May 1, 2010
If you had told Thomas Bartlett in 1970 that 40 years later he would be the Burns Scholar at Boston College, teaching classes on Ireland in the early modern era and researching the holdings of the "best Irish collection in North America," he probably would not have believed you.
Then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Bartlett had come to the United States from Ireland to engross himself in the study of American colonial history. It was in Ann Arbor that he stumbled upon a set of documents that changed the course of his academic life.
"I had no interest in doing Irish history at all, really," Bartlett said recently while sitting in a crowded coffee bar on the BC campus. "But when I was at Ann Arbor, I realized that there were Irish documents here that were generally unknown in Ireland. So I started working on them and they started to form the basis of my PhD."
Wearing the academician's uniform of an earth-toned sweater and muted slacks, Bartlett's approachable worldliness is perfectly suited to life in a classroom. He has wise, yet questioning eyes, the sort that speak to decades spent in locales of choice: libraries and lecture halls.
Bartlett published his doctoral research, centered on the Townshend viceroyalty and inspired by the documents uncovered in Michigan, in 1976 and was awarded his PhD from Queens University in Belfast. Since then, his life has been about the study of Ireland. "I've always taught American history," he said, ... "but Irish history is three-fourths of what I teach."
As a scholar of Irish history, Bartlett has assumed numerous visiting professorships: "I had a Fulbright to Michigan in 1982 so I went there for a year and then, in 1997, I was at the University of Washington in Seattle and in 1999 at Notre Dame," he said. Travel, and particularly the conjunction of travel with research, has been a constant of enjoyment for Bartlett throughout his career. A voracious consumer of his new surroundings, he constantly is reordering his findings via lectures, papers, or integrating them into his teaching.
Even on his home turf, the University of Aberdeen, Bartlett is a bit of a visitor, as he commutes from Dublin twice a week. "There is a flight several times a week through a budget airline, which is extremely cheap, like ten or fifteen dollars," he said, "so the taxi cab fare to the airport is always more expensive than the flight itself."
In Aberdeen, Bartlett is a staple in the history department, teaching American and Irish history while writing often. There have been countless essays and, in 1996, he published "A Military History of Ireland," of which he says, "I think it has stood the test of time pretty well."
The professor was long on the Burns Scholar track before coming to BC. "I was asked about eight years ago," he said. "That's actually very good because it gives you an opportunity to plan. ... It seemed like a long time, a massively long time, but it comes by pretty quickly."
Bartlett spends most of his time poring over the holdings in the Burns library, a prized collection of rare and unique documents and books housed in the Bapst Library on the edge of campus. In addition, he committed to teaching two courses and giving two public lectures during the year. He has taught a on Ireland in the 1790s to a group of graduate students and one on early modern Ireland to undergraduates.
Bartlett's curiosity keeps him on a busy schedule. "I wrote a paper while I was here about the first librarian of the Burns Library because her papers were [here]. I thought I'd take a look at these papers and I was quite intrigued by the documents and correspondence she left behind." He then went public with his findings about Helen Landreth, Burns librarian for nearly 30 years. "I gave it as one of my lectures," he said. "It might be published, we'll see."
Bartlett has not been a campus hermit. "I like Boston very much," he said. "I've been here before for a couple of days, but nothing serious. My wife is here with me and she's enjoyed the Boston experience, as well. We find the city very manageable—we take the T—and have met a lot of new friends. ... We drive around a bit; we go to New Hampshire or Cape Cod for the weekend if the weather is nice," he said. "I like Cape Cod very much, it's nice going there in the off-season." he conceded that he has occasionally stopped by a local tavern. "Purely in the interest of research, of course," he added.
His time as a Burns Scholar will end early next month, but Professor Bartlett hopes to return in September to publicize his newest book, a history of Ireland set to be published this month. This scholar never stops.