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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Professor Donal McCartney

Professor of Modern History in

University College, Dublin


Professor Donal McCartney 1989.

The Nationalist and Leinster Times’ Friday June 30, 1989.

 Professor Donal McCartney who officially opened Eigse ‘89, was born in Graiguecullen in June 1929. He spent his life as an academic and has become a historian of repute.

 He is currently Professor of Modern History in University College, Dublin, and chairman of the combined departments of history at the college.

 Here he talks to Michael Ryan about his early years growing up in Graiguecullen and his life as an academic.

 *The History Professor Who Came From Graiguecullen.*

 Situated in the Arts Block in University College Dublin, his room commands a fine view of the sprawling Belfield campus and further out to the twin towers of the ESB station in Ringsend.

 Where there is a space there are books, packed high up on the walls and resting snugly on tables and on the smiling professor’s desk. It would take a life time to wade through these volumes, but to Donal McCartney they are part of the work which he loves and which he describes as a hobby that became a profession.

 His father, James McCartney, was born in England but came to Carlow as a young boy with Professor McCartney’s grandmother, formerly Mary Snoddy from the Blackbog, Carlow, following the death of her husband.  At the outbreak of the First World War James joined the British Army, although under age, and spent four years fighting in France. On his return, he joined the Free State army.

 A sort of brother During the Civil War, the family were divided with the Snoddys being Republicans and my father was Free State.

 When my father’s first cousin, Eamon Snoddy, was killed in action for the IRA side, my father was the only man in Free State uniform allowed near the house because he was regarded as more or less a brother to the family, as he had spent most of his early years there, recalled the professor.

 When my father came home from France, he married my mother, Sarah Butler from Butler's public house in Graiguecullen (now Bradleys) and after demobilisation from the Free State army he went to work in the Sugar Company as a mechanic. He worked there all his life. He died suddenly in his early fifties and left my mother widowed for something like 37 years.

 Donal McCartney’s early days in Graiguecullen boys’ school were not happy and he ran away. "It took a few days for my family to get me back, but having got me back into education I never left,” he recalled with a smile.

 He was born in Castle View behind the national school and he remembers the wall in front of the house where he occasionally went into the river Barrow to swim. He became addicted to water activities.  Once or twice I had to be fished out when I went out too far but I eventually learned to swim.

 In one sense, one could say that a lot of people in Graiguecullen were “water rats” as we were brought up beside the mill race that came out of the Barrow Milling Company and Webster’s Lock.

 He has fond memories of Sean O’Leary who taught him in fifth, sixth and seventh class. He was a great teacher and he gave me a lot of interest in historical things.

 He had a marvellous way to teach history at that time. He used to have us singing the old ballads from ‘98 and ‘48 before they were popular, and through those we learned what had happened.

 There was great talent in that school but none of my class went onto secondary school and it was a terrible shame and a dreadful waste.

 He was born fourth in a family of four boys and two girls. There was a tradition of football in the family and he played a lot with his brothers Jimmy and Michael.

 I am proud of the fact that my first football medal is for winning the Graiguecullen street league with St. Fiaccs’s when I was 14. He went on to win three Laois medals with Graiguecullen and played some minor football with the county.

 Crossed the bridge

 For his secondary education, he crossed the bridge and went over to the Christian Brothers School. With a smile he recalled the old Elizabethan saying “by west of the river is by west of the law.”

 A little bit of that tradition stayed on in Graigue. We were regarded as different and I think that we acted as different.

 He was deeply involved in athletics in the CBS and one year won a medal for best junior athlete. There was a cup for the senior winner and the juniors had a medal. Tadgh O’Neill, later Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Army, won the senior section and I won the junior.

 He has fond memories of John Donnelly who taught him English and Mr. Sheehy who did history and who continued his interest in a subject that had been embedded in him in national school.

 I liked the courses in the CBS and they appealed to me especially as a young fellow from Graigue where there wasn’t a great tradition of books or anything like that.

