THE DEATH of John Magee removes an important pillar in the educational and cultural life of Northern Ireland.
An academic historian and teacher, he made his main contribution in changing radically the way in which Irish history was taught in schools there. From his position as Head of the History Department in St Joseph's College of Education, Belfast (the main source of supply for Catholic teachers), he influenced several generations of teachers, and through them many thousands of students.
His early textbooks, Ferment and Change (1962) and The Age of Revolutions (1964) were relative best-sellers. More importantly they were probably the first history textbooks to be used extensively in both Catholic and Protestant schools. In these he laid the basis for his approach to the teaching of history: absolute fairness, a willingness to put both sides of a question and to consider them dispassionately, devoid of emotion, reliance on sources and well-grounded research, and clarity and moderation of expression. An invitation from the then Community Relations Commission in the late 1960s led to a seminal pamphlet The Teaching of Irish History in Schools (1970), and to a further considered text Northern Ireland: crisis and conflict (1974).
John Magee was born in Belfast in 1914 and grew up in Clones, Co Monaghan. He was a graduate of University College Dublin, where he took his MA in History under Desmond Williams. He taught for some years at St Patrick's High School, Downpatrick, before his appointment to St Joseph's and an accredited lectureship at Queen's University, Belfast.
Magee's influence was determined less by volume of published material than by personal communication, his inspiring way with students, his lecturing and occasional writings, and by his willingness to involve himself in the work of public bodies and voluntary associations, where he made an outstanding contribution.
Probably more than anything in this field, he relished the fight which he led to save the Linenhall Library, Belfast, from extinction and to put its finances on a sound footing. It was fitting that the bicentennial of the library should fall during his period as President. He would have been deeply saddened by the attempts, a few days after his death, to destroy the library with fire-bombs, thankfully averted.
On his 'retirement' from St Joseph's, he became an Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University, where he carried a full workload of teaching and tutoring. He died in harness.
He was at various times a Member of the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee, a Trustee of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, a member of the Cultural Traditions Group (where he supervised the Fellowship Programme) and one of the founders of the Down County Museum.
Jack Magee was a great patron of the local history movement, one of the few places in Northern Ireland where people from different traditions can meet to celebrate a shared heritage and a sense of place. He was a member of the Downs Society and the Lecale Historial society. His last book was an illustrated Journey through Lecale (1993). He contributed widely to local studies through his lectures, his articles in local journals and through his special interest in 19th-century developments in education and in the biography of Ulster worthies.