Stewart, Anthony Terence Quincey ('A. T. Q.') (1929–2010), historian, was born on 8 July 1929 in the Ballygomartin area of north Belfast, only child of Christopher Greenwood Stewart, a baker, and his second wife (née Quincey), who came from Stockport, Lancashire. The presbyterian Stewart family had been bakers and confectioners in Belfast since the early nineteenth century. Stewart's father was active in the Belfast labour movement, met James Larkin (qv) during the 1907 Belfast strike, and subsequently emigrated for a time to Australia. He was a veteran of the first world war, as were two of Stewart's maternal uncles. The family's baker's shop failed during the second world war, after which Stewart's father worked for other bakers and as a commercial traveller. Stewart's parents retained Labourite sympathies and were strongly opposed to British appeasement of the fascist dictators.
Stewart was educated (with the assistance of scholarships) at Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Though initially drawn to the study of English literature, he found literary criticism arid and focused on history after reading The wandering scholars (1927) by Helen Waddell (qv). He studied at QUB, serving as president of the student history society (1951–2) and graduating with a first-class honours history BA (1952); J. C. Beckett (qv) was his tutor and became his mentor. His father's death in 1950, after which he had to support his mother, made it necessary for Stewart to find a job, and he turned down a postgraduate research grant and became a schoolteacher.
After two temporary teaching jobs, he taught history and English at Belfast Royal Academy from 1955. He also undertook part-time research supervised by Beckett, which led to a QUB MA in history (1956) on presbyterian radicalism in east Ulster from 1792 to 1825. This was pioneering work; although some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberal unionists claimed the Ulster United Irishmen as ideological ancestors, after partition many of the unionist establishment regarded them as an aberration best forgotten. Stewart's dissertation became a valuable resource and an inspiration for later students of this topic, but he was unable to secure its publication. In 1961 he became a lecturer in history at Stranmilllis college of education, and was subsequently promoted to senior lecturer.
At Stranmillis, after a few abortive book projects (partly sabotaged by his own diffidence), Stewart undertook research on the 1912–14 Ulster crisis, assisted by a year's fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge (1965–6), financed by the Wiles Trust. The project was originally commissioned by Faber and Faber as 'a sort of political thriller', but became an academic project with the discovery that the Ulster Unionist Council had recently deposited its records from the period in PRONI, allowing the first archive-based study of the topic. Stewart's book, The Ulster crisis (1967), also served as a Ph.D. dissertation for QUB in 1966. About half the book text was serialised in the Belfast Telegraph by its editor, Jack Sayers (qv), attracting wide attention. Although Stewart subscribed to the belief in academic historical impartiality associated with T. W. Moody (qv), the book is clearly shaped by the 'unionist whig' tradition of historiography dating back to the work of Ronald McNeill (qv). Its reception reflected not only Stewart's new research material and elegant prose style, but an attempt by promoters such as Sayers to produce an agreed public narrative honouring events supposedly consigned to the past by the reformist era of Terence O'Neill (qv). The fact that Stewart was asked to deliver Thomas Davis lectures about the Ulster crisis on Radio Éireann as part of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the 1916 rising reflects awareness of his work as possessing interest beyond unionist audiences.
At the end of 1968 Stewart joined the staff of the QUB history department, becoming reader in Irish history in 1975. He was dapper, neat, well organised and somewhat shy, and was known for his courtesy and helpfulness to students, whatever their political views; some contemporaries regretted his failure to become head of department. As his career progressed, however, he disliked the increasing bureaucratisation and prescriptiveness of academia. He also grew increasingly impatient with the style of historiography associated with Moody, which he came to see as excluding large areas of human experience. (He was similarly critical of the document-centred, administrative history of Geoffrey Elton (1921–94) and the 'high politics' school associated with conservative historians centred on Peterhouse.) Stewart thought Moody harboured unrealistic expectations about the ability of historians to detach themselves from particular experiences and attitudes and of academic history to improve public attitudes; he also complained that Moody's guidelines for contributors to Irish Historical Studies imposed a barbarous prose style whose 'chief feature is the hunting down and elimination of capital letters', but hoped that Moody's real legacy was 'the enthusiasm for accuracy in Irish history' imparted to his many students (Ir. Times, 2 August 1986). Ironically, Stewart's criticisms of Moody resembled those advanced by the historian Brendan Bradshaw in the 1980s from a nationalist perspective, though Stewart regretted Bradshaw-style attacks on historical 'revisionism' – 'every historian should be a revisionist all the time' (Morgan, 58) – and feared that Irish historians in the 1990s were retreating into tribalism.
In 1972 Stewart published The pagoda war: Lord Dufferin and the fall of the Kingdom of Ava, 1885–6 (see 1st marquess of Dufferin and Ava (qv)). Its provision of the historical background to Rudyard Kipling's poem 'The road to Mandalay' was a major selling point, but the book interrogates rather than indulges imperialist nostalgia and firmly concludes that the campaign (involving an apparently bloodless conquest followed by a bloody guerrilla war) was misguided and had highly damaging long-term effects on Burma. The book was subsequently republished in Bangkok.
Stewart is probably best remembered for The narrow ground: aspects of Ulster 1609–1969 (1977; new edition, subtitled The roots of conflict in Ulster, with preface describing its composition, 1989). After producing two narrative works, Stewart wished to provide an analytical account of the ongoing Northern Ireland troubles, which would examine 'the interaction of past and present' (p. 4), but faced difficulty in combining professional detachment and personal reflection. The narrow ground criticises over-ready acceptance of nationalist interpretations of the Northern Ireland question, and argues that the conflict is not simply political but shaped and limited by folk memories of recurring conflicts going back to – or even before – the plantation. It explores these through such themes as the siege of Derry, the resemblance of urban gang warfare to earlier agrarian violence, and the Belfast rioting tradition. Stewart also seeks to counter outside perceptions of the extent to which the nationalist minority were oppressed under the Stormont regime and of the intensity of sectarian violence during the troubles. He argues that these conflicts are not mere products of 'false consciousness', and that they cannot be dispelled, but may be contained, by a political settlement.
