School of History and Anthropology

Professor David Hayton, Head of the School of History
Professor David Hayton, Head of the School of History
Professor Catherine Clinton, whose long-awaited biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary, will be published next year
Professor Catherine Clinton, whose long-awaited biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary, will be published next year
Work on the histories of so-called joyriding in Belfast, working class credit and the use of civic space in Belfast – a city known for its divisions, might not be what is traditionally associated with a School of History and Anthropology but it is work which has helped Queen’s gain a world-class ranking in the recent RAE results.

Already known for its strength and depth in the field of Irish history – the School has the best concentration of Irish historians anywhere in the world, with experts covering the medieval period to the 20th century– history at Queen’s has undergone a rapid change since the last RAE in 2001.

Dr Sean O’Connell’s work on car crime is the first history project on what is known as joyriding in Belfast between 1930 and the present. It explores the changing social and cultural dynamics of this form of car theft and how and why it has changed over time.

So-called joyriding has had a particularly controversial history in recent decades. Dr O’Connell said: “The term joyriding originates from the defence that was then used by offenders in court. They claimed that they had taken the car for a joyride and did not mean to permanently deprive the owner of it. This meant they could not be found guilty of theft. Many were freed.

“The first case I found of so-called joyriding dates back to 1913. The offence of taking and driving away without the owner's consent was introduced in 1930.

“Although there were far fewer cars and far fewer thefts, a Belfast motorist of the 1930s was as almost likely to have his/her car stolen as one in the early 21st century.

“A significant number of offenders in the 1930s came from 'respectable' working class or middle class homes. This contrasts with the modern stereotype of the young car thief as being from socially excluded backgrounds. One example of an upper middle class joyrider was a young man who stole a large number of high performance sports cars in the mid 1930s. His father was a stockbroker. The young man eventually went on to die as a pilot for the RAF in World War 2.”

Dr O’Connell’s research has shown that although nationalist West Belfast has become associated with joyriding from the 1970s onwards, between the 1930s and into the early 1960s it was under represented in car crime.

He added: “Clearly the onset of the 'The Troubles' did not introduce high levels of car crime to Belfast. It had been a significant problem in the city since the 1930s.

“To begin to tackle the problem of so-called joyriding we need to understand its history. My research seeks to understand the attraction of car crime in terms of the broader car culture. In particular I have noted the existence of 'legitimate' uses of cars by boy racers and the celebration of speed and dangerous driving in car advertisements, television programmes etc. This is sometimes unpopular with those who want to see an end to car crime. But it is clear that the speed and dangers of the car are at the heart of our very powerful car culture.”

Another colleague, Professor Sean Connolly has worked with colleagues across Queen’s on Imagining Belfast. The city’s unenviable history as the UK’s most bitterly divided city gave the focus for research which provides the people of Belfast with the opportunity to look back at how Belfast’s civic culture and the nature of its divisions have changed.

The project looks at the way public space has been used in Belfast over the last 200 years for events such as the St Patrick’s Day and Lord Mayor’s Carnivals, Gay Pride and the recent campaign to recast the annual 12th of July celebrations as a cultural and tourist event.

Other important work on Irish history published since the last RAE includes Professor Liam Kennedy’s pioneering study of the history of prices, Professor Mary O’Dowd’s major study of women in early modern Ireland, and Fearghal McGarry’s much praised biography of Eoin O’Duffy, the first Commandant of the Garda Siochana and the leader of the Blueshirt movement.

Elsewhere, Professor Keith Jeffery from the School has also been selected to write the first official history of MI6. His book, which is to be published next year, will mark MI6's centenary and cover the history of the Secret Service from its beginnings in 1909 to the early Cold War in 1949.

Another important area of expertise is the history of the southern United States, before and after the ending of slavery, in which two historians in the School, Professor Catherine Clinton Dr Brian Kelly, have produced prize-winning books. Professor Clinton’s long-awaited biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary, will be published next year.

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