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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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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