The “most influential Irish historian of his generation” has died.
David Fitzpatrick was born in Melbourne in 1948 and studied history at the University of Melbourne (1969). He was briefly a history tutor at La Trobe University in Melbourne (1970-71), where his mentor, John O’Brien, encouraged him to pursue a regional research project. He therefore embarked on a PhD on revolutionary County Clare in Ireland, where some of his paternal ancestors hailed from, at the University of Cambridge (1974). This formed the basis for his first book, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-21: Provincial Experiences of War and Revolution (1977).
After working as a research tutor at both Nuffield College, Oxford (1975-77) and the University of Melbourne (1977-79), Professor Fitzpatrick moved to Trinity College Dublin as a lecturer in modern history. He was promoted to professor in 2000 and remained there until retirement in 2015, although he continued teaching and supervising even after that.
A fluent and prolific writer, Professor Fitzpatrick ranged widely across historical and literary themes. His books include The Two Irelands, 1912-39 (1998), Solitary and Wild: Frederick MacNeice and the Salvation of Ireland (2012) and Descendancy: Irish Protestant Histories since 1795 (2014). The Americanisation of Ireland: Migration and Settlement, 1841-1925 is forthcoming; an unfinished sequel is being edited by Fionnuala Walsh. More unusual was Professor Fitzpatrick’s 2016 contribution to a TCD student magazine, “Why does Harry Potter matter?” inspired by his attempts to fathom his daughters’ fascination with the series.
“I admired his work above that of all other modern Irish historians for its originality, brio, historical imagination and subversive punch,” said Roy Foster, Carroll professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford from 1991 to 2016. “He was a pioneer in social and political history, a marvellous analyst of emigration in its various aspects, a biographer of note, and a consummate explorer in the strange world of Protestant associations such as the Orange and Masonic Orders.
“Politics and Irish Life remains a masterpiece of insight, imagination and style – as well as hardcore sleuthing and trawling in an extraordinary range of sources. Taken with his distinguished and prolific range of graduate students, David Fitzpatrick’s achievement makes him definitively the most influential Irish historian of his generation. His written style was inimitable, combining sardonic bon mots with a powerful though unsentimental sense of empathy for eccentric and forgotten figures.”
Professor Fitzpatrick died of anaplastic thyroid cancer on 20 February and is survived by his wife, military historian Jane Leonard, their two daughters, a son and a daughter from an earlier marriage, and four grandchildren.