In Memoriam

Alan O'Day (1940−2017)

N. C. Fleming, December 2017

Historian of Ireland

Alan O’DayAlan Earle O’Day, formerly senior fellow in history at Grey­friars Hall, University of Oxford, died on May 11, 2017. O’Day was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1940. He received his AB from the University of Michigan (1962) and his MA from Roosevelt University (1965). After two years of doctoral study at Northwestern University, he went to London, where he completed his PhD at King’s College, University of London (1971).

O’Day was raised in and around Chicago, and for several years combined studies at Roosevelt with working as a manager at J. E. Watkins, in Maywood, to support his parents. His move to London in 1967, however, proved decisive both personally and professionally. Before completing his PhD, O’Day married another history PhD candidate at King’s, who, as Rosemary O’Day, went on to become an accomplished historian of the early modern period. In 1972, they had a son, Andrew.

Alan O’Day held a succession of short-term academic appointments at the universities of Newcastle, Salford, and East Anglia, and two years at Universität Giessen in Germany, before arriving at North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University) in 1976. He remained at that institution until his retirement in 2001, during which time he held a number of prestigious fellowships, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Nuffield Foundation, and the British Academy. In 1991−92, he was visiting professor of history at Concordia University, Montreal. Following his retirement in 2001, O’Day spent a year in Northern Ireland as senior visiting fellow, Institute of Irish Studies, at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and seven years as senior fellow at Greyfriars Hall, Oxford, the city he also called home. Throughout his career, he held a number of visiting appointments at Oxford: at St John’s College, Wolfson College, St Antony’s College, Mansfield College, and the Rothermere American Institute.

O’Day regularly visited the country of his birth. In a personal capacity, he was a frequent visitor to Washington, DC, where one of his few remaining relatives resided: Helen O’Day, a retired US Air Force colonel. He worked also for several short spells in the United States through visiting appointments at the University of Maryland, College Park; Johns Hopkins University; the Catholic University of America; and George Washington University.

The impact of the “Irish question” on British politics was the subject of O’Day’s dissertation and first book, The English Face of Irish Nationalism (1977, republished 1994). The idea was first suggested by Walter Arnstein, his MA supervisor at Roosevelt. It and subsequent books on Irish nationalist politics broke new ground by stressing the constitutional activities of the Irish party at Westminster and emphasizing the willingness of its leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, to accept limited devolution in the mid-1880s. O’Day’s contributions also helped to revive interest in Parnell’s predecessor, Isaac Butt.

His prolific output played a significant role in the so-called revisionism of modern Irish history; he even co-edited a volume on the controversy this aroused with his long-term collaborator, D. George Boyce. In addition to three monographs and two short biographies, O’Day’s prodigious contribution to Irish historiography included co-editing six collections of essays, two reference books, and many more essays and articles. He also edited and co-edited, with Yonah Alexander, 11 books on terrorism, many dealing with Northern Ireland, though after the attacks of September 11, 2001, his interests broadened to include cyberterrorism and the war on terror. In the late 1980s, O’Day was a member of the editorial board of Terrorism: An International Journal. He also co-edited with Terry Gourvish a number of essay collections on British history.

As his wide-ranging publications suggest, O’Day practiced scholarly collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches before these became fashionable. He had a pronounced interest in and knowledge of bibliographical and later digital sources, and was noted for his generous assistance to other Irish historians. He was well known for being genial company and having firm friendships, though in some cases these were tempered by a certain cantankerousness.

During the last two years of his life, Alan O’Day battled cancer with remarkable tenacity. He held out hope of returning to his scholarly projects, only to be thwarted by several spells in the hospital and declining health. He is survived by his son, Andrew, and former wife, Rosemary.

N. C. Fleming
University of Worcester, UK


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