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Obituary: ATQ Stewart - Historian celebrated for his cool and astute analyses of Northern Ireland

No one got to grips more astutely with intricacy and irony in the field of Irish historical studies than ATQ Stewart.

The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster, 1609-1969 was the joint winner of the first Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize shortly after its publication in 1977, and in 2003 the historian Marianne Elliott placed it in her "top 10 history books", describing it as a "brilliant overview of Ulster Protestant identity". Its impact was such that it struck a chord with the Rev Ian Paisley in his most ferocious incarnation, and with liberals of every political persuasion: not an easy feat to pull off. It is hard to think of anything more compelling than Stewart's The Shape of Irish History, more evocative than his The Summer Soldiers (about the 1798 Rebellion in Antrim and Down), or more thought-provoking than The Narrow Ground. He was elegant, dispassionate, entertaining and illuminating, and leaves an invaluable legacy.

But Dr Stewart's latitudinarian standpoint combined with immense expertise and narrative eloquence to create a formidable antidote to any preconceptions. From his first book, The Ulster Crisis (1967) on, Stewart displayed a remarkable gift for succinctness and elucidation. Over and over, he gets to the heart of the matter. He keeps his sanity and coolness in the face of potentially inflammable material – The Ulster Crisis, for example, deals with anti-Home Rule agitation and the signing of the Covenant in 1912 – while, by sheer skill and verve, compelling assent among his readers (even the most factionally intractable).

Anthony Terence Quincey Stewart (known as Tony), an only child, was born in Belfast in 1929 into a strongly Presbyterian family of bakers and confectioners with roots going back to the United Irish Uprising of 1798, and beyond. At the age of 12 he was enrolled at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution ("Inst"), where he excelled at literature and languages. Next came Queen's University, Belfast: it was a toss-up whether the English or the history department would get him as a student, but history won. Before entering Queen's, he – with a friend and fellow-Instonian, the future folk music- and song-collector Hugh Shields – had spent the summer months in France; thereafter he revered all things French.

Graduating in 1952, he obtained a post as history master at a local school, at the same time completing an MA on the transformation of Presbyterian radicalism in the North of Ireland after 1798. His supervisor was an older friend and mentor, JC Beckett, distinguished historian and authority on Anglo-Irish attitudes. Beckett's ablest pupil always acknowledged his influence; but Stewart's independent cast of mind made him a wholly original, ingenious and spirited commentator on (among other things) exigencies of the past and the present, and the connections between them.

In 1961 he became a lecturer at Stranmillis College of Further Education, and eight years later secured a lectureship in Irish political history at Queen's University. Next, he was appointed Reader in Irish History. In the meantime he had married a fellow Queen's graduate and teacher of English, Anna Robinson, become a father of two, enjoyed a felicitous domestic life and immersed himself in reading and research in connection with the books on which his reputation rests. These include The Pagoda War: Lord Dufferin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Ava (1972), and a life of Edward Carson (1981), in Gill's "Irish Lives" series.

Stewart's approach to Irish history is sometimes idiosyncratic, but never other than inspired. Unusually among historians, too, he can mask a serious purpose with playfulness and wit. For example, in The Shape of Irish History (2001) he has this to say: "There is something wrong with the shape of Irish history. It is too short, too / narrow, upside down, and it leans all over to one side. Sometimes it seems to / be a circle, like the serpent in Celtic design which swallows its own tail; ... / For most Irish people, though, it is simply a family heirloom, a fine old / painting in a gilt frame, which they would miss if it was no longer there."

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The title of one chapter in this book, "The 10.14 from Clontarf", audaciously alludes to Agatha Christie's The 4.50 from Paddington, as the detective aficionado maps out a correspondence between criminal (in books) and historical investigation. (Stewart's literary heroes included Conrad and Borges, among others; but the detective genre provided a necessary source of relaxation.) Another chapter heading, "Why Didn't They ask Evans?", refers to Stewart's colleague at Queen's and the author of Irish Folk Ways, E Estyn Evans. Both lecturers were in favour of an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, as opposed to the prevailing academic apartheid: it was partly the increasing narrowness and bureaucracy overtaking Queen's, along with other institutions, that led to Stewart's early retirement in 1990. He was, by all accounts, a gifted and conscientious teacher; a festschrift edited by Sabine Wichert on his 75th birthday, testifies to the high regard in which he was held. No less than his engaging and discursive presence, his insights will be missed.

Patricia Craig

Anthony Terence Quincey Stewart, historian and author: born Belfast 8 July 1929; married 1962 Anna Robinson (two sons); died Belfast 17 December 2010

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