Northern Ireland

Historian Éamon Phoenix remembered as a 'gifted communicator' with an unmatched understanding of the north's history

Dr Éamon Phoenix. Picture by Hugh Russell
Dr Éamon Phoenix. Picture by Hugh Russell

HISTORIAN Éamon Phoenix was last night remembered as a "gifted communicator" whose contribution to advancing the understanding of the north's history was unmatched.

The Irish News columnist, acclaimed author and broadcaster died on Sunday night following a short illness. He was 69.

His funeral will take place on Friday at St Bridget's Church in south Belfast, followed by burial at Blaris Cemetery.

Dr Phoenix came to prominence in the 1980s when he published Northern Nationalism: Nationalist Politics, Partition and the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland, still regarded as a definitive work. Around the same time, he joined The Irish News, contributing the On This Day column, the latest instalment of which appeared yesterday.

May 3 2021: Dr Éamon Phoenix - How nationalists rejected partition 100 years ago today

He was also editor of A Century of Northern Life: Irish News and 100 Years of Ulster History, 1890s-1990s, a history of this newspaper and was latterly a lecturer at Stranmillis University College.

The Belfast-born historian's work was celebrated right across Ireland and he was a member of the expert advisory group established by the Irish government to advise it on matters related to the recent Decade of Centenaries.

Irish News editor Noel Doran said he was deeply saddened by Dr Phoenix's death, describing him as a "revered colleague and a valued friend".

''Éamon was one of Ireland's pre-eminent historians and possessed unparalleled insights into the past, present and future of our society," he said.

''He was also the chronicler of all aspects of The Irish News since 1891 and indeed its predecessor the Belfast Morning News since 1855.

"His On This Day column was cherished by our readers over the decades, and his recent work on the crucial 1922 and 1972 periods epitomised the importance of his role."

Mr Doran recalled how Dr Phoenix would regularly visit the newspaper's Donegall St office, where he would don blue rubber gloves to examine the ancient bound files which formed the basis of his research.

''As well as being a gifted writer, Éamon was an exceptional orator with an ability to bring every subject to life through his anecdotes and observations," he said.

Irish News columnist and historian Brian Feeney described his friend and colleague as a "peerless master of the history of northern nationalism".

"He was generous with his time and energy and his brimming tireless enthusiasm was infectious – his death is an immeasurable loss keenly felt by many many people," he said.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said Dr Phoenix had published "many valuable and important pieces of historical writing, reflection and analysis" over four decades.

"His distinctive contribution to building the peace on this island was clear to all, and particularly through his regular columns in local newspapers and appearances on radio and television, and his important involvement with the decade of centenaries," she said.

Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey recalled how the historian had delivered a series of lectures at Parliament Buildings as part of the events to mark the decade of centenaries.

"Of all the tremendous feedback for those lectures, it was Éamon’s expertise, personable style and humour which captured the audience," Mr Maskey said.

The former Sinn Féin MLA said Dr Phoenix was perfect for the the assembly events, as he "meticulously dealt with the potentially divisive subject of our history in a balanced way, based on the facts and evidence in a way which could not be challenged".

“Éamon’s personal contribution to advancing the understanding of our history cannot be underestimated and he is undoubtedly a huge loss to this society," Mr Maskey said, extending his condolences to the Phoenix family.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna said the late historian was "renowned for his mesmeric and musical speaking voice".

"No man knew more about the history of Ireland, and particularly the north and the tragic historical circumstances that shaped the attitudes of all of us on this small piece of earth," she said.

"He was recognised as being impartial and fair-minded by everyone and could travel anywhere without issue due to his recognition as a man of integrity and honesty."

Fellow academic Dr Francis Costello said that as well as being a colleague and lover of Irish history and culture, Dr Phoenix was a "dear friend".

"Indeed on a personal basis the welcome he and Alice gave to me and my family upon our arrival in Belfast in 1998 made our settling in much easier," he said. "Éamon was a gentleman and a proud Irishman as well as a scholar."

Former Irish News editor Nick Garbutt described Dr Phoenix as a "great orator who had great fluency and infectious enthusiasm",

Former SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said the historian's passing was a "huge loss".

"Éamon Phoenix was a national treasure with a great sense of the particular little details that enlivened the personality or subject he was speaking about".

Dr Phoenix is survived by his wife Alice, daughter Mary Alice, son-in-law of Stuart and granddaughter Nicole.