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Raymond Gillespie obituary: Renowned historian and talented teacher

The Belfast-born academic had a particularly distinguished and innovative reputation in the field of early modern Irish history

Born November 8th, 1955

Died February 8th, 2024

Raymond Gillespie, who has died aged 68, was one of the most prolific and significant Irish historians in recent decades, especially in the area of local history, where he was something of a pioneer. He initiated, while a teacher in Maynooth University’s Department of History in the 1990s, the Maynooth Studies in Local History series of books (published by the Four Courts Press) which to date number more than 150 volumes – he was senior editor on all of them. He also established the well-known Certificate, BA and MA courses in local history at the university, which has hugely increased awareness of the subject.

Gillespie was a qualified secondary schoolteacher who graduated form Queen’s University Belfast. He was widely influential in his teaching of history to large numbers of undergraduates, who would later proceed to careers as secondary teachers. He encouraged them to seek out the local connections to national and international events, thus providing a better context for their students.

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His bibliography, published in the Festschrift (a volume of writing by different authors as a tribute to a scholar) issued in his honour in 2021, The Historian as Detective (Four Courts Press), includes more than 20 articles he contributed to local history journals in all four provinces.

By that time he had already established a particularly distinguished and innovative reputation in the field of early modern Irish history, with books on the colonisation of east Ulster, 1601-1641 (Colonial Ulster; and Devoted People, 1997) a study of religious practice in Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, and, from 1994, a detailed involvement in the Irish Historic Towns’ Atlases project of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he became a consulting editor. He produced, with Stephen Royle, the first part of the work on Belfast (to 1841) in the series, and co-authored a sister work on Carlingford.

Notably, in his Reading Ireland (2005) and his editing, with Andrew Hadfield, of volume three of the Oxford History of the Irish Book (2006) – the Irish book in English, 1550-1800 – he traced the history of early modern book publishing in this country. Literature in Irish was not neglected; in 2003, with his wife, Bernadette Cunningham, he wrote Stories from Gaelic Ireland: Microhistories from the Irish Annals. In total he wrote – either fully or jointly – 47 books and more than 350 articles in specialist journals.

His last book, Reforming Galway, an in-depth local study of St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church in early modern Galway, will be published this year.

His classes were delivered with a passion and physicality, ‘Raymond ... always moving, gesticulating [and] engaging’ his audience

Gillespie was widely respected by his fellow historians, both in Ireland and the UK. He was elected a member of the RIA in 2001, was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, in the academic year 1996-1997 and was Parnell fellow at Magdalen College, Cambridge, in 2011-2012. On his retirement from Maynooth three years ago he was made professor emeritus.

His widow, Bernadette Cunningham, says he was strongly of the view that he had “lived through a golden age – born postwar; supported by a well-funded education system in Northern Ireland that gave him opportunities his parents’ generation had not enjoyed; [and] had the freedom to teach at a university before the ‘idea of a university’ had been undermined by bureaucracy [as he saw it].”

This opinionated stance, however, was always laced with a deep humanity. Several of his colleagues and former students have emphasised Gillespie’s tremendous talents as a teacher and mentor. His former colleague Sr Jacinta Prunty wrote in the Festschrift that his “concern for the individual student took precedence over everything” else. His classes were delivered with a passion and physicality, “Raymond ... always moving, gesticulating [and] engaging” his audience.

Gillespie had a strong Christian faith. A committed Methodist, he had became a lay preacher of that church while still an undergraduate, but was also strongly ecumenical, marrying his wife in a Catholic church, and having an ecumenical funeral in a Catholic church, in Corofin, Co Clare, Cunningham’s home district.

He was born in Belfast, the only child of Ernest and Annie Gillespie. His father was a cabinet maker who worked at the Harland & Wolff shipyard. He grew up in the east of the city, and was educated at Annadale Grammar School and Queen’s University, where he graduated with first-class honours in history, a distinct rarity at that time. Supported by the then strong UK universities’ graduate grant scheme, he went on to study for his PhD at Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1982.

Thereafter he spent seven years with the Department of Finance in Dublin, before moving to the Office of Public Works for two years from 1989 to 1991, when he was appointed a lecturer in history at Maynooth.

Gillespie is survived by his wife, whom he met when they were both members of the Irish History Students’ Association, and a wide circle of relatives and friends.

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