Obituary: Liam de Paor

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE HISTORIAN and political thinker Liam de Paor was a radical, in the sense that he grew and changed direction. It was therefore not wholly surprising that coverage of his death in the Irish Times gave three distinct accounts of him. The first stressed de Paor's originality as a political thinker, his preference for Irish independence over Irish unity. The second dwelt on his commitment to Gaelic culture. The third, by a professional archaeologist, mixed tributes to de Paor's scholarship with heart-felt acknowledgements of his humility and his humour.

De Paor's immediate family background lay in east Munster. His father, who worked for the railways in pre-independent Ireland, found himself beached in Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising. He stayed on, married and started a family. Liam was born 10 years later, in 1926, the year in which Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars outraged citizens of the new state with its irreverent, tragi-comic view of nationalist politics. This was a fitting moment for Liam de Paor to slip on to the stage of left-wing affairs.

De Paor's emergence as a political thinker was slow. He trained initially as an architect in University College, Dublin. His contemporaries included Liam Miller (another architect who changed course to pioneer literary publishing in post-war Ireland), Anthony Cronin (a barrister, but best known as a writer), and Charles J. Haughey (an accountant turned politician). Changing direction signified much for this generation.

Partly at least through the influence of his first wife, Mare McDermott (an art historian who came from Ulster), de Paor abandoned architecture for archaeology. His knowledge of buildings as things to be designed and built in the present greatly assisted his work on the surviving structures of antiquity. Their joint work, Early Christian Ireland (1958), published in the Thames and Hudson series and often reprinted, contributed to the growth of public awareness in early Irish history and a culture which in turn profoundly affected issues of ethnicity and identity in the troubled decades to come. These issues in turn preoccupied him, not so much for their alleged weighty substance as for the dark shadows they cast as ideological concepts today.

De Paor was no stay-at-Home-Rule academic. He worked in 1945 as a draughtsman in the stained-glass studios of the Irish artist Harry Clarke, and in the Sixties served Unesco in Nepal as an advisor. During his years on the staff of University College, Dublin (1965-86), he lectured in American History as well as his own more obvious specialisms. He was an eloquent and charming speaker of Gaelic, who participated regularly in those learned Bacchanalian summer schools dedicated to the memory of the Gaelic poet Brian Merriman (fl. 1780). One of de Paor's last publications was an English- language translation (published earlier this year in the journal Times Change) of a lecture he had first given at Merriman in Gaelic.

De Paor was well known as an excavating archaeologist. Indeed, he was "on a dig" in the Midlands when the news broke of serious trouble in Ulster in 1969. His immediate response was to volunteer in giving assistance in whatever way he could to the expected flow of refugees from the Catholic quarters of Belfast. In the course of heady consultations, he was asked if his professional travels abroad might provide cover for an importation of arms. His firm answer was in the negative, not only - as he repeated the matter to me last year - because he did not believe arms would help the situation at that time, but because he profoundly distrusted the persons in Fianna Fail who made the suggestion. On television only a few years ago, he made this episode public.

His more lasting response to the recurrence of violence in 1969 was Divided Ulster (1970), commissioned by Penguin Books as one of the first of their "specials" on the Irish Troubles. Although it is essentially a historical study, it indicates clearly its author's acute political sense. De Paor had joined the Labour Party before the fashionable influx of seeming left- wingers - Conor Cruise O'Brien, David Thornley and Justin Keating - who swept it into a coalition government with Fine Gael in 1973. De Paor attended meetings of the Sean Connolly Branch in Dublin's south-east constituency, an eccentric coterie not least in its choice of venue - a cafe of the vegetarian tendency frequented by the novelist Christine, Lady Longford, the Baha'i actor O.Z. Whitehead and sundry Trotskyites (and the inevitable Special Branch following of the latter). At all times, de Paor remained a rock of sense when Labour members met these luminaries after party meetings, courteous, insistent on procedure and principle, quietly mischievous.

Even when the Fine Gael changed leader and Garret FitzGerald initiated a Social Democratic renewal of his party, de Paor continued to oppose coalition as an option for Labour. His interests were so diverse that few thought of him as a political thinker, though he was sought after as a commentator. A column, "Roots", published in the Irish Times, provided an opportunity not only for him to broadcast his opinions but also to test and modify them.

After he retired from the UCD in 1986, de Paor spent much time in America. He separated from his first wife and after her death in 1994 married Deirdre Glenn. Few of the many friends who called to their flat in Dartry realised that he had passed the three-score-and-ten; he continued to work incessantly, publishing new material on St Patrick and on contemporary politics.

A book of 1990 summarises in its very name the loss felt by many in Ireland and elsewhere when on the day of the Omagh bombing, de Paor was cremated in Dublin - Unfinished Business. Ten years earlier, the title would have been glossed as a Republican manifesto. However, de Paor's evolving political thought radically challenged the dogmas of Irish Republicanism, especially the easy assumption that differences were mergeable in some comprehensive notion of Irishness. Though he remained faithful to the Labour Party, his influence was discernible in Democratic Left (in whose journal he published his last article) and even in Fine Gael, for whom he never held out much hope.

Liam de Paor will not be remembered as part of some professional cadre of Irish political scientists. As a passionate dissident his name will be found among names more lovingly honoured than loudly celebrated. In the company of Fred Ryan, Louise Bennett, Father Francis Shaw and Jimmy Kemmy, Liam de Paor will feel at home, having earned his eternal rest. There will be lively talk, and not a dry tongue in the heavenly mansions.

W. J. Mc Cormack

Liam de Paor, archaeologist, historian and political scientist: born Dublin 13 April 1926; married 1955 Mare MacDermott (died 1994; four sons, one daughter), 1997 Deirdre Glenn (one son); died Dublin 13 August 1998.

Comments