constituent college of the National University of Ireland, where his interest in history was cultivated and shaped by the distinguished historian Professor Mary Donovan O’Sullivan, who also achieved fame as a suffragette, a dogged supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, an admirer of the British Monarchy, Army and Empire, and a bitter opponent of Irish Republicanism. Despite his disagreement with his mentor on several of these matters, Hayes-McCoy always spoke positively of her teaching and proved himself a gifted student who found time to play an active role in a broad range of student societies. He graduated with first class honours in his primary degree, after which he proceeded to an M.A. by research on the role Scots mercenary soldiers had played in the province of Connacht during the sixteenth century. This was a remarkably mature piece of scholarship, and the three hand-drawn maps that he used to elucidate his text provided evidence of Hayes-McCoy’s early skills as an illustrator. He was probably disappointed when this thesis did not win him the competition of 1932 for the Travelling Studentship of the National University of Ireland. The award went instead to R. Dudley Edwards of University College, Dublin, with whom Hayes-Mc Coy had previously competed at intervarsity debates. The consolation for Hayes-McCoy was that the university agreed to make another studentship available for competition in 1934. As he awaited this second chance, Hayes-McCoy enrolled for a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh for which, in 1934, he presented a thesis based on a study of the Scottish military presence throughout Ireland during the sixteenth, and previous, centuries. This work secured him both the Ph.D degree of the University of Edinburgh, and a Travelling Studentship from the National University of Ireland.

The studentship enabled Hayes-Mc Coy to devote two further years, 1934-6, to research in the various repositories in London, where he also attended J. E. Neale’s seminar in Tudor History at the Institute of Historical Research. There he had T.W. Moody, R. Dudley Edwards and D.B. Quinn as fellow students, and he was to maintain working relations with all three throughout his life.  He used his time in London also to convert his thesis into a book, Scots Mercenary Forces in Ireland, 1565-1603 (Dublin and London, 1937), and to assemble material for two powerful papers that he later published: ‘Strategy and Tactics in Irish Warfare, 1595-1601’, Irish Historical Studies, vol., 2 (1940-41), 255-79 and ‘The Army of Ulster, 1593-1601’, The Irish Sword, vol. 1, (1951), 105-77.

The research and presentation style in this body of work matched the best of what was being published in the English language at that time, and the conclusions he reached about warfare in sixteenth-century Ireland have been but slightly modified since then. High quality work was not, however, sufficient to secure Hayes-McCoy the academic post in an Irish university that he craved and deserved. Instead, he had to settle for a first career (1937-59) as Assistant Keeper (later Keeper) of the Historical, Arms and Textile section in the National Museum in Dublin. This position gave him ample opportunity to use his artistic skills and his romantic flair to dramatic effect in public exhibitions in the Museum (notably that of 1941 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising), in organizing historical pageants, and in preparing texts for children’s programmes on Radio Éireann.  During these years Hayes-McCoy also promoted military history through the Military History Society of Ireland (of which he was a founding member), and its journal The Irish Sword which he edited 1949-59. It was then also that he married Mary O’Connor in a union that produced two sons and three daughters who they raised at their home in the Dublin suburb of Clonskeagh.

University College Galway

A second career opened to Hayes Mc-Coy in 1959 when he applied for, and was appointed, as Professor of History at University College, Galway. In this he was succeeding his old teacher Mary Donovan O’Sullivan, and the appointment enabled Hayes-McCoy to teach History to undergraduates, to supervise research, and to lead by example through his publications. His appointment to the chair also seemed to presage a home coming, but Hayes Mc-Coy decided to remain in Dublin. This decision, which was then unusual, unlike today where long-distance commuting is a way of life, was persistently cited against him by his academic adversaries in Galway. In my experience his supposed ‘absence’ presented no problems since, both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate student, and later as a member of staff, I found Professor Hayes-McCoy always ready to offer quick advice on any academic matter I wished to discuss with him.

