Maxwell, Constantia (1886–1962)

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Maxwell, Constantia (1886–1962)

Irish historian . Born Constantia Elizabeth Maxwell in Dublin, Ireland, on August 24, 1886; died at Pembury, Kent, England, on February 6, 1962; daughter of Patrick W. Maxwell and Elizabeth (Suckling) Maxwell; educated at St. Leonard's School, St. Andrew's, Scotland, Trinity College, Dublin and Bedford College, University of London.

Was a lecturer in history (1909–39), professor of economic history (1939–45), and Lecky Professor of modern history (1945–51) at Trinity College, University of Dublin; was a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.

Selected publications:

Irish History from Contemporary Sources (Allen & Unwin, 1923); Dublin under the Georges (1936, new ed., Faber, 1956); Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges (1940, new ed., Tempest, 1959); A History of Trinity College, Dublin (University Press, 1946); The Stranger in Ireland, from the reign of Elizabeth to the Great Famine (Cape, 1954).

Constantia Maxwell was born in 1886 in Dublin, Ireland, where her Scottish father P.W. Maxwell had gone in the early 1880s when he was appointed an ophthalmic surgeon at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital. Her sister, Euphan Maxwell , followed their father into ophthalmology and became the first woman ophthalmic surgeon in Ireland. In 1916, following the death of their brother in action, Euphan returned from war service with the Royal Army Medical Corps and succeeded her father at the Eye and Ear Hospital. Constantia went to school in Scotland but returned to Dublin for her university education at Trinity College. She entered Trinity in 1904, the first year it accepted women, and was soon marked out as one of the most brilliant of the distinguished women who took advantage of the change of regulations. She graduated in 1908, having won the gold medal and a senior moderatorship, and went on to postgraduate study at Bedford College in London. Maxwell was one of that first generation of Irish women historians, among them Mary Hayden, Maud Clarke and Síle Ní Chinnéide , who were remarkably successful in obtaining university posts. Their successors were not as fortunate.

In 1909, Maxwell became the first woman member of the academic staff when she was appointed lecturer in modern history. In 1939, she was given a personal chair in economic history and in 1945 was appointed to the prestigious Lecky chair in modern history, the first woman to hold a full-time chair in Trinity. Despite these achievements, the position of Maxwell and other women academics at Trinity was difficult. They did not receive equal pay; they were excluded from the fellowship until 1968; they were not admitted to the staff Common Room until 1958 and they were not allowed to dine on High Table until 1966. For many years, they also were subject to the six o'clock rule whereby women had to leave the College precincts by 6 pm. Maxwell had retired by the time most of these changes were implemented. But, as the College historians D.A. Webb and R.B. McDowell have noted, Maxwell had "strongly conservative instincts and disliked upsetting the existing order."

Maxwell retained close connections with London and Cambridge. Mary O'Dowd claims that in many ways her historical writings are more clearly understood within an English historiographical context than an Irish one. As with other women historians of her generation, Maxwell wrote with a strong pedagogic purpose, for she was trying to provide for Irish history the kind of guides for students and teachers that the Historical Association in Britain was producing for British history. Her first book, A Short History of Ireland (1914), was for schools. Irish History from Contemporary Sources (1923) broke new ground in providing an accessible source book of documents for students. Equally important was her interest in economic history at a time when it was virtually ignored in Irish history syllabi. One her students, R.B. McDowell, later a distinguished historian, recalled that she had given him Marx's Das Kapital to read.

In 1936, Maxwell published Dublin under the Georges which was followed four years later by Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges. These studies of Ireland in the 18th and early 19th centuries were considered her best work. In 1946, she wrote a history of Trinity College which concluded with the college's ter-centenary celebrations in 1892, a reflection of her lack of sympathy with the political changes which had occurred in Ireland after independence in 1922. Webb and McDowell wrote that for Maxwell her abiding city lay not in the new Irish Free State but rather in England or in preindependence Ireland. She lived with her sister at the family home in Dublin and after her retirement in 1951 moved to Cranbrook, Kent, just south of London. She published one more book, The Stranger in Ireland (1954), and supervised new editions of Dublin under the Georges and Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges. Constantia Maxwell died in Kent in February 1962. An obituary in Trinity described her as "a deeply learned and cultivated woman of much sympathy and understanding, and much modesty and even humility for all her accomplishment and knowledge[;] her shrewd judgments on her subject and on her university [were] tinged always, it seemed, by an amused and ironic detachment which extended itself to all human affairs."


Hogan, Robert, ed. Dictionary of Irish Literature. Rev. and expanded ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Irish Times (obituary). February 8, 1962.

McDowell, R.B., and D.A. Webb. Trinity College, Dublin 1592–1952: An Academic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

O'Dowd, Mary. "From Morgan to MacCurtain: Women Historians in Ireland from the 1790s to the 1990s" in Maryann Gialanella Valiulis and Mary O'Dowd, eds., Women and Irish History: Essays in honour of Margaret MacCurtain. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1997.

Trinity (obituary). Vol. 14, Dublin: 1962.

Deirdre McMahon , Lecturer in History, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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