Beckett, James Camlin (1912–96), historian, was born 8 February 1912 in Belfast, third son of Alfred Beckett, linen salesman, and Frances Lucy Beckett (née Bushell). He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and at QUB, from where he graduated (1934) with a first in modern history. He became a schoolmaster, and taught for eleven years at the Belfast Royal Academy; in 1945, after completing an MA dissertation on the legislation governing protestant dissenters in eighteenth-century Ireland, he returned to Queen's in order to take up a lectureship in Irish history. The thesis was published (1948) as Protestant dissent in Ireland, 1687–1780, and marked the beginning of a series of distinguished books which established Beckett's reputation within the scholarly community, and indeed far beyond.
Beckett was from a lower-middle-class anglican family, where there was often little money or comfort; the Becketts occupied a marchland, both socially and physically, between working-class Belfast and the affluent presbyterian suburbs. Alfred Beckett, in common with others working in the linen trade in the interwar years, was as often unemployed as not; and this placed considerable strain on his wife and children. A sense of social insecurity seems to have had a marked impact on the life of J. C. Beckett. He was prevented from pursuing his calling to the anglican priesthood by the poverty of his family, and by the need to maintain his mother and father. In addition, it is perhaps not unduly fanciful to see in Beckett's uneasiness with Ulster presbyterianism, his muted snobbery, and his concern for the Anglo-Irish gentry class, a testament to the uncertainties of his childhood.
But Beckett's career was driven, not by professional or material ambition, but rather by a deep sense of religious faith. He was an evangelical protestant by background (his mother was firmly rooted in this tradition); and although he soon moved towards a ‘higher’ form of anglican religious expression, and became nervous about the militantly protestant, sometimes Orange, aspects of evangelical culture, he never quite escaped from the family faith. Though a high churchman, he abhorred anglo-catholicism; and, though he was more respectful towards Rome than towards Pusey House, he was also clear about his own convictions, and indeed his own cultural identity. He played a prominent role in the counsels of his church, and pursued the life of the faith in gentle and unobtrusive ways (he gave large sums to church and charitable endeavours, for example). In 1948 he accepted a commission as a lay reader within the church.
The Church of Ireland was also central to his sense of identity, and to his scholarly endeavour. He saw anglicanism as a via media between Rome and nonconformity, a reformed creed which at the same time preserved the essentials of the catholic faith. But anglicanism was also the faith of the Anglo-Irish, and it was with this broad tradition that Beckett (despite his own modest background) most closely identified: the work that he regarded as his masterpiece, The Anglo-Irish tradition (1976) is an unqualified celebration of the subject. In broader terms, Beckett also invested his scholarship with a set of progressive values and optimism, which were distilled from his faith and his sense of the workings of providence, and which place him within a liberal anglican school of historiographical interpretation. In particular, his inclusivist vision of Irish identity, enunciated in A short history of Ireland (1952) and The making of modern Ireland, 1603–1923 (1966), may be seen as a reflection of his religious convictions: the Short history opens with a repudiation of a narrow Irishness, while The making of modern Ireland, written before the renewed violence of 1968–9, closes on an identifiably upbeat note in discussing the settlements of 1920–23. This open vision of Ireland and Irishness has had a marked influence over later historians of the country.
Both the Short history and The making of modern Ireland, while conceptually sophisticated, were immensely popular, and had a wide-ranging influence: both went through several editions, and were many times reprinted. Beckett was therefore important in that, while he had shown his gifts as a research historian with Protestant dissent, he had a lucidity of thought and stylistic flair that commended him to an audience beyond the academy. He was a talented populariser, although this by no means implied any vulgarisation in style, and still less any dumbing-down of his arguments. He was one of the first media dons on the island, active in the columns not just of the professional journal, Irish Historical Studies, but also of many newspapers and weeklies; he was on the advisory council of BBC Northern Ireland, and became – through his many radio broadcasts – a minor celebrity. He was a regular performer on a popular ‘questions and answers’ programme in the 1950s and – together with T. W. Moody (qv) – put together a series of broadcast lectures which were eventually published as Ulster since 1800 (2 vols, 1955–7). Beckett's association with Moody, which spanned from the late 1930s till Moody's death in 1984, also bore fruit in the massive two-volume Queen's Belfast 1845–1949: the history of a university (1959).
Beckett was professor of Irish history at Queen's from 1958 till his retirement in 1975. He had a profound influence over several generations of students, and supervised numerous postgraduates; in this way he had a wide professional impact, both at university level and within the schools, for many of his students carried the mark of his intellectual discipline and of his particular interpretations into the classroom. Some of his opinions were outrageously provocative or anachronistic: he had a notoriously dismissive view of women within higher education, for example. But he was also capable of inspiring profound loyalty from his students, and when he retired he was honoured with a festschrift, edited by Thomas Bartlett and David Hayton, Penal era and golden age: essays in Irish history, 1690–1800 (1979), and itself a highly influential volume.
In his retirement Beckett remained highly active, although there was an inevitable professional diminuendo. Two of his most personal works date from this period, namely The Anglo-Irish tradition and The cavalier duke: a life of James Butler, 1st duke of Ormond (1990). Of the former, Beckett wrote in his diary that ‘I have put more of myself into this work than into anything else I have written, and I regarded it as my best work’. Its poor sales and relatively limited impact brought personal devastation: ‘I am inclined to regard its comparative failure as perhaps the greatest disappointment of my life’. Equally The cavalier duke brought disappointment: it was not accepted by Faber, with whom Beckett had long worked, and appeared instead with a small local publishing house, Pretani. Both works reflected scholarly as well as more directly personal concerns: it is perhaps not overly fanciful to see something of Beckett's own faith and enthusiasms in The cavalier duke, given that Ormond was a convinced anglican, who was also generous in his religious convictions – and given that he is depicted by Beckett as a ‘prototype’ for the Anglo-Irish gentleman of the eighteenth century.
Beckett died in Belfast on 12 February 1996. His papers and diaries are housed in the PRONI. Despite his affectations, he may be regarded as a moderniser. He had been a patriarch of the ‘new’ historiography pioneered in the 1930s: he had contributed extensively to Irish Historical Studies, and he had written one of the earliest monographs associated with the modernising project. He had, in effect, created the study of Irish history at Queen's, and had taught several generations of university students: his indirect influence over the teaching of Irish history throughout Ireland, and beyond, was immense. He had summarised the research findings of a critical generation of Irish historians through The making of modern Ireland, and presented sometimes arcane materials in an accessible, and in the event highly popular, format. This ability to bridge the distance between professional concerns and the popular appetite for Irish history distinguishes Beckett among the scholars of his generation. On a visit to Canada in 1984 Beckett demurred when a newspaper editor described him as ‘the father figure in Irish historical scholarship’; but the claim was more than journalistic hyperbole or glibness.