Jim Lydon, Lecky professor of History at Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 1993, began his academic career here in University College Galway where he served as lecturer for three years from 1956 before moving to TCD. He read English and History for his BA, began research for a Master’s on Ireland’s contribution to the military activities of the English crown in the 13th century, and then completed his doctoral dissertation at the Institute of Historical Research in London in 1955. Lydon’s appointment to Trinity in 1959 began an academic partnership with ‘the Ot’ (Professor A.J. Otway-Ruthven) which transformed our understanding of the later medieval lordship and attracted a succession of young research students to medieval Irish history. He succeeded her in the Lecky chair in 1980.
When I arrived in Galway in 1976, Lydon was long gone but fondly remembered. On his occasional return visit, to address An Cumann Staire for instance, his lecturing skills were very evident; but as a research student in Belfast I already knew the inside of his rooms in Trinity from trips to work in Dublin archives, and I found him utterly inspiring. He had time for young scholars, was encouraging of their research and would debate with them, and he knew how medieval English government worked. At a time when research and writing was still an occasional activity for many established academics, Jim Lydon was an imaginative and prolific scholar. Not only could he hold an undergraduate audience while lecturing on the medieval exchequer (I tried and failed!), but his enthusiasm for administrative and political history was also very evident in his writings.
His best-known book, The Lordship of Ireland in the Middle Ages (Dublin, 1972; revised ed. Dublin, 2003), is the perfect foil for the institutional approach of the Ot’s History of Medieval Ireland (London, 1968). The central themes of his research mostly appear in the four chapters on English Ireland 1215-1327 which he wrote for the medieval volume of The New History of Ireland, but he taught and published far more widely than this, offering a Special Subject on Ireland and the English crown, 1460-1541 shortly before his retirement, and then publishing a single volume history of Ireland to the present. In many ways, however, a scholar’s reputation reflects the range of imaginative new ideas he brings to his subject. Lydon will be long remembered for his seminal essay on the problem of the frontier in medieval Ireland and for his exploration of colonial identity and the concept of the ‘middle nation’.
– Steven G. Ellis