After a somewhat puzzled initial reception, The narrow ground came to be regarded as providing vital insights into the conflict, particularly with regard to the unionist mentality. Its readers ranged from secretaries of state for Northern Ireland to republican prisoners, and in 1977 it received the Christopher Ewart-Biggs (qv) Memorial Prize. Shortly after its publication, Rev. Ian Paisley (qv) encouraged his congregation to read this 'great book' which told the truth about Ulster. This was often cited by critics who denounced Stewart as an apologist for unionism. Stewart rejected such claims, denying he had any party affiliation, and protesting that he wrote 'whatever is in my heart without thinking whether Dr Paisley is going to like it' (Morgan, 58).
Nonetheless, Stewart came to be widely regarded as a spokesman and interpreter of the unionist viewpoint, and was much in demand for journalistic commentary and other media appearances. He regarded this as part of the public educational mission of a historian, and was happy to oblige; he placed great emphasis on communication, and this was reflected in his sinewy and witty prose style, which the historian Owen Dudley Edwards compared to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stewart worked as a consultant for the BBC/RTÉ series Ireland: a television history (1980) and the Thames TV series The troubles (1981), and presented a series, The divided kingdom (1988), for HTV and Channel 4. He served on the executive of the British–Irish Association (BIA), which promoted contacts between British and Irish administrators and opinion-formers, and on the second (unofficial) Kilbrandon commission on the UK constitution. He was invited to contribute the essay 'The mind of protestant Ulster' to the policy forum and subsequent book edited by David Watt, The constitution of Northern Ireland (1981).
In 1981 Stewart published a short biography of Edward Carson (qv) in the Gill and Macmillan series of short Irish biographies. Though not unreflective, it is one of his slighter works. Because of his other public commitments, a history of Belfast Royal Academy, commissioned for the 1985 bicentenary, fell behind schedule. Belfast Royal Academy: the first century, 1785–1885 (1985) was praised as a labour of love and a significant account of Victorian Belfast, but the second century was left to Edward McCamley (1996).
Stewart was horrified by the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement, which he saw as indicating that Britain wanted to get rid of Northern Ireland, and as encouraging republican terrorism. He resigned from the BIA executive in protest at the granting of an official role in Northern Ireland's affairs to the Irish government. In a Spectator article (reprinted in the Irish Times (14 January 1986)), he compared unionists to the besieged defenders of the Texas Alamo, complained of English 'racial prejudice' against Ulster protestants, and accused the Foreign Office – 'a more sinister organisation than the IRA' – of appeasing a republic that had favoured Hitler, Mussolini and Galtieri.
Maintaining his interest in the United Irishmen, Stewart published articles on the role of William Drennan (qv) in creating the United Irishmen (1976) and on United Irish involvement in the prehistory of Irish cultural nationalism (1986). After retiring from QUB in 1990, he produced a major work, A deeper silence: the hidden origins of the United Irishmen (1993), which argues that United Irish ideology should be seen as deriving from the 'new light' school of presbyterianism, rather than as part of the retrospective genealogy constructed by later nationalists. The summer soldiers: the 1798 rebellion in Antrim and Down (1995) is a narrative account and a work of local pietas, remedying a sense that in his earlier United Irish work he had passed over the insurrection itself. He edited and wrote an introduction to Michael Collins: the secret file (1997), a facsimile publication of the RIC file on Collins (qv) (recently released by the British PRO). His last major publication was The shape of Irish history (2001), a work of 'deep history' indebted to E. Estyn Evans (qv) and to the Annales tradition. In the late 1990s he published a weekly column in the Sunday Tribune (Dublin); he also contributed to encyclopaedias and the British DNB. He accepted the post-1998 Northern Ireland settlement, but thought too much emphasis was placed on reconciling the communities rather than managing their disagreements.
Stewart married (1962) Anna Robinson, a schoolteacher; they had two sons. He was fond of dogs, detective stories and the sea (he had a holiday home at Ballyhalbert, Co. Down). In 2004 he received a Festschrift (edited by Sabine Wichert, a QUB colleague) to mark his 75th birthday, and he was awarded a CBE for services to history (2005). He died at home in Belfast on 17 December 2010 after suffering from Parkinson's disease for some years.
In many respects, Stewart has suffered the fate of the pioneer; subsequent in-depth research on Edwardian unionism and on the United Irishmen and the presbyterian tradition not only built on but surpassed his insights, while the achievement of a Northern Ireland peace settlement incorporating the extremes, as well as the extent of cultural, social and economic change in Ireland, north and south, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, made the pessimism of The narrow ground seem outmoded. Stewart deserves lasting attention, however, both as a historian of the eighteenth century and as a public intellectual responding to the conflicts of the twentieth. He saw the troubles not in isolation but as the latest in a series of shocks, personal and global: the second world war and its lasting effects on British society, the great depression and its impact on his family fortunes, the first world war memories of his father and uncles reflecting how in 1914 'the foundations gave way beneath our civilisation, precipitating millions into hells Dante could not have conceived' (Ir. Times, 12 April 1958). Stewart's explorations of Ulster Britishness were mediated through these wider experiences.