Uncertain Futures: Essays about the Past for Roy Foster

Roy Foster retired from the Carroll Professorship of Irish history in 2016, having arrived to take up the newly-created post in 1991. He had earned a reputation as one of the foremost historians of modern Ireland before he arrived, and he enhanced this during his Oxford years, producing a series of outstanding monographs and articles as well as overseeing the creation of a leading centre of Irish history research and teaching. In the process, he made many life-long friends, especially among his students and close colleagues. 

All were agreed that the retirement of a historian of Roy’s standing must be marked with a festschrift, but quite what form this might take was open to discussion. Roy Foster has had an extraordinarily productive career: he has published six major monographs, each of them path-breaking in their own right, as well as hundreds of articles, book chapters, reviews and essays. Over the course of his career, he supervised more than thirty doctoral students, and taught and advised countless undergraduates. He published exceptionally widely on the literary, political and social history of Ireland, as well as contributing more broadly to significant historiographical debates within our discipline and beyond. 

As Roy’s longest standing Oxford colleague still in post when he retired, I took on the editorship after initial discussions with a number of his close friends and colleagues. Given that Roy has written on several centuries of Irish history, deciding on a period was difficult, settling on a list of contributors even more so. Matt Kelly, one of  Roy’s former students and a friend, came up with the title and the overall theme, both of which reflect some of Roy’s most enduring intellectual preoccupations. We decided to focus on the period from 1800 and to try to strike a balance between established and younger scholars, former students, colleagues and friends, old and new. 

The 22 essays which make up Uncertain Futures are arranged broadly chronologically, though the first section features essays written by some of Roy’s oldest friends and colleagues, Tom Dunne, Marianne Elliot and Toby Barnard, who trace his career against the backdrop of significant shifts in Irish historiography and Irish politics over the past forty years. Toby Barnard’s piece reflects on Roy’s Oxford career, and especially on his career at Hertford College which became, under the stewardship of Roy and Toby, ‘Oxford’s Irish college’. All the scholars who contributed to the volume spoke at least once at Roy’s Irish History Seminar, a seminar which has been central to the academic development of a generation of Irish historians.

Encouraging a dynamic research culture in Oxford has been one of Roy Foster’s greatest achievements so it is fitting that seven of the contributors to Uncertain Futures were supervised by him. The majority of the dissertations written under his supervision were subsequently published and many of them became important works in their own right. The affection in which Roy is held by former students is well-known. It is of course based on deep gratitude for the care and attention he took over drafts and the time he put aside to discuss ideas and plans. But it also reflects the support he offered which went above and beyond what was expected or customary. Most of all, it reflects the genuine interest he took in his students’ careers and the way he treated them as academic equals and companions, even before they were any such thing and even if they came to quite different intellectual conclusions. 

Former Irish Government Senior Scholars are also represented in this volume. Inaugurated in 1994, the Irish Government Senior Scholarship survived and indeed prospered over the years because of Roy’s commitment to supporting early career scholars. Researchers from Australia, Ireland, North America, Britain and continental Europe applied year after year and in Oxford they found a thriving and cosmopolitan group of Irish history students and a vibrant research culture. Roy was very much a hands-off mentor, supportive and available but never overbearing or prescriptive. This was why scholars who worked in a wide variety of periods, some quite distant from his own, could all find an intellectual home in Oxford. His genuine and ongoing interest in their research and subsequent careers set a very high standard for us all. Taken together, the articles which constitute Uncertain Futures illustrate the range of Roy’s interests and his continuing influence on the study of Irish history. 

Each contributor has been positively influenced by him, both on a scholarly and a personal level. This is evident in several common themes which run through many of the essays, including the importance of balancing social forces with political change; the attention afforded to generational and attitudinal shifts and the recognition that only deep reading in a variety of sources and genres can illuminate this; the rejection of Irish singularity and insularity; the insistence on the centrality of women in his own research from the beginning of his career, and the importance of understanding worlds and imagined futures that almost were.

The development of these themes can be traced through Roy’s lectures, articles and books produced over the years. Festschriften traditionally feature bibliographies and Roy’s must rank among one of the most impressive of his generation. It goes without saying that the bibliography at the end of Uncertain Futures is a product of strict editing. It is very much a condensed record of successful careers in historical research, editing, criticism and journalism. Lists of academic awards and prizes, visiting fellowships, guest lectures and key-note addresses do not appear; neither do any of his many acts of good citizenship to the profession.

A bibliography cannot of course hope to capture the extent of his reach and influence in a number of directions. Neither can one volume possibly do justice to the achievement and impact of Roy Foster on his profession. But I hope that at the very least, it will reflect the high esteem in which his friends and colleagues hold him, as well as celebrating his extraordinary career as a historian, literary critic and public intellectual.

Senia Paseta
Professor of Modern History, co-Director of Women in the Humanities 
St Hugh’s College