R.J. Hunter 1938–2007
I have the privilege of being one of Bob Hunter’s closest and best friends and, as such, it is my duty to recall his life and celebrate his achievements. This is not the time to dwell upon his suffering but to invite the rest of his friends to join with his daughter, Laura, and Anne to take pleasure in his wit, his humour and even his impatience. And what more fitting place for his funeral than this fine plantation cathedral of St Columb’s,Londonderry.
Bob was born in County Meath on 22 October 1938 into a relatively austere Church of Ireland family. He once confided in me that he could not abide eggs as part of his diet because the family had lived on them in bad times. No silver spoon then. Yet he was given an excellent education starting with one of Ireland’s premier Protestant schools,Wesley College, in its original position on St. Stephen’s Green. He could have emerged as ‘ Farmer Bob’, rather than the academic we are so familiar with, because his father wanted him to work on the family’s 100 or so acres in Ashbourne raising beef cattle, especially after the father’s injury from stampeding cattle or what passes for a stampede in Ashbourne. However, Bob’s determination was not for the first time nor the last to show through and, after Wesley, he began his academic life in 1957 studying history at TCD. Yet he continued to ride his bicycle between Ashbourne and Dublin, sustaining major damage to his face on one occasion when he hit an uneven section of road. However, his life changed much for the better in 1959 when he was awarded a Foundation Scholarship and the Dunbar Ingram Prize which gave him residence rights in TCD. He at last could enjoy a social life among the English public school and others who played such a large role in the university. In 1960 he was awarded the Alison Philips Medal. After graduation in 1961 Bob began research under Theo Moody on the Ulster plantation in the counties of Armagh and Cavan, 1608–41. This interest in the plantation, and early modern Irish history generally, was to dominate his life. He was eventually to be awarded the degree of M.Litt. for his research in 1959.
Bob’s contact with Derry began in 1963 when he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in history at Magee College at a time when his colleagues included Aidan Clarke, Leslie McCracken and John Brown. My first acquaintance with Bob came in 1966 when I was appointed an Assistant Lecturer in history at Magee. Yet our later friendship had an inauspicious start. I was called over for interview wearing my standard suit for the occasion and as I viewed the campus Bob was viewing me from a window in Woodburn where he was resident lecturer. As he was later to recall, one of his earliest friends was also a candidate for the post but ‘the Englishman in a suit’ beat him to it.
Bob’s teaching expanded with the takeovers and changes in Magee’s fortunes after the mid-1960’s and there were times when he felt overwhelmed as teaching left little time for his research, or so he viewed it. His Coleraine and Derry courses in Irish history in the early modern period attracted large numbers of students and to some extent he was the victim of his own popularity. But he was to be recalled with a mixture of pleasure and amusement as well as expanded knowledge by successive waves of students. His research was primarily concerned with the plantation in Ulster and the transition from the previous Gaelic society and the ploughing through sources, and the research, not only took him to Dublin but to London and elsewhere, broadening his experience of academic life. More than 30 articles, essays, reviews and the like were the result of painstaking study conducted with a meticulous eye for detail and relevance. Publications included the plantation in Ulster in Strabane barony Co. Tyrone, 1600–41, towns in the Ulster plantation, Sir Ralph Bingley, 1570–1627, Ulster planter, etc, as well as Ulster port books, 1612–15. Bob took great pride in his publications which were drawn upon subsequently by fellow historians working in the field.
As an active researcher in early modern Irish history Bob was anxious to preserve the primary material that was its bedrock. The Magee library under its earlier management became one of his crusades. Those in the know found themselves warning others ‘don’t mention the library’ or they would have to endure a long diatribe. There was also a criticism of the way in which the memory of the great Presbyterian founding fathers of Magee College was violated by the removal of the name plaques. Bob felt these things with increasing sensitivity in his later years. But to give him his full due Bob was prepared to put his money where his mouth was and when his economic fortunes were transformed with the sale of his land early benefactors were TCD library and the Derry and Raphoe Dioceses Library. For example, he undertook to contribute £30,000 over 3 years to the latter project and actively served upon the project board.
Bob also had strong political opinions in the mid-1960’s as a supporter of civil rights. Like many of us he became radicalised by the sighting of the new university, after Lockwood, in Coleraine. Yet he was soon to become highly critical of developments in some republican circles in Derry and elsewhere in the province and it reinforced his growing conviction that the history of Irish protestants and their contribution to Ireland needed to be rescued from the ‘faith and fatherland’ approach.
More importantly for Bob in his latter years he found increasing spiritual solace in the Anglican faith in which he was reared. But this is something for others to recount. Bob’s life was a rich and varied one and I can only shed some light upon it from my perspective of a dear friend who will never be forgotten.