 Involved in the scouts

 During his days in the CBS, he boxed a bit and still is an ardent fan. He was also involved in the scouts.

 After his Leaving Cert., he was awarded a Co. Council scholarship and he says that this was one of the reasons why he continued in academic life.

 With my background, I was a little bit out of things socially. In the student societies such as the L & H you tended to get the lads from Clongowes, Castleknock and Belvedere. It tended to be an exclusive club, “it was football which broke down the barriers for me. Although asked, I refused to play for UCD as I felt that my allegiance lay with Graiguecullen.”

 The Graiguecullen GAA club used to give me ten shillings to travel up and down for matches, but often enough I used to get lifts back up with one of Oliver’s lorries and I’d have five bob for myself.

 The money kept a scholarship boy going, and at that stage I started taking out the girl that was to become my wife. I’m sure that the GAA would have disapproved entirely of this kind of professionalism.

 On one occasion, I sinned against the GAA code when I played with a soccer club in the college. One of our best players was Brian Lenihan who had done history with me in first year. Eventually, I confessed all and went back to the GAA.

 In 1952, he got a first class honours BA in history and followed that up with an MA on “The writing of history in Ireland in the early 19th century.” He said some of his MA thesis has been incorporated into his book “The Dawning of Democracy.”

 At that time, there were very few openings in third level institutions and he was advised that it wouldn’t be worth his while to do a Ph. D. unless there was a vacant position. Instead, he did his H. Dip and went into secondary teaching in Brunswick St. School affectionately known as “The Brunner.” He spent several years teaching there and during this time he was also doing tutorials in UCD.

 In the 1960’s third level education began to open up and he was offered a position as an assistant to the professor in the department. This he gladly accepted. He then did his Ph. D. on Lecky, the famous historian who came from Ballykealy House, Co. Carlow.

 He found that when he moved from secondary teaching to the university that what he was asked to do was a lot easier than what he had been doing in Brunswick Street.

I have a fond memory of preparing my lectures in the Phoenix Park that first year, with the glorious September sunshine pouring down on top of me.

 In 1969, he moved to America for a year as a visiting professor at the Jesuit University in Milwaukee. When he returned, Maureen Wall who had just become statutory lecturer in the department, died and he succeeded her. Shortly after that he became Dean of the Faculty of Arts, the first non-professor to hold that position, and he served two three-year terms.

Part of English revolution

 As a historian whose field spans from 1500 to the present, he sees history as the main problem in the Northern troubles.

 He says that although the north of the country was the last place to be conquered it was the most successful colonisation in this country.

 Belfast was never a native Irish city. It was part of the economic triangle of Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast. It was very much part of the English industrial revolution whereas the rest of the country remained largely rural and unaffected by it.

 He sees the troubles of the last 20 years as being the occasion for bringing out all of these deep rooted problems.

 He married Peg Hogan from Ballyfin in 1956 and they have eight children, five girls and three boys; Damien, Mairin, Marjorie, Cathy, Daniel, Paula, Alice and Patrick.

 At the moment he is working on a history of University College, Dublin, and on a book on Lecky, which, he says, will be his Ph. D. in book form.

Transcribed in April 2009 by Michael Purcell.

Transcribed by Pat Purcell in 1937 at the request of Vincent Humphreys, from Baptism Register, St. Mary's Church, Castle Hill, Carlow:
Robert McDowell, Bapt. 1877.
Raymond, Bapt. 1884.
Dorothy, Bapt. 1882.
Emily, Bapt. 1875.
Donald, Bapt. 1882.
Charles, Bapt. 1873.
Cecil, Bapt. 1881.
Ada, Bapt. 1879.
Athol, Bapt. 1885.
all the above were children of Dr. Robert McDowell, Otterholt, Kilkenny Road, Carlow.
McDowells are recorded in Carlow from 1760s.


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