Galway City Tribune - Opinion Piece
Irish-speaking Yorkshire man who has made city his homeJune 29, 2012 - 12:01pm
PROFESSOR Steven Ellis is a native of Halifax in Yorkshire but his publications over the last three decades have helped to shape our understanding of Irish history.
He has taught at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) since 1976 and during that time he has earned a reputation as a distinguished historian in late Medieval and early modern Irish History. Steven recently received the highest academic honour in Ireland when he was enrolled as a new member of the Royal Irish Academy.
The seeds of a career in Ireland were first sown when he studied History in Manchester University.
“I’m totally English but I’ve always been interested in things Irish,” Steven explains.
“One of things that you had to study was Latin but you also did a modern foreign language, so I learned Irish from scratch at Manchester.”
After finishing university, he worked in Queen’s University Belfast in the mid-seventies, at the height of the Troubles. When a post in NUIG came up two years later, he chose to make the move to the West.
Naturally, an Englishman who could speak Irish was something of a rarity at the time.
“I think there were very few people from my background who would know Irish.”
Many of the lectures were carried out through Irish and he recalls that this offered him an opportunity to usurp his students’ expectations. “I could tease the first years when they started my course because they didn’t know me from Adam. As soon as I opened my mouth in English, they knew I was English.
“With the group through Irish, I would do about 20 minutes in Irish and gradually make more and more provocative comments about the Irish question and, so long as they thought I was Irish, this was acceptable. Then I would tell them, by the way I’m English, and you could see the credibility draining away from the lecture at that stage!
“People did not expect that an outsider would be able to speak Irish to them. There was quite a number in those days – there was a Greek who taught Mathematics, a Swede who taught Irish – to get an Englishman doing this seemed even more exotic.”
The move to Galway was obviously a change from the social unrest in Northern Ireland but he also had to adjust to simple things like the Galway accent.
“I also thought that Galway in those days was quiet. It was OK in the Summer when there were lots of tourists around but it got very quiet in the Winter. Now I think it’s come on by leaps and bounds. I really like the place.”
He points out the many cultural attractions in the city, which compare easily to larger cities, saying “it’s the cultural capital of Ireland”.
The recognition from the Royal Irish Academy was a welcome acknowledgement but many felt that it was overdue.
He admits that it was an honour to be enrolled.
“I was very pleased about that. Some people said to me afterwards that it was a long time in coming. I think if I had been in a different situation that I might have got the honour a bit earlier than I did but that reflected the fact that I was actually quite controversial as an academic, particularly in the ’80s during the revisionist controversy.
“I mean the difficulty there is that Irish people do not like to be told their own history, certainly not by an outsider. They know their own history.”