Éamon Phoenix remembered as an ‘inspirational peacemaker’ at funeral in Belfast

Historian and broadcaster gave everyone in North a ‘greater understanding of shared past’, mourners told

The historian, writer and broadcaster, Éamon Phoenix, was an “inspirational peacemaker” who gave everyone in Northern Ireland a “greater understanding of our shared past”, mourners at his funeral were told.

Dr Phoenix, Fr Eddie O’Donnell said, was “recognised by all as a man of great integrity” who had “endeavoured, by his life’s work, to illuminate the history of this land and its politics, and thus set us free – free from myths and misunderstandings and free from misinformation concerning our past”.

Fr O’Donnell said that “because of the breadth and depth of his knowledge, together with his infectious and passionate sharing of it, through his lectures, broadcasts and publications, Éamon clearly demonstrated that history is indeed the great teacher of life”.

“With his grasp of his subject, and with his very considerable skill as a communicator, he imparted to unionist and nationalist, orange and green, Protestant and Catholic, a greater understanding of our shared past.”


A political and social historian of modern Irish history, Dr Phoenix was head of lifelong learning at Stranmillis University College in Belfast and was a frequent contributor to the media, particularly during the decade of centenaries.

From Belfast and educated at St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School and Queen’s University, he had a long-standing association with the Irish News and edited the popular daily column, On This Day.

Dr Phoenix also reported on declassified State papers released by the Northern Ireland Public Records Office for a number of outlets, including The Irish Times, and he was a regular contributor to this newspaper.

He was also a member of the Irish Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations and the National Famine Commemoration Committee.

He died on Sunday after a short illness, aged 69.

Requiem Mass was celebrated at St Brigid’s church, Derryvolgie, in south Belfast, on Friday afternoon.

President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheál Martin were represented at the funeral by their aides-de camp.

Among those present in the packed church were representatives from a number of political parties, including local MP Claire Hanna of the SDLP, and Alliance MLA for south Belfast Kate Nicholl.

Academics and representatives from the media were also present, including the Fitzpatrick family, owners of the Irish News, and its editor Noel Doran, and the former Northern editor of The Irish Times, Gerry Moriarty.

Mourners were told how, despite his “extraordinary academic workload and his contribution to so many projects, Éamon’s first thoughts were always about his family”.

He and his wife Alice met in Christmas 1978, “described by Éamon as the best moment of his life”.

For Alice, he was “the love of my life, a great companion and my best friend”, the priest said.

He had an “unbreakable bond” with his daughter Mary-Alice and granddaughter Nicole. “There was always a little magic when I spent time with Dad,” his daughter said, and for his granddaughter “every walk was an adventure”.

“Éamon’s sense of fun, his love of music and of storytelling, and all those simple but wonderful family celebrations, are now woven into a precious tapestry of memory,” Fr O’Donnell said.

Describing Dr Phoenix as a man of “deep personal faith”, Fr O’Donnell said this had inspired his life and work.

Earlier this year, he was honoured by the Community Relations Council as an “inspirational local peacemaker” and the priest said this was shown in his “interest in, and appreciation of, everyone’s story, and, as he liked to say, by ‘demythologising history’”.

“His family background exemplified his beliefs. A committed Catholic, he was immensely proud of his Protestant forebears.

“He liked to explain that his Huguenot ancestors came here with William of Orange, that his Presbyterian great-grandfather was the schoolmaster in Tullylish, outside Banbridge, that both of his grandfathers fought in the Great War, one being killed, the other maimed for life; and how he treasured the family Bible, which was a Church of Ireland Gaelic edition.”

Dr Phoenix, he said, “touched the lives of us all”. He was “strong in character, but gracious, loving, and lovable”, a man who was “loved by his many students” and whose “academic legacy will be greatly treasured”.

“Éamon was an inspirational educator,” Fr O’Donnell said. “The word ‘educate’ is derived from the Latin ‘educare’, to lead out. Éamon led us all out into a greater enlightenment.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times