ATQ Stewart: Historian celebrated for his cool and astute analyses of Northern Ireland

No one got to grips more astutely with intricacy and irony in the field of Irish historical studies than ATQ Stewart. The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster, 1609-1969 was the joint winner of the first Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize shortly after its publication in 1977, and in 2003 the historian Marianne Elliott placed it in her "top 10 history books", describing it as a "brilliant overview of Ulster Protestant identity". Its impact was such that it struck a chord with the Rev Ian Paisley in his most ferocious incarnation, and with liberals of every political persuasion: not an easy feat to pull off. It is hard to think of anything more compelling than Stewart's The Shape of Irish History, more evocative than his The Summer Soldiers (about the 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down), or more thought-provoking than The Narrow Ground. He was elegant, dispassionate, entertaining and illuminating, and leaves an invaluable legacy.

But Dr Stewart's latitudinarian standpoint combined with immense expertise and narrative eloquence to create a formidable antidote to any preconceptions. From his first book, The Ulster Crisis (1967) on, Stewart displayed a remarkable gift for succinctness and elucidation. Over and over, he gets to the heart of the matter. He keeps his sanity and coolness in the face of potentially inflammable material – The Ulster Crisis, for example, deals with anti-Home Rule agitation and the signing of the Covenant in 1912 – while, by sheer skill and verve, compelling assent among his readers (even the most factionally intractable).

Anthony Terence Quincey Stewart (known as Tony), an only child, was born in Belfast in 1929 into a strongly Presbyterian family of bakers and confectioners with roots going back to the United Irish Uprising of 1798, and beyond. At the age of 12 he was enrolled at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution ("Inst"), where he excelled at literature and languages. Next came Queen's University, Belfast: it was a toss-up whether the English or the history department would get him as a student, but history won. Before entering Queen's, he – with a friend and fellow-Instonian, the future folk music- and song-collector Hugh Shields – had spent the summer months in France; thereafter he revered all things French.

Graduating in 1952, he obtained a post as history master at a local school, at the same time completing an MA on the transformation of Presbyterian radicalism in the North of Ireland after 1798. His supervisor was an older friend and mentor, JC Beckett, distinguished historian and authority on Anglo-Irish attitudes. Beckett's ablest pupil always acknowledged his influence; but Stewart's independent cast of mind made him a wholly original, ingenious and spirited commentator on (among other things) exigencies of the past and the present, and the connections between them.

In 1961 he became a lecturer at Stranmillis College of Further Education, and eight years later secured a lectureship in Irish political history at Queen's University. Next, he was appointed Reader in Irish History. In the meantime he had married a fellow Queen's graduate and teacher of English, Anna Robinson, become a father of two, enjoyed a felicitous domestic life and immersed himself in reading and research in connection with the books on which his reputation rests. These include The Pagoda War: Lord Dufferin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Ava (1972), and a life of Edward Carson (1981), in Gill's "Irish Lives" series.

Stewart's approach to Irish history is sometimes idiosyncratic, but never other than inspired. Unusually among historians, too, he can mask a serious purpose with playfulness and wit. For example, in The Shape of Irish History (2001) he has this to say: "There is something wrong with the shape of Irish history. It is too short, too / narrow, upside down, and it leans all over to one side. Sometimes it seems to / be a circle, like the serpent in Celtic design which swallows its own tail; ... / For most Irish people, though, it is simply a family heirloom, a fine old / painting in a gilt frame, which they would miss if it was no longer there."

The title of one chapter in this book, "The 10.14 from Clontarf", audaciously alludes to Agatha Christie's The 4.50 from Paddington, as the detective aficionado maps out a correspondence between criminal (in books) and historical investigation. (Stewart's literary heroes included Conrad and Borges, among others; but the detective genre provided a necessary source of relaxation.) Another chapter heading, "Why Didn't They ask Evans?", refers to Stewart's colleague at Queen's and the author of Irish Folk Ways, E Estyn Evans. Both lecturers were in favour of an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, as opposed to the prevailing academic apartheid: it was partly the increasing narrowness and bureaucracy overtaking Queen's, along with other institutions, that led to Stewart's early retirement in 1990. He was, by all accounts, a gifted and conscientious teacher; a festschrift edited by Sabine Wichert on his 75th birthday, testifies to the high regard in which he was held. No less than his engaging and discursive presence, his insights will be missed.

Patricia Craig

Anthony Terence Quincey Stewart, historian and author: born Belfast 8 July 1929; married 1962 Anna Robinson (two sons); died Belfast 17 December 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture