As the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, receives an honorary degree, Professor Enda Delaney reflects on our special relationship with our neighbours across the water.

The University of Edinburgh’s special links with the Republic of Ireland were reaffirmed on 28 June when His Excellency Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland, received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at a graduation ceremony in the Usher Hall.

President Higgins, a politician, poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster, delivered a passionate address emphasising the common bonds between Ireland and Scotland.

“Scotland and Ireland are nations who facilitate and value dialogue, nations who wield moral authority rather than a sword, and we are also nations that believe in the power of education and ideas to change the world,” he told the Usher Hall audience.

Speaking directly to new alumni, President Higgins urged them to consider their responsibilities as they embarked on their journey after graduation.

He said: “May a passion for justice and equality be the force that drives you in all of your future endeavours. May you not only acquire and retain passionate ethical consciousness, but also a sense of wonder, of possibilities never fully exhausted.”

Judging by the enthusiastic response from the graduates and their families and friends, this address touched a chord and will remain with them for many years to come.

Irish President Michael D Higgins receives his honorary degree in the Usher Hall. Photograph: Douglas Robertson.

Irish President Michael D Higgins receives his honorary degree in the Usher Hall. Photograph: Douglas Robertson.

The honorary graduation ceremony for President Michael D Higgins on 28 June 2016. Photograph: Douglas Robertson.

The honorary graduation ceremony for President Michael D Higgins on 28 June 2016. Photograph: Douglas Robertson.

Edinburgh’s Irish alumni

Since the establishment of the University in 1583, Irish people have travelled “across the water” to study at Edinburgh. During the 18th century Edinburgh’s burgeoning reputation ensured many Irish students came to this city, home of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The list of graduates in medicine contains numerous Irish names, many of whom have made their mark on the development of medical practice in their home country.

There is also a long-standing link between New College and the Irish Presbyterian Church in the training of ministers. Many other subjects across the University in science, engineering and the social sciences continue to attract talented Irish students.

Forefront of the field

In the field of history, Edinburgh is unique among British universities in that courses were offered on Irish history since the late 1980s, taught by the legendary historian and writer Owen Dudley Edwards. These early beginnings laid the groundwork for more recent developments: academic staff and students can draw on a tradition of excellence stretching back more than 40 years when Irish history was first taught to undergraduates.

Today Edinburgh has a world-class reputation in Irish history, and is widely considered to be one of the top global universities in this field with both strength and depth.

The Irish History Research Group in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology has the largest number of PhD students in the world working on modern Irish history outside of the island of Ireland itself. Young scholars come from Trinity College Dublin, University College London, York, University College Dublin as well as Edinburgh.

The group’s activities extend far beyond the University. For example, for the past three years it has hosted a film series, Screening Irish History, jointly organised with Edinburgh’s Filmhouse cinema.

Michael D Higgins

Michael Daniel Higgins, affectionately known as “Michael D”, had a humble start to life, brought up from the age of five by his aunt and uncle in County Clare. He studied sociology and lectured at University College Galway before entering politics, joining Fianna Fáil as a student then moving to the Labour Party.

He was elected to the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, in 1987, and served his Galway West constituency until running for the presidency in 2011.

He has a reputation as a radical politician and a vociferous campaigner on human rights.

Mr Higgins has published three volumes of poetry, and has championed the arts and the Gaelic language in Ireland. He re-established the Irish Film Board and set up the first Irish language TV station.

In 2014 Mr Higgins made the first state visit to the UK by an Irish President.

Arbuthnott award

The University also offers the Arbuthnott award to support high quality graduate students working on Irish history.

This prize is named after Justin Arbuthnott, who drowned along with three fellow Edinburgh students in July 1989 when their boat capsized off the coast near County Donegal. The award is funded by an endowment established by family and friends to commemorate his life and is designed to promote the better understanding of Ireland and various complex relationships which link Ireland and the UK.

The Irish history group hosts the Arbuthnott Lecture in British-Irish Relations, a public lecture delivered in recent years by prominent writers and historians including Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times and Professor Roy Foster of the University of Oxford, the biographer of Irish poet and Nobel laureate WB Yeats.

Easter Rising centenery

Edinburgh’s global standing was recognised when we were among a small number of international universities to be awarded funding by the Government of Ireland in support of events exploring the history of the Easter Rising of 1916, as part of the Ireland 2016 Global Commemorations Programme.

A series of lectures given by distinguished scholars such as Joe Lee (New York University) and Declan Kiberd (University of Notre Dame) presented cutting-edge scholarship on the Easter Rising to the wider public.

Connolly symposium

The day after receiving his honorary degree President Higgins returned to the University to address a symposium that considered the life and legacy of James Connolly (1868-1916), the Scottish-born revolutionary leader, writer and socialist.

Scholars from Dublin, Galway, Aberdeen, Dundee and York, as well as Edinburgh, debated both Connolly’s life as a committed socialist and revolutionary leader, and his legacy. Idealised by many in Ireland, he is little known in his native country. This event was jointly organised with the Centre for the Histories of Class and Labour at the National University of Ireland, Galway, President Higgins’ alma mater.

Connolly, born into poverty to Irish parents in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh, was the leader of the Irish Citizen Army which fought alongside other Irish revolutionaries in the Easter Rising of 1916. He was badly injured during his time commanding the revolutionaries from the General Post Office in Dublin.

After a court-martial he was the last of the 1916 leaders executed. He was seated on a box when shot by a firing squad due to his injuries.

Fitting leadership

Given the close ties between the University and Ireland it is very fitting that our Irish history research and teaching are setting the agenda in this global field, working with partners at Irish and other universities, hosting major international events, attracting and training the very best PhD students, and engaging with the public.

Ireland has a global diaspora reckoned to number 70-80 million people and it is appropriate that a global university should be at the forefront of the advanced study of Irish history in, as President Higgins stated, “the great seat of knowledge that the University of Edinburgh is and has been for so many centuries”.

Professor Enda Delaney with Irish President Michael D Higgins in Dublin in 2015.
Professor Enda Delaney with Irish President Michael D Higgins in Dublin in 2015.

Enda Delaney is Professor of Modern History in the School of History, Classics & Archaeology. His research interests are the history of modern Ireland, including the diaspora; transnational history; and modernity in comparative historical contexts. His books include The Great Irish Famine: A History in Four Lives (Gill and Macmillan, 2014), The Curse of Reason: The Great Irish Famine (Gill and Macmillan, 2012) and  The Irish in Post-War Britain (Oxford University Press, 2007.

Professor Delaney is a regular commentator on the the role of emigration in Irish culture over the past century. Examples of his recent writing include a comment piece in the Irish Times on the status of Irish people living in Britain in light of the referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union.

In spring 2013 Professor Delaney was invited to Dublin by President Higgins to discuss the ongoing emigration from Ireland of thousands of people per week in the wake of the financial crash in 2007.

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