Hayes-McCoy remained a prolific publisher during his years as a professor and, following his museum experience, he stretched out to a wider audience as well as to fellow historians. He reached his wider communities through continued involvement with the Military History Society and its organ the Irish Sword, through Thomas Davis lectures on Radio Éireann, through opinion columns in the Sunday Press, and through occasional appearances on Irish television. He managed to construct a bridge between his two audiences with his book Irish Battles (London 1969) that set a benchmark for future scholars interested in the involvement of Irish people with warfare at home and abroad. His edition of Ulster and Other Irish Maps, c.1600 (Dublin, 1964) that he prepared for the Irish Manuscripts Commission of which he was a member, also set a high standard for future work on Irish historical cartography. Hayes-McCoy would have considered his principal academic contribution of those years to have been the political narrative section on Ireland, 1534-1603 that was published in T.W. Moody, F.X. Martin and F.J. Byrne (eds.,) A New History of Ireland III: Early Modern Ireland, 1534-1691 (Oxford, 1976). His pioneering Irish Flags, published posthumously (Dublin, 1979), was an undoubted triumph that demonstrated, besides his romanticism, his skills as draftsman, designer, and indefatigable searcher after new knowledge.

One of the Professor’s hugely popular battlefield drawings (c) Robert Hayes-McCoy

Hayes-McCoy also encouraged more promising undergraduates in history to proceed to the M.A. degree by research as he himself had done in the 1930s. However, as I can testify, his own disappointment of the 1930s had him warn all who would follow this course that they should not expect further qualifications in history to lead to an academic career. This presumption was soon proven wrong because Hayes-McCoy’s popularity with undergraduates meant that the proportion of Arts students choosing to study history in Galway increased even more sharply than did the rapid increase in the numbers enrolling at the university (as in all of Ireland’s universities) throughout the 1960s and 70s. He at first welcomed these extra numbers because they justified the allocation of some new positions in History, of which I was appointed to one after I had completed a Ph.D degree at the University of Pennsylvania, during the years 1967-71. However as the number of history staff increased to four, or even five, members, Hayes-McCoy began to question the wisdom of the government’s decision to open the doors of Ireland’s universities to so many. He had reservations over this policy both because his own experience during the depressed conditions of the 1930s convinced him that an expansion in public sector employment would lead ultimately to the country’s financial collapse, and because, like many Irish academics of his generation, and especially those who had spent time in Ireland’s public service, he regarded a university appointment as a sinecure posting free from the oversight of state or church officials that was making life so difficult for most of his contemporaries in Ireland. Then, as Hayes-McCoy recoiled from the responsibility for human-resource management, and from the demands that he respond to a continuous flow of questionnaires from a rapidly expanding bureaucracy, he seems to have begun to count the days to 1976 when he would have been able to retire on full pension that would have enabled him to live full-time with his wife and family and continue with the research and writing that he found so fulfilling. For their part his family members must have been becoming increasingly concerned over a worsening of the diabetic condition from which he had suffered all his life. As it transpired, Hayes-Mc Coy was never to enjoy the luxury of retirement because he succumbed to a diabetic attack on 27 November 1975 in his room in the Great Southern Hotel.

Composing these words brings to mind a man who, in my experience, was always kind, cautious and considerate, and one who believed that by writing, teaching and example he could make his country a more reasonable, and therefore a more tolerant, society than it had been during his boyhood and early manhood years. There were, however, also facets of his early years to which he remained deeply attached; among them an allegiance to a liberal Catholicism, and loyalty to family and principle. It was, as I have suggested, the teaching and example of G.A. Hayes-Mc Coy that first attracted me to history as an academic discipline to which I was eventually to dedicate my life. In acknowledging this, I never found him dogmatic, and while the thread of historical enquiry that I would pursue throughout my working life was close to that which he had followed, it was also different, but he welcomed, and was happy to debate, such difference. While I first got to know Hayes-McCoy as a teacher and a mentor, I also became an academic colleague from 1972 until his death in 1975. During that time I always found him genial and supportive but I continued to refer to him as Professor Hayes-McCoy because, for me, he remained a figure from a past I could never hope fully to comprehend.

Nicholas Canny was Professor of History at University College, Galway (now the University of Galway) 1979-2009, where he was the Founding Director of the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities. He served as President of the Royal Irish Academy, 2008-11 and as a Member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council, 2011-16. He has published extensively on Early Modern Ireland and on Atlantic History. His latest book outputs were as editor (with Philip Morgan) of The Oxford Handbook of Atlantic History, c. 1450-c, 1850 (Oxford, 2011) and as author of Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Early Modern Ireland through the Centuries (Oxford, 2021). He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.

Professor Nicholas Canny

Trevor McClaughlin is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.

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