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Professor Roy Foster

(Elected 2004)


As Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford since 1991, Roy Foster holds the only endowed Chair of Irish History in Britain. He joined Birkbeck in 1974, becoming Professor of Modern British History in 1988. ‘I am delighted to become a Birkbeck Fellow. It means returning to a great institution which gave me my first job, where I stayed for 17 years.’

At Birkbeck, he helped establish the School of History, Classics and Archaeology (now the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology). ‘I felt very privileged to be joining Eric Hobsbawm and Roderick Floud. Andrew Sanders and I started an MA in Victorian Studies, which was the best teaching experience of my life. The intellectual give-and-take was a constant stimulation, and I still miss it.’ He also remembers ‘the marvellous variety of students. One gently put me right in a lecture on the 1930s, pointing out that he had been there. Others, like Dr Mary-Lou Legg, stayed with me as a BA, MA and doctoral student. She ended up teaching at Birkbeck. That kind of continuity was part of the rewarding ethos of Birkbeck.’

His Conquering England: The Irish in the Victorian Metropolis, co-written with Fintan Cullen, is out this month to coincide with their National Portrait Gallery exhibition.


Master, President, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Roy Foster is one of the most eminent and distinguished products of a history department at Birkbeck that has specialised in producing eminence and distinction. He is perhaps the most distinguished and influential historian of Ireland writing today, whose works may be said, not only to have assisted in creating a fundamentally new understanding of Ireland’s past, but also to form an important part of a more general revolution of self-understanding in Ireland.

Roy Foster was born in 1949 in Waterford, the son of two schoolteachers, his father being the headmaster of Newtown School, which his son attended. He went on to St Andrew’s School in Delaware, US, from where he gained a place at Columbia, but elected, with just a twinge to return to Ireland at to study economics at Trinity College Dublin. Within a week, he had switched to history. He studied under the prodigious historian of Ireland T.W. Moody, and completed his BA and PhD, the latter for a thesis devoted to Charles Stewart Parnell, which was published as Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man And His Family in 1976. By this time, he had already been teaching for two years in Birkbeck’s Department of History, under the headship of our current President, Eric Hobsbawm. The next few years were devoted to another work of political biography, a life of Lord Randolph Churchill, which appeared in 1981.

These two works established him as a political biographer of great power, and made the claim handsomely for his Readership in History which was conferred on him in 1983. His reputation was made however, with his next project, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, which appeared in 1988. Though it was originally conceived, on his own account, as a quick book that would make a bob or two, it is a book of breathtaking scope and reach. Long perspectives are nothing new in Irish history, which has so often been driven by the effort to draw together the tangled, scattered history of this country into a coherent whole. Right from the beginning, in the sly oxymoron contained in its inoffensive-seeming title, Roy Foster's Modern Ireland marks a new and distinctive note, and concludes with a much-quoted plea for ‘a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness’. As he remarked in a lecture at the time of the book’s publication, ‘the way people saw themselves as Irish deserves attention, rather than awarding or denying Irishness like a mark of good conduct’. Modern Ireland was the first triumphant consolidation of what since the 1970s had been known as revisionist history in Ireland, though he is himself both leary and weary of the designation,. It would be a mystification for me to pretend that his views have been universally embraced. The word revisionist, used in conscious imitation of its darker meanings in other contexts, is often more of a swear-word than a descriptor. For all that it urges diversity and broadening of perspectives, it also requires that the consolations of passionate simplicity be given up. In Foster’s own words, from 1986, 'In a country that has come of age, history need no longer be a matter of guarding sacred mysteries'.

Modern Ireland manages to do two ticklishly contrary things at once. On the one hand, it sets out, perversely as it may seem, but quite consciously, to make Irish history more complex and less easy to grasp, arguing against the ways in which it has been, in the words of another great Irish writer, ‘distorted into intelligibility’. But, at the same time, it is steadied and held together by Roy Foster’s superb, sinuous eloquence, and powers of narrative. It is history that resists the pleasures and powers of myth.

Roy Foster’s sensitivity to literary and cultural questions and his own marvellous powers as a writer had valuable effects in Birkbeck, where he set up with the English Department the MA in Victorian Studies, the first of a series of distinguished interdisciplinary programmes in the college.

The title of Professor of Modern British History was conferred upon him in 1988. His inaugural lecture was to form the final chapter of his next book, Paddy and Mr Punch, which was published in 1993. The book concerns the Irish abroad, especially their ways of being abroad in England. Against the stereotype of the navvy, which fixates the idea of Irish migration around the impoverished male manual labourer, he showed how complex and various were the ways in which Irish men and women intertwined themselves with English life during the nineteenth century. As such, it may perhaps be compared with those works of the history of colonialism that began to appear from the 1980s onwards, in which the emphasis on the brutal, annihilating encounter between the West and its others, gave way to a more symmetrical account, that emphasised mutual transformation. He has recently returned to this theme, in his work for an exhibition which opens today at the National Portrait Gallery, called Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian London, and for which he has written an accompanying book with Fintan Cullen. The exhibition focuses on the presence and impact of different kinds of Irish man and woman in London, not just wielding shovels and bedpans, but participating in journalism, law, literature, politics, art and theatre. As Foster concludes a recent appetiser piece in the Guardian, ‘Conquering, then as now, can be a two-way process’.

