The History Boys

Irwin Character Analysis

A young, recent university graduate who comes to teach history at the school and help prepare the boys for their university entrance exams. Irwin’s philosophy of education is about looking at questions from an unconventional angle in order to appear more interesting to examiners. It stands in stark contrast it with Hector’s academic style. Throughout the play, we suspect that Irwin harbors an attraction for his student Dakin. Irwin becomes crippled in the motorcycle accident that ends the play, and spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He goes on to become a historian on television, and later an advisor for British politicians.

Irwin Quotes in The History Boys

The The History Boys quotes below are all either spoken by Irwin or refer to Irwin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Purpose of Education Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Farrar, Strauss and Giroux edition of The History Boys published in 2006.
Act 1 Quotes

Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

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There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

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With respect, can I stop you? No, with a poem or any work of art we can never say ‘in other words.’ If it is a work of art there are no other words.

Related Characters: Timms (speaker), Irwin
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

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Truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

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History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

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HECTOR: Codes, spells, runes — call them what you like, but do not call them gobbets.
IRWIN: I just thought it would be useful…
HECTOR: Oh, it would be useful…every answer a Christmas tree hung with the appropriate gobbets. Except that they’re learned by heart. And that is where they belong and like the other components of the heart not to be defiled by being trotted out to order.
IRWIN: So what are they meant to be storing them up for, these boys? Education isn’t something for when they’re old and grey and sitting by the fire. It’s for now. The exam is next month.
HECTOR: And what happens after the exam? Life goes on. Gobbets!

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

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Act 2 Quotes

It is a sad fact that whatever the sublimity and splendour of the ruins of our great abbeys to the droves of often apathetic visitors the monastic life only comes alive when contemplating its toilet arrangements.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

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What has truth got to do with it? I thought that we’d already decided that for the purposes of this examination truth is, if not an irrelevant, then so relative as just to amount to another point of view.

Related Characters: Scripps (speaker), Irwin
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

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Why are you so bold in argument and talking but when it actually comes to the point, when it’s something that’s actually happening, I mean now, you’re so fucking careful?

Related Characters: Dakin (speaker), Irwin
Page Number: 99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

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Irwin Character Timeline in The History Boys

The timeline below shows where the character Irwin appears in The History Boys. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
The Purpose of Education Theme Icon
History and Truth Theme Icon
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The play opens with Irwin, a former teacher, now in his forties. He sits in a wheelchair. He is speaking... (full context)
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...new schoolboy outside the headmaster’s office. It turns out to be the new history teacher, Irwin, who is in his mid-twenties. The Headmaster enters and ushers Irwin into his study. He... (full context)
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Class and Gender Theme Icon
...Oxford, but the Headmaster says he doesn’t have much chance of getting in. He tells Irwin that the boys “need polish. Edge. Your job.” He says that there is an opening... (full context)
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History and Truth Theme Icon
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...it must be another client, and goes to open it. It is the Headmaster and Irwin. Hector, still speaking French, greets the