Jennifer Cunningham talks to the first professor of Irish history in a Scottish university who is a passionate advocate of affirmative

action for women

In Scotland there were just 121 female professors (8.5%) compared with 1306 male professors at the last count. According to Scottish Gender Audit, the number of women professors in Scottish universities doubled between 1991 and1998, an illustration of just how fast things are moving. There are now 22 at Edinburgh, 10 out of 116 at St Andrews, and, while Glasgow could not access the records yesterday, it can lay claim to having two of a total of 11 women professors of physics in the UK.

At Aberdeen, 9% of professors are women: 15 of the 168, but, significantly, seven of those have been appointed since Professor Duncan Rice became principal four years ago. The most recent of those is a double innovation: the first woman professor in the history department and the first professor of Irish history in Scotland.

Jane Ohlmeyer grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. It's one reason why she's fascinated by Irish history; but it was to escape the intensity of the opposing views in Northern Ireland that she first came to Scotland to study modern history at St Andrews.

Now she has been appointed the first professor of Irish history in Scotland - at Aberdeen University. Although it is not the most obvious place for such studies, Aberdeen also appointed the first chair of Irish literature in the English department and established the unique Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies. Although there are courses in Irish history at Edinburgh and Stirling, as Professor Ohlmeyer says, Glasgow and Strathclyde would be the more obvious places to look for a dedicated professorship.

She is the first woman to hold a chair in the 102-year-old history department at Aberdeen, which has named ''non-Anglocentric British history from 1300 to 1920 as one of five areas of targeted excellence''. This fits perfectly with the new professor's own interests. ''Irish history has become increasingly popular,

not just in Scotland but obviously in North America where there is a general recognition of the importance of Irish history.'' As President Clinton made his final attempt to break through the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process, Professor Ohlmeyer argues that ''to understand modern Irish

history you have to go back to the developments of the mid-seventeenth century. A lot of what we are dealing with today has its origins in that period''.

''Scottish universities have Scottish his-tory and then British history which is effectively Anglocentric history. Now we are able to look at the history of the three kingdoms of the British Isles. What happened in the seventeenth century was critical for what developed in each of them since. We need to look at all these things from a non-Anglocentric perspective before we can see things in British terms,'' she says.

She moved to Belfast as a child in 1969 but was keen to move on as part of a strong tradition of people from Northern Ireland going away to university, particularly to Scotland. She describes the history department at St Andrews as first-class, allowing her to explore European history as well as British, and a very different opportunity from the one she would have had at Queen's in Belfast or Trinity in Dublin.

After a postgraduate MA at the Univer-sity of Illinois, however, she decided she

wanted to go back to Irish history and the obvious place to do that was at Trinity College in Dublin. Even there, certain aspects of Irish history remained relatively unexplored: ''No-one had been working much on the 1640s''

and she chose the political career of the seventeenth-century Gaelic warlord Randal MacDonnell as the subject for her PhD.

''By and large Irish

people are well-informed about history, but it does tend to be their own version. When I teach I always say they can have their own views but should try to understand where the other side is coming from, which will make them better able to deal with the reason for all that. It appears to work well and makes people more accepting. When we look at the peace process we find political questions of cultural, historical, and linguistic awareness,'' she says. Pointing to a personal experience of the education system not doing as much as it could to change that, she adds: ''I wish I had the opportunity of learning the Irish language at school because we live in the island of Ireland and the people who want to learn the language should be able to do that, although no-one should be forced to do so if they don't want to.''

She was ''very happy'' teaching at Yale and living at Newhaven but it was at that point in her career that family considerations became as important as academic ones in determining her future career. ''If I was going to move the children that was the time to do it. I did not particularly want them to be educated in the US. I was a product of the welfare state and went to a first-class state school and I wanted that for them, and so the time to move was before they went too far into education. It was either the Scottish system or moving back to Ireland, and the job in Aberdeen came up first. They are both now at school in Aberdeen and I feel that was the right decision for them.''

She acknowledges that in such a move the role of the spouse is an issue, but her marriage broke up in the US and she came back here as a single mother. ''For many academics, a suitable job for a spouse is a problem. Academics are not well-paid and many academic women are married to professional men, who earn more and so put their jobs second, or to other academics, which makes it very difficult to get two jobs in the same university,'' she adds. However, Ohlmeyer has since married again and credits her husband, a partner in an international law firm with an office in Aberdeen, with being very supportive.

''My children are my primary consideration in everything that I do. I am lucky things have worked out so that I can say I have the best of both worlds. Aberdeen is very sympathetic to women academics and there is a first-rate nursery. Women with responsibility for young children need to have sympathetic work colleagues: if they cannot get there in time for a nine o'clock meeting, or have to leave by a certain time in the evening, without that level of support they would not be able to carry out their work,'' she says.

Although Yale also

had an excellent nursery, women are less well-

supported at a high level, she found. ''At Aberdeen the women-friendly culture comes from the principal down, and that sends a very positive signal. She and Aberdeen's principal, Professor Duncan Rice, share some American experience, both having taught at New York University, and Ohlmeyer attributes some of his noticeably forward-thinking to this experience.

Professor Rice has spoken out on the issue of equality for women in academia, saying that a university community has a duty to make sure women are as equal in opportunity as they are in number. ''I have always stressed the need to recognise the talents of female scholars. It is enormously important, intellectually and socially, to try and create a gender-balanced academic community.'' Saying that we still have a long way to go, he paid particular tribute to Professor Ohlmeyer: ''I have to say that after 20 years of making distinguished appointments on both sides of the Atlantic, I have rarely seen a stronger set of opinions from senior scholars in a discipline. She is one of the very best.''

That credibility, which comes largely from a solid research and publication record, allows her to say something many of her sister professors in Scotland would shrink from. She approves of affirmative action to boost the number of women in top jobs, provided the best person for the job is appointed. She breaches a barrier few would dare to cross when she adds: ''But where you have two applicants who are absolutely equal, you should appoint the woman.

''There are many excellent women working throughout Scottish universities and I hope we will see more of them appointed to more senior posts to redress the balance as we are moving into the 21st century.''