Connell, Kenneth Hugh (1917–73), historian, was born at Southampton of what he called ‘Irish peasant stock’ and was educated there at Taunton's School. After graduating at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1941 he taught history at Aberystwyth, Liverpool, and the LSE, moving from there to Nuffield College, Oxford, as a founder fellow. In 1952 he settled in Ireland as senior lecturer in economic and social history in the department of economics at QUB. Ten years later a separate department was created for his subject; Connell, still a senior lecturer, became its head. In 1966 he was appointed professor.
Connell's reputation rests on a seminal work, The population of Ireland, 1750–1845 (1950), in which he considered population growth in a pre-industrial society. It attracted much attention and generated extensive debate among historians, though in Ireland itself this attention was delayed. Connell argued that the sharp rise in Ireland's population that occurred between 1780 and 1830 was due to an increase in fertility caused by earlier marriage, itself the result of the willingness of landlords to allow subdivision of holdings and of peasants to subsist largely on potatoes. A later book, provocatively entitled Irish peasant society (1968), consisted of four essays on aspects of post-famine Ireland – poteen drinking, ether drinking, illegitimacy, and catholic marriages. Connell was a scrupulous, fastidious, polished writer, who published little besides his two books. What he did publish was imaginative and original, it had a universal application, and his influence came to pervade the work of Irish economic and social historians: ‘more than any other modern Irish historian he rescued Irish history from the possessive parochialism of its political historians’ (Hartwell). In 1970 he was elected MRIA .
To Ken Connell principles were important. He loved controversy. Although he readily befriended students and young scholars, he was quarrelsome with colleagues and lacked qualities of leadership. He was removed in 1972 from the chair of the department of economic and social history at Queen's – the only such department in Ireland and very much his own creation. A research professorship (with rooms far from his former colleagues') was created for him. But on 26 September 1973, aged fifty-six, exhausted and dispirited, he died suddenly at his home, 15 Osborne Park, Belfast, survived by his wife, Hannah, and two daughters, Myra and Monica.