Emmet Larkin, prominent scholar of Irish history, 1927-2012

Update: A memorial service for Emmet Larkin will be held at 3 p.m. May 30 in Bond Chapel. A reception will follow in the Swift Hall Commons Room.

Emmet Larkin, a University of Chicago history professor and one of the nation’s leading scholars of Irish history, died March 19 at the age of 84.

Scholars in both the United States and Ireland credit Larkin with bringing important insights into the importance of the Catholic Church in Ireland after the devastation brought on by the potato famine. He pointed out that the period became a time of increased devotion to the church.

Larkin began his career as a scholar of Irish history by doing research in Dublin as a graduate student. His initial work on a labor leader in Ireland, James Larkin (to whom he was not related), led to his first book in 1965: James Larkin, Irish Labour Leader, 1876-1947.

He then studied the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, publishing a series of seven volumes on the political history of the church from 1850 to 1891. The first volume, The Roman Catholic Church and the Creation of the Modern Irish State, 1878-1888, won the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize for the best book of the year in Catholic history.

His most widely read book, The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism, was a collection of three essays he had published in the American Historical Review. The most influential of these essays introduced the concept of a “devotional revolution” to describe the post-famine process, which Larkin argued led to a much higher percentage of the Catholic population in Ireland to comply with the canonical requirements for religious practice than any other part of Europe (with the possible exception of Poland) until the late-20th century.

The book also pointed out that after the potato famine, the church became important to the impoverished rural economy of the country by bringing educational services and building projects, which provided employment.

“His concept of ‘the devotional revolution’ has become a key analytical tool for the wider understanding of politics, religion and society in post-famine Ireland,” said Mary Daly, professor of modern Irish history in the School of History and Archives at University College Dublin.

“Irish-based scholars are permanently in his debt for highlighting the riches of the archival holdings of the Catholic Church in Ireland many decades ago; if he had failed to do so, it is possible that many of these collections might not have survived,” she added.

In 2006, the year of his retirement, Larkin published his last book, The Pastoral Role of the Roman Catholic Church in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1750-1850. He was continuing work on another book, entitled The Devotional Revolution in Ireland 1850-1880, prior to his final illness.

Larkin did extensive archival work in Britain, Ireland and Rome for his publications and is remembered for his objectivity in studying the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“He never shied away from exposing the frailties of many bishops and priests, and their frequent displays of authoritarianism, bigotry, narrow vision and Puritanism, but he concluded that the general effect of Irish Catholicism has been more positive than negative,” said Lawrence J. McCaffrey, professor of history at Loyola University of Chicago.

Larkin found that the church “provided an impoverished and oppressed people with consolation, hope, discipline, and cultural and national identity. It also has offered them social, medical and educational services when the state was indifferent to their poverty and ignorance,” McCaffrey said.

“His analysis relied on an intense study of correspondence among ecclesiastics in Ireland and in Rome, as well as politicians in both Ireland and Britain,” said David Miller, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and a former student. “Perhaps the most compelling outcome of his research is his argument that in 1884 the hierarchy came to terms with Irish nationalism in what he describes as an ‘informal concordat.’ This finding opened a new way of understanding church-state relationships a generation later in a new nation-state.”

Miller also described Larkin as having “the ideal attributes for an adviser of a graduate student seeking a career in the academic world: He was both demanding and supportive.”

In 1960, Larkin and McCaffrey helped found the American Committee for Irish Studies, to bring together scholars on the history and literature of Ireland.

Larkin was honored in Ireland as well as the U.S. for his work. He received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in 1987 and numerous fellowships, including a Fulbright Award to study at the London School of Economics from 1955-56, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

His publications received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Council on National Literatures, the American Irish Foundation and the American Ireland Fund.

Born May 19, 1927, Larkin grew up in an Irish American family in New York. His father grew up in Galway and was a fighter for Irish independence. Larkin was a corporal in the U.S. Army from 1945-46.

Larkin received a BA from New York University in 1950 and a PhD from Columbia University in 1957. He taught at Brooklyn College and became an assistant professor in 1960 at MIT. He was appointed to the faculty at UChicago in 1966 and retired in 2006.

Survivors include his wife, Dianne; daughters, Heather Larkin and Siobhan Kates; and granddaughters, Alexis and Erin Kates. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. May 30 in Bond Chapel on the UChicago campus.