Professor Alan Harrison

Scholar of Modern Irish
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The Independent Online

While Alan Harrison worked on 17th-century deism, he ran into some confusing evidence. John Toland, whose Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) was condemned to be burnt by the common hangman, had (it seemed) loitered among the Franciscans of Prague, an unlikely refuge. Harrison established that, among the friars of Central Europe, a number bore names like O'Doherty or O'Donnell. In other words (he proposed), Toland's sojourn had really been a reunion of Donegal men indifferent to arguments about miracles while sampling uisce beatha.

Alan Harrison was not a great drinker of whiskey but, as scholar and friend, he possessed remarkable qualities of comradeship. Educated in the choir school at Saint Patrick's (Anglican) Cathedral, then at the co-educational Wesley College, and finally at Trinity College (all in Dublin), he was the product of a distinctly Protestant upbringing.

Yet in 1967 he joined the staff of the Irish department at University College Dublin - seen, then, as an uncomplicatedly Catholic redoubt - and remained there for the rest of his life. During one of those nostalgic indulgences which characterised Senior Common Room talk, he interrupted to deplore notions that "there are no characters nowadays, not like the old days". Look around, he said - "We are the great characters of the present."

This was self-mockery of course. Harrison wholly lacked the tyrannical instinct that converts teachers into prophets and pundits. He was a painstakingly devoted instructor of students, a colleague notorious for his loyalty and integrity, an administrator unshakeably committed to certain reforms in which he believed. This strength of character arose from diverse, not always propitious circumstances.

Alan Harrison was born in the Dublin suburban village of Terenure in 1943. His father, Reginald Harrison, was a barrister, but the boy was sent to St Patrick's Grammar School, not noted for academic excellence, although pupils were expected to have trainable voices. In 1956, Alan moved less than a mile to become a boarder at Wesley College, where he flourished both academically and on the sports field. He already showed great aptitude in the study of modern Irish which he absorbed from two particularly excellent teachers, "Sam" Magee and Stephen (or "Rocky") O'Hanrahan. Rugby, swimming and cricket were his favourite sports.

The Irish Department at Trinity College Dublin, when Alan Harrison went up in 1962, was famous for "characters" whose scholarly genius could not be denied. David Greene and Mairtin O Cadhain were, in their different ways, inspirational figures, the latter a Marxist of strong republican views. Terence McCaughey combined Scots-Gaelic learning with an ethically acute Calvinist vocation. Harrison flourished in this milieu as the college gradually escaped from its Anglo-Irish past and acknowledged a changing Ireland at its gates.

Graduating BA (Mod) in 1966, he became a student teacher in the High School, intending (or pretending) to become a secondary-school teacher. A year later, he was appointed to an assistant lectureship in University College. He moved steadily up the academic ranks, in turn becoming Statutory Lecturer (1975) and Associate Professor (1994). Deeply committed to the extension of higher education, he served for 10 years from 1992 as a Dean responsible for students on modular degrees, devoting much ingenuity to ensuring these provisions were made available to students on evening programmes.

Though well represented in Eigse, and other annals of Celtic Studies, Alan Harrison will be best remembered for work done on the frontiers of his subject, especially on the interrelations of languages and religious groups in Ireland. The title and subtitle of The Dean's Friend; Anthony Raymond (1675-1726), Jonathan Swift and the Irish Language (1999) virtually say it all. Harrison's collaborative work on the Donegal heretic appeared as John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious: text, associated works and critical essays (1997). Co-operation was central to his outlook: perhaps his most characteristic achievement was to found in 1986 (with Andrew Carpenter and Ian Ross) the bi-lingual journal Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an Dá Chultúr.

W. J. Mc Cormack

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