Irish History Professors in Irish Universities:Brief Lives series. No. 5. Robin Dudley-Edwards (1909-1988)

Robin Dudley Edwards (1909-88)

by Michael Laffan

Portrait of Professor Dudley-Edwards from the Irish Press 3 March 1979. The photo still hangs in Dudley’s favourite pub, O’Brien’s in Sussex Terrace, in Dublin.

Dudley, as he was always called, was a formidable scholar, a towering and legendary figure. He was inspirational, exasperating, imaginative, outrageous, dynamic, frustrating and unpredictable. A tall man whose large head was circled by a halo of white hair, and who wore a green eyeshade for many years, he looked the part of ‘a professor’. His knowledge was prodigious.

His wife Síle was an authority on the Irish language, and two of his children, Owen and Ruth, followed in his footsteps and themselves became distinguished historians. Like him, they had strong opinions and never shunned controversy.

He held the chair of Modern Irish History in University College Dublin for thirty-five years, and he remained energetic into his seventies.  For decades he exercised a powerful influence on the study and teaching of history in Ireland, innovating and organising, enlightening both his students and the general public.  In 1938 he and T. W. Moody founded Irish Historical Studies, a journal that, belatedly, placed the study of Irish history on a professional footing, raising it to international academic standards.  He was prominent in the Irish Historical Society, which he founded, and in numerous other bodies – among them the Irish History Students’ Association, at whose annual conferences he combined his scholarly role with a sometimes ostentatious conviviality.  Towards the end of his life his last great campaign was to preserve Irish archives and to create a corps of professionally trained archivists.  The Irish National Archives Act of 1986 was in large part the result of his cajoling and lobbying.  In UCD he built up a remarkable collection of primary material illustrating the history of twentieth century Ireland.

He devoted much time to university affairs (a guaranteed way to ensure wasted effort, at least in the eyes of posterity) and in the wake of the 1968 student revolutions, the gentle ripples of which reached UCD after the rest of the world had settled down, he became an improbable ally of the students in their battles with the university establishment.

For over thirty years he formed a partnership with Desmond Williams, the Professor of Modern History, a figure as colourful and memorable as Dudley himself. Their very different characters and skills ensured that the two men made a formidable team – even if their diverse forms of waywardness resulted occasionally in relations so fraught that they communicated with each other only through the long-suffering departmental secretary.

I first encountered Dudley as an undergraduate, but came to know him only when I was a research student. Williams was my supervisor, but during one of his frequent absences Dudley took me under his wing, read all my chapters, summoned me to his house, and went through my drafts in detail. He talked for about two hours, walking around in circles as I sat on a sofa, sometimes addressing the back of my head. He had clearly devoted much time and thought to examining my text and I left him deeply grateful that my thesis was now transformed. I kept in touch with him during the years when I studied and lectured abroad, and was flattered when he offered me a temporary lectureship in his department. This eventually resulted in my appointment to a permanent post. As my professor he was stimulating, if at times exasperating. He relished departmental meetings (not a common taste), and he remained until his retirement almost obsessively concerned with his students, their intellectual development, and their research. I was mesmerised by the contrast betwen his day-time earnestness and his boisterous behaviour when evening came.

Dudley published widely but intermittently on topics ranging from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, but there were long intervals in which he wrote little.  In part this was because of failing eyesight, and nothing he produced in later years matched the impact of his Church and State in Tudor Ireland, written when he was aged twenty-five.  His primary concerns were to keep faith with the evidence, to maintain balance and detachment, to avoid the partisan and sectarian approaches adopted by many earlier Irish historians.  He had an ability to see patterns and parallels that transcended countries and centuries.  A president of UCD with whom he had quarrelled admitted reluctantly that ‘at least Dudley is mad about history’.  His madness was contagious.

In a perceptive obituary Aidan Clarke assessed Dudley’s influence and concluded that his commitment to objective history curbed his natural exuberance; ‘none of Edwards’s writing displayed the delight in perversity, paradox and obliquity that characterised his spoken word, or conveyed that provocative, endlessly questioning iconoclasm that animated his lectures’; nothing that he wrote ‘captured the flamboyance, the arrogance, the perverseness, the passion, the erudite intuition and the theatrical instinct’ that marked his conversation or – often, but not always – his teaching.  He was constrained by the austerity and restraint that he and Moody imposed on Irish Historical Studies.

He trained generations of historians, and he trusted and encouraged his younger colleagues.  Significantly, he supported and appointed women, at a time when many professors preferred the comfort (or, at least, the familiarity) of an all-male world.  As a small child taken out in his pram by his mother he waved a banner inscribed ‘Votes for Women’.  Shortly before his death I met him in a polling station at election time and he informed me proudly ‘I voted the feminist ticket: only women.’  At conferences and on other occasions he enjoyed dancing with his students – displaying more energy than style.

Dudley was usually an inspirational teacher, although at times his lectures could be obscure.  Generous with his time and ideas, he was the antithesis of those supervisors who exploit their students’ research.  It was characteristic of him that he could claim, often justly, that an MA from UCD was the equivalent of a PhD from other universities.  But above all it was as a seminar leader that he excelled, and he is remembered in particular for one particular examination that he invented: the ‘marathon’.  In this exercise, students researched and then wrote on a historical subject ‘from the inside’, adopting the mentality and even the style of the person concerned; they read their essays aloud, defending their interpretation against attacks by their colleagues and staff members.  In turn they would criticise the work of their classmates.  The marathon stretched their imaginations; it was demanding, intimidating, often entertaining, and immensely rewarding.  After it was all over, staff and students would adjourn to the nearest bar.

Although Dudley was often aloof and intimidating, he became increasingly sociable with age; some would say, excessively sociable.  He drank too much and often became boisterous and aggressive.  At times he bullied, though he was also kind and thoughtful.  He was banned from many pubs.  His blunt honesty could be disconcerting.  Long ago an Englishman who had applied unsuccessfully for a post in the History Department was taken on a post-interview pub-crawl with several UCD historians and the other candidates for the post.  As the evening wore on he became gloomy, and Dudley, noticing this, went over to comfort him.  Young man’, he said after giving a friendly embrace, ‘you have many good qualities but you have one defect: you are very boring’. I heard this story from the victim himself.

He had a famous mishap one afternoon as he walked from pub to pub: he fell into a large hole in the pavement that workmen had dug over a period of several days.  A crowd gathered around the edge of the crater peering down and offering reassurance: ‘it’s all right professor, the ambulance is coming’.  Naturally everyone present knew who he was.  The ambulance team rescued him and prepared to take him to hospital, but before agreeing to accompany them he made one demand: ‘take me to O’Brien’s’.  He was duly escorted to his favourite pub and was allowed drink his pint in stately fashion before being whisked away for treatment to his bleeding leg.  His photo still hangs on one of the walls in O’Brien’s.

In retirement he went regularly to the UCD staff common room (subsequently closed down by an autocratic Australian president of the university, a man whose recent departure has led to widespread rejoicing).  One day when evening students were being registered a group of them misunderstood the procedures and went to attend a lecture a week before their course was due to begin.  The head porter was alerted to the problem and dashed to the common room, knowing that it was the most likely place to find historians after their day’s work.  Only Dudley had arrived, but he rallied to the occasion.  He allowed the porter to guide him to the lecture theatre, informed the students that history was about communication, and announced that he would now communicate with them.  He sang stanzas from Percy French’s ‘Are you right there, Michael, are you right?’ and returned, duty done, to finish his pint.  The following week large crowds turned up to hear the old man singing, but instead were treated to a lecture on pre-Famine Irish society.

There were many such incidents; he was often a wild man.  But even when inebriated he normally had things of interest to say, either about history or about other matters.  To the incomprehension and envy of his younger (often much younger) colleagues he never suffered from hangovers.  When he got up the next morning – and he was an early riser – he was as sharp and alert as teetotalers half his age.

With permission of the artist

Dudley was a Dublin ‘character’, and in these bleak times when greyness and conformity are expected and rewarded by those who run Irish (and of course also Australian) universities, his disruptive and outlandish behaviour stands out in welcome contrast.  For better and for worse things happened when he was present.  He combined flamboyance and eccentricity with scholarship and imagination.  Thirty-five years after his death people still often talk about him.  He was unique.

Michael Laffan studied in Gonzaga College, University College Dublin, Trinity Hall Cambridge, and the Institute for History in Mainz. He lectured on European history in the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and then, for over three decades, in UCD (principally on Modern Irish History). He occupied various posts at faculty and departmental level, served as head of the School of History, was President of the Irish Historical society, and is now an emeritus professor.

His writings include The Partition of Ireland (1983), The Resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn Fein Party, 1916-23 (1999), and Judging W. T. Cosgrave (2014). He has also edited The Burden of German History, 1919-45 (1988). A Festschrift in his honour, Years of Turbulence,was published in 2015. He has lectured widely throughout Ireland and across the globe, and he has participated in numerous radio and TV programmes.

One thought on “Irish History Professors in Irish Universities:Brief Lives series. No. 5. Robin Dudley-Edwards (1909-1988)

  1. I had the honor of completing an MA under Professor Laffan at UCD in 2001/2002 and always enjoyed his fantastic stories about “Dudley.” The one about Dudley falling into the hole was always a favorite of mine. I am so glad that Professor Laffan has written so many of them down here. Thanks! Cian T. McMahon

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