Emmet Larkin: Reading, Writing and Research

"I teach reading and writing at a very high level" replied Emmet Larkin when asked what he did for a living. Larkin was a professor of British and Irish history at the University of Chicago, where he worked mostly with graduate students. During more than forty years at Chicago, Larkin directed some forty doctoral dissertations.

Larkin's research specialized in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland from 1850 to 1900. The results of his decades-long research in archives in Ireland, England and Italy resulted in a transformation in our understanding of the history of Ireland in the nineteenth century.

Information about Larkin's researching and other activities can be found in the Emmet Larkin Papers, a large and varied collection donated to The Burns Library of Boston College by Dianne Larkin after her husband's death in 2012. In these papers we can follow Larkin's life and work. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, he was educated in public schools and attended New York University. After a brief tour of duty in the US Army he earned his Master's degree and doctorate at Columbia University. For six years Larkin taught history at MIT. While at MIT Larkin became acquainted with John V. Kelleher of the Department of Celtic Studies at Harvard University.

Reviewing the available literature on the history of Catholicism in Ireland, Larkin concluded that there was no comprehensive history of the Irish Catholic Church in the second half of the nineteenth century. He determined to write the history. As he said later, if he had known how much research and writing would be required, how many archives would have to be visited, and what great quantities of documents would have to be studied, he might not have undertaken the project. At first, he planned a two- or three-volume account, but the number of volumes kept increasing over the years. He published eight scholarly studies and had planned for at least four more. In addition, he wrote numerous articles and book reviews, and he directed the work of many other scholars, thus making additional contributions to scholarship.

Most of Larkin's research trips were funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Chicago, the Fulbright program and other institutions. The records of his grant applications, from 1955 to 1999, show steady progress in his research. Each year he would state in his application where he would go and what kind of material he would be using. His report after the research and his application for the next year show the progress of his over-all plan.

The Larkin papers document many other activities. At MIT Larkin was a house master and organized several Irish cultural events. He was active in the American Historical Association and helped to form an AHA committee on Irish Studies, which evolved into the American Conference on Irish Studies. There are abundant records of the ACIS, supplemented in The Burns Library by the archives of that organization.

The Larkin papers contain over 20,000 pages of correspondence. These letters show details of his work with colleagues, experts in all fields of Irish Studies, current and former students, friends, publishers, and others. It was common for Larkin to begin a letter by apologizing for his delay in responding to a letter or request and then writing a very detailed answer. He frequently answered questions about the best sources in some specific field and referred people to other scholars.

The archivists of the Burns Library have created a finding aid, i.e. a detailed guide to the Larkin papers. It can be found online at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/3936

David E. Horn
Burns Library, Boston College