Johnston (Johnston-Liik ), Edith Mary (1930–2008), historian and editor, was born 11 July 1930 in Belfast, eldest of three daughters of John Worthington Johnston (1904–52), athlete, presbyterian minister and army chaplain, and his wife Mary Isobel Giraud (née McFadden); a son died at birth. Edith Johnston's grandfather, John Corry Johnston (qv), was a chaplain to the presbyterian viceroy Lord Aberdeen (qv). Educated in Belfast at Richmond Lodge School and then Victoria College (she was taught by her grandfather in the immediate aftermath of the 1941 bombing of Belfast), she studied history at St Andrews University in Scotland, graduating MA. She subsequently graduated Ph.D. for a thesis on the late eighteenth-century governance of Ireland; her research supervisor was Professor Norman Gash, a considerable influence on her intellectual development, who had advised her early on to specialise in Irish history. After St Andrews she obtained a Dip.Ed. at QUB.
Appointed assistant lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield in 1956, she remained there for the next twenty years (lecturer, 1958; senior lecturer, 1965); while employed at Sheffield she held a number of visiting posts in North America, including Fulbright fellow and land grant centennial lecturer at the University of Delaware (1961–2) and Fulbright fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1962–3). Her interest in student welfare made her an ideal choice in 1969 as foundation warden of Tapton hall of residence, one of the first halls of residence in a British university specifically founded to take both men and women students. But the wardenship brought with it such considerable administrative duties, along with those her position in the history department already entailed, that in 1971 she felt she must choose between being an administrator or an academic. She chose the latter.
Her decision may have been influenced by an invitation to contribute the eighteenth-century volume to the planned Gill History of Ireland series. The invitation came from the joint general editor of the series, Margaret MacCurtain, UCD historian and Dominican nun, who had been urged to invite Johnston by another UCD historian, Maureen Wall (qv). Johnston dedicated the book, published by Gill and Macmillan in 1974 as Ireland in the eighteenth century, to her aunt and uncle, Louise MacDermott (née Johnston) and John Clarke MacDermott (qv), lord chief justice of Northern Ireland. The book was well received and inaugurated an enduring scholarly collaboration and warm friendship between the presbyterian Johnston and the catholic MacCurtain. Many years later Johnston would record her gratitude to Dr MacCurtain for her assistance with the later stages of the History of the Irish parliament.
Johnston's first experience of Australia came in 1973 when she was awarded a British Council travel grant. Two years later she was appointed to the chair of modern history at Macquarie University in Sydney. When she took up the post in February 1976, joining the fifty-strong School of History, Philosophy and Politics, she entered what one colleague later described as 'a hornet's nest of squabbling academics' and found herself immersed in culture wars over syllabus and academic governance. Wishing to preserve a traditional syllabus in early modern European history, she was demonised for her conservatism and soon experienced the hostility of a majority of the modern history staff. While her marriage to the strongly anti-Marxist George Liik, a fellow historian at Macquarie (whose family had fled to Australia from Soviet-controlled Estonia in 1944), brought her happiness and companionship, it also reinforced her reputation as a conservative. When they took early retirement in 1993, 'it was regarded as a victory by all those who had fought her tooth and nail at Macquarie' (Frank Clarke). It has to be said that where she perceived matters of principle to be involved, she found it difficult if not impossible to compromise. Some years before leaving Australia she was invited to write a history of the Australian iron and steel industry, and this was published in 1998 (A measure of greatness: the origins of the Australian iron and steel industry) by Melbourne University Press as a conjoint work with George Liik and Robert G. Ward, a former colleague of Johnston's at Sheffield University.
At the start of her career Johnston settled on the area of Irish history that became her lifelong interest: parliament and administration in eighteenth-century Ireland. This was first manifest in Great Britain and Ireland, 1760–1800: a study in political administration (Edinburgh, 1963; reissued, Westport, Conn., 1978), at the beginning of which she flagged 'her indebtedness to the late Sir Lewis Namier', and also in articles published in Irish Historical Studies and the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Out of this work a long-term research aim crystallised: to produce a history of the eighteenth-century Irish parliament, similar if not identical in scope and design to what the revived History of Parliament Trust in London was achieving for the history of the Westminster parliament.
Paradoxically, it was not until she was established in Australia that it became possible to get the sort of funding for a major research project that she could not have obtained in Britain or Ireland at that time. Over a fifteen-year period from 1977, generous grants from the Australian Research Council and Macquarie University, amounting in all to A$341,674, made it possible to establish a project based in Belfast, initially at PRONI and subsequently at QUB, assisted and encouraged by Anthony Malcomson, Brian Trainor and Peter Jupp (qv). Leverhulme Trust and British Academy grants followed in the wake of Australian support, and the project grew to the extent that some fifteen people were employed at one stage or another from 1977 to 1992, including Colin Wisdom, initially research assistant to the project and later a Macquarie University research fellow.
Early in 1991 Johnston became seriously ill and for a time was not expected to survive; she remained off work for the remainder of the year. On early retirement from Macquarie in 1993, she and George moved to Ireland to live in Comber, Co. Down. Although retirement gave her ample time for research it made her ineligible for research grants and so her priority was to put the research already done into a form where she could complete the project on her own. This she managed to do with the assistance of two former project members who insisted on working with her on a voluntary basis. Margaret MacCurtain acted as proofreader for all 2,271 biographical entries of MPs. But progress towards publication stalled by the late 1990s, and it was only a generous grant from the Irish government in 1999, accompanied by the personal interest in the project of the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and his personal advisor Dr Martin Mansergh, that helped make publication possible, an outcome that greatly pleased her: 'I was always anxious that it should be recognised that the Irish parliament was a common possession of all of Ireland' (private memorandum). In 2002, the History of the Irish Parliament 1692–1800 was published in Belfast by the Ulster Historical Foundation (UHF); in six volumes it covered the commons, constituency profiles, elections, and legislation, while providing biographical summaries of all 2,271 MPs who sat in the Irish parliament from 1692 to 1800. In 2006 the UHF published MPs in Dublin, a one-volume companion to coincide with the publication of the online edition of the History of the Irish parliament 1692–1800 (www.ancestryireland.com/history-of-the-irish-parliament).
In 1986 Johnston was well advanced in her work on the history of parliament when she discovered in a recently released file at PRONI that there had been tentative plans for a history of the Irish parliament in the 1930s; these plans had foundered on the refusal of Éamon de Valera (qv) to countenance an ill-judged proposal from Col. J. C. Wedgwood, the radical MP, that the Irish government might provide part at least of the funding. As she wrote in 1989: 'the present History of the Irish parliament was planned not only in ignorance of its stillborn predecessor but more than forty years after the idea was abandoned' (Edith Mary Johnston, 'Managing an inheritance: Colonel J. C. Wedgwood, the History of parliament and the lost history of the Irish parliament', RIA Proc., lxxxix, C (1989), 167–86, at p. 185).
The council of the Royal Irish Academy appointed Johnston in 1996 to the board of editors of the Dictionary of Irish Biography project. She had already given encouragement and sage advice to the managing editor and would continue to do so to the time of her death. She contributed ten biographical entries but did not live to see the publication of the Dictionary of Irish Biography in print and online in November 2009.
Edith Johnston died in Ards Hospital, Newtownards, Co. Down, on 25 February 2008 and was buried at the presbyterian church in Ballygawley, Co. Tyrone, after a service of thanksgiving in Belmont presbyterian church conducted by the Revd Purvis Campbell, the Revd Dr Robin MacDermott (cousin) and Dr Margaret MacCurtain, O.P.