Professor James O’Connell was a distinguished peace study scholar and renowned Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies and political science who founded the department of political science at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria and was its first HOD from 1967 until he was deported at 24 hours’ notice in 1975.
He played a significant role in redrawing the Nigerian constitution in the aftermath of the Biafran war. And later saw the department of peace studies at Bradford University for 15 years as the head (1978-93) through a period of intense attacks from Margaret Thatcher’s government in the early 1980s, Helping the department treble in size while establishing a worldwide reputation
Professor James O’Connell birth and Education
Professor James O’Connell was born on 22nd October 1925 in Cork, where his mother, Agnes (nee Harrington), kept a public house. His father, also James, was away at sea for much of the time but returned to run the pub when Agnes died in 1935.
In November 1942, during the second world war, he was one of 33 crew who were lost when the merchant ship Irish Pine disappeared without a trace. Many years later it was determined that the vessel had been torpedoed by U-608, even though Ireland was a neutral state.
James was taught in Gaelic until the age of 16. He studied Philosophy at University College, Galway where he was awarded an MA in 1948 with First Class Honours and then joined the Society of African Missions, studying theology at Dromantine College near Newry before being ordained as a Catholic priest in 1952.
Following his Ordination, James O’Connell taught Philosophy for one year at the Society’s Novitiate and Philosophy Centre at Cloughballymore, Kilcolgan, Co Galway. From 1953 to 1957 he did Doctoral Studies at Louvain, Belgium and in 1957 was awarded a PhD with highest distinction for a thesis on the philosophy of Charles S. Peirce, founder of the pragmatic school of Philosophy and apent the next 18 years in Nigeria
He worked as a missionary with the SMA (Irish Province) in Nigeria from 1957 until 1973. His first post was to teach Philosophy at the Ss Peter & Paul Major Seminary in Ibadan (1957-1958) followed by nine years of teaching Economics at Ibadan University. In 1967 he transferred to the north of Nigeria to lecture in Political Science at Amadu Bello University, Zaria as a professor of government and political science helping to found the department of political science and becoming its first head.
Professor James O’Connell played a significant role in redrawing the Nigerian constitution in the aftermath of the Biafran war of the late 1960s. He later fell foul of some leading political figures and in 1975 was deported at 24 hours’ notice.
His Return to Britain
Earlier In 1974, Professor James O’Connell decided to leave the priesthood and married Rosemary Khawaja, nee Harris, from a Belfast Protestant family, and on returning to Britain they settled in Belfast, where James was dean of arts at the Northern Ireland Polytechnic. His teaching career continued at Bradford University where he was Professor of Peace Studies, a position he held until his retirement in 1996.
In 1978 he was appointed to the chair of peace studies at Bradford, taking over a small department that had been founded as a Quaker initiative and headed initially by Adam Curle. Adam was a remarkable figure with a guru-like quality, but his aim of running a centre with minimal academic assessment and unusual freedom had not proved easy in a conventional university environment.
Though he had taken early retirement through ill health, Adam happily maintained connections with the department for many years, and James fell the task of combining critical and independent interdisciplinary study and research with the demands of a university environment.
James saw the true activism of university work as scholarship, but he argued strongly that scholars should also provide support for campaigners, politicians and policymakers. It was partly Bradford’s independent and knowledgeable research on the nuclear arms race that incurred the wrath of the Thatcher government, and matters came to a head in 1985 when the UGC’s head, Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, sought the agreement of the Bradford vice-chancellor, Professor John West, to inspect the department.
West was willing to do so only if O’Connell and his staff agreed, which they did. Swinnerton-Dyer and a colleague visited to conduct what was in effect an academic audit – virtually unknown then if common enough now. They reported favourably to the university council, to the reported anger of Thatcher and Joseph.
Peace studies at Bradford is an enduring legacy of a remarkable person and, after he retired, James remained an active scholar and lecturer as well as being a strong supporter of peace groups. As well as developing a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, the department had, by 1993, laid the foundations for extensive work in mediation and conflict resolution, arms-control research and the risk of international conflicts stemming from deepening socio-economic divisions and environmental constraints.
James’s own scholarly work over the past 20 years was principally on contemporary philosophy and theological issues, and he served as president of the Partnership for Theological Education, Manchester, now Luther King House Theological College.
James was highly critical of the structures of the Roman Catholic church but retained his faith to the end.
Professor James O’Connell died on the 8th of September 2013 at the age of 87 after a short illness. He is survived by Rosemary, his daughters Sanjida, Sheila and Dee, his son Patrick and three granddaughters.