In 1991, after a brief spell at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Roy Foster took up the newly-established Carroll Chair of Irish History in the University of Oxford. In his fourteen years in the post, he has built up teaching and research in Irish history to the point where it represents one of the most important centres in the country.

Roy Foster’s qualities as a writer are suggested by the fact that Modern Ireland was shortlisted for the Irish Literary Award by the Irish Times, the first time a work of history had been included on the list. Among other things, he has a genius for titles. Elegant alliterations abound: ‘Paddy and Mr Punch’, ‘The Salamander and the Slap’, even to the point of finely-judged slapstick: his inaugural lecture in 1989, later to be the concluding chapter of Paddy and Mr Punch, was entitled ‘Marginal Men and Micks on the Make’.

And yet, given his attitude towards the determining power of myths and yarns in Ireland, Roy Foster has cause to suspect the facility for storytelling. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland of 2001 explores this aspect of the Irish sensibility and his his own craft. He notes that Ireland does not, like Germany or England have a tradition of the Bildungsroman, the novel of education in which the nation finds its own story mirrored in the life of an individual person. Instead, it has an almost obsessive history of history-writing. ‘Might this be’, he wonders, ‘because in Ireland history – or historiography – is our true novel?’ Like many another historian of his time he has tried ‘to break up the seamless construction of narrative incident which was presented as the story of Ireland and to analyse the moment, rather than simply follow the flow’. Right from its subtitle (Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland) which slily knits together the dimensions of betrayal and reconciliation that narrative can involve, The Irish Story takes this national itch for fiction, fable and confabulation as its subject, neither simply scorning nor surrendering to it. It is a wily, winning story of storying itself.

In 1986, Foster had signed a contract to write a biography of W.B. Yeats. This project had gained something of the curse of the mummy about it. F.S.L Lyons, one of Foster’s teachers at Trinity, had given up the provostship to write the book, but then promptly ‘collapsed and died as he sat down to do so’. He has had some illustrious predecessors, including Richard Ellmann, though it was Ellmann’s great monumental biography of another Irish writer, James Joyce that he took as his model. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the two volumes of his Yeats biography, The Apprentice Mage, which appeared in 1997, and The Arch-Poet, which appeared in 2003, should have taken him 17 years to complete, precisely the period of time that Joyce needed to complete his masterwork, Finnegans Wake.

For one of Foster’s sceptical and pragmatic temperament, so excoriating about the never-never lands that have loomed so large in the Irish literary and political imagination, the greatest challenge of writing about W.B. Yeats was his subject’s deep and unswerving devotion to the magical and occult arts. He is able to write about these aspects of Yeats’s art without either himself being carried away by the fairies, or dismissing him as a ‘loony misplaced southern Californian’, as he has put it. His answer is to treat Yeats’s supernaturalism in the context of a distinctly Protestant brand of supernaturalism, that runs from Sheridan Le Fanu through Bram Stoker and beyond. Haunting becomes an image of the complex, displaced Protestant relationship to Ireland.

The second volume of his life of Yeats opens in the middle of the First World War, and quotes a characteristic bit of Yeatsian high talk. Yeats wrote that he found the war ‘simply the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen.. I went to my club this afternoon to look at the war news, but read Keats’s Lamia instead’. Many biographies of Yeats have done much the same thing. But, massively contradicting his own epitaph, Yeats’s life cast anything but a cold eye on life, on death, and on matters of life and death. The problem for any biographer of Yeats is that he spent so much of his life fabricating himself, creating a monumental myth of his own life in the midst of living it, that then comes to stand for the life. The great achievement of Foster’s biography is to restore Yeats’s life to its complex web of historical circumstance in which it was lived. Just as he has restored Ireland’s variousness to itself, he has restored the sheer bumpiness of Yeats’s life to his myth and, in the process has made the poetry available for rereading.

Praise, prizes and honours have showered upon him. He was awarded the James Tait Black Prize for the first volume of his Yeats biography, and is by now an old hand at picking up honorary doctorates and fellowships. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society since 1979 and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1992.

‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, wrote W.H. Auden in his poem ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’. History does and historians do. It is fitting for someone who has devoted so much of his life to the the recreating of Ireland’s relation to its past, that, under the heading of Recreation in his Who’s Who entry one should find simply the word ‘recreation’ (rest does not get a mention). We are proud to welcome Roy Foster, in the words of one commentator, ‘the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation’ back as a Fellow of Birkbeck College.