Tony Hepburn who has died of motor neurone disease aged 67 was one of the foremost historians of modern Ireland and Professor of Modern Irish History at the University of Sunderland where he taught from 1988 until his retirement in 2007.
Tony became an Irish historian more by accident than by design. While at Cambridge in the early 1960s his decision to take the third-year special subject on Home Rule – which sparked his interest in Irish history – was motivated mainly by the fact that it was one of the few topics that did not require knowledge of a language other than English. Once gripped by the subject, however, Tony quickly became an expert in the field and completed his magisterial doctoral dissertation ‘Liberal policies and nationalist politics in Ireland, 1905-10’ (University of Kent, Ph. D, 1968) under the supervision of F.S.L. Lyons. The Ph. D was a very fine piece of work, not least because it included a great deal of ‘history from below’ which had then been very little investigated in an Irish context. (Indeed, Tony’s lament in the final pages of his doctorate that ‘The Irish revolution awaits its Georges Lefebvre’ (p. 825) resonated a great deal with me when I worked on the same subject almost thirty years’ later.) Tony then took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Queen’s University, Belfast, when he worked with Erhard Rumpf in producing a translation and expanded version of the seminal work: Nationalism And Socialism in Twentieth Century Ireland (Liverpool University Press, 1977). This influential book explored the social dynamics that underpinned nationalist politics during the revolutionary period (and beyond), and is regarded as a key contribution to the continuing debate on the nature of the Irish revolution (1916-23).
Tony then worked as a lecturer at the new university of Ulster at Coleraine where he began researching the nature of the sectarian and ethnic divide in Northern Irish society. He published a number of key works on this subject but the pinnacle of his academic achievement will be his forthcoming monograph, Catholic Belfast and Nationalist Ireland In the Era of Joe Devlin, 1871-1934 (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, October 2008). This book – the fruit of a lifetime’s research – rescues the Belfast barman, Joe Devlin, and the Home Rule political tradition that he represented, from the enormous condescension of posterity; and it promises to be Tony’s masterpiece.
I had the good fortune to become friends with Tony when I moved to Newcastle University in 2004 and we had many interesting lunches discussing Irish history (and Irish historians), as well as his love of music (especially the blues) and his electric guitar-playing (he had a Fender Stratocaster copy). Tony was a fine historian, a generous colleague and friend, very good humoured, and excellent company. He is survived by his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchilden.
A.C. (Tony) Hepburn was born on 28 November 1940 and died on 25 April 2008
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 40, 2009