Obituary: Francis Doherty

Francis Michael Joseph Doherty, university teacher, lecturer and critic: born Bedale 12 April 1932; lecturer in English, University College, Dublin 1962-63; lecturer, Keele University 1963-68, senior lecturer 1968-92, reader 1992-93, head of department of English 1989-93; married 1959 (four sons, three daughters); died Ireland 14 August 1993.

KEELE UNIVERSITY's high reputation for the tutorial care that it gives to its students is owing to no single person more than to Francis Doherty. He was a born teacher who every day learnt more, both from himself and from his students, about the art of teaching. His sudden and early death at once deprives the university of one of its best-loved and longest-serving faculty members and removes from a generation of students the chance to draw from an unrivalled well of kindness and wisdom.

Being taught by Frank Doherty was never a predictable experience: even his formal lectures might suddenly take off on a new flight as the particular quality of the moment struck him, and all occasions were apt to be enlivened by great gusts of humour as his mind lit on one of the oddities that gave him such delight.

He was an Irishman born and brought up in Yorkshire, in whom down-to-earth good sense, warm affection and mercurial wit and charm were wonderfully blended. There was a darker side: though he was endlessly patient whenever a serious student - or a friend - came to him in difficulties, Doherty was not fond of shirkers or con men; and he suffered much when, following the savage cuts of 1981, Keele seemed to be sinking into terminal despair. Drastic remedies brought pains of a different kind with the troubles of running a department beset by the increasing toils of educational bureaucracy; but he won through, and his spirits in his last few months were particularly bright.

He remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, though generously receptive to truths in other churches and other religions, and frequently critical of reactionary deviations in his own. He had little sympathy with the clerical politics of Pope John Paul II, remarking once, in allusion to the Pope's much-vaunted skill in languages, that he himself did not speak Polish.

Doherty needed both time and exploration to find his own way of serving his fellows. His first leaning was toward the priesthood: on leaving school he went to the seminary at Ushaw, where he showed conspicuous gifts in English and Philosophy, but he was too much of an individualist to prosper under its particular rigours. National service spent largely in Kenya exposed him to the horrors of Mau-Mau and its equally brutal suppression and gave him in the process a considerable knowledge of medicine. In 1956 he went to Sheffield University to read English and fell, by no means uncritically, under the spell of William Empson, whose quirky mannerisms he would take off to perfection: he was a wonderful mimic, and pomp and pretentiousness withered before his parody. Following an MA at Manchester he taught briefly at University College, Dublin, before settling at Keele, where he spent the last 30 years of his life.

Frank Doherty's keenest literary interests centred in 18th-century England and 20th-century Ireland: he was a founder member both of the British Society for 18th-Century Studies and of the British Association for Irish Studies. His greatest hero was Samuel Johnson, whose alternations of sombre melancholy and huge laughter found something of a match in Doherty. He was generous of time and energy to the Johnson Society of Lichfield, on whose behalf he preached an anniversary sermon at Uttoxeter; his paper on the language of The Vanity of Human Wishes is one of the best things ever written on that magnificent poem.

His first book, however, was on Byron, whom he admired for his sinister energy while abhorring his cock-a-hoop affectation of superiority. A small book on Beckett in 1971 was the first fruit of a fascination always touched with a sense of the preposterous which continued until the end. He rediscovered the Irish short-story writer Daniel Corkery and edited a collection of his stories. William Trevor was another for whom he felt close affinity: things Irish were in fact more and more absorbing him - he had been looking forward to retiring to Donegal or Sligo and when he died he was at work on a book, sadly unfinished, on modern Irish tragedy.

Meanwhile two interests combined to lead Doherty into 18th-century arcana in pursuit of the 'anodyne necklace' - the hub of a world of quack medicine and fraudulent publicity, which he investigated with verve and gusto first in a long paper in Medical History and then at full length in his last completed book, published this year and drily called (to Doherty's disappointment) A Study in Eighteenth- Century Advertising - a title giving no indication of the fascination of the quest or the mischievous fun which lights it up.

His concern for teaching and a very heavy administrative load during his time as head of department cut down opportunities for research as did his self-neglectful work as a counsellor among bereaved and handicapped families in Stoke-on-Trent. But his interests were blossoming at the end, and he was taking particular pleasure in sharing them with colleagues in the several continental universities whose links with Keele he had done a great deal to foster. He was the most loyal and generous of friends and above all devoted to a family in whose growth into a third generation he took especial delight.

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 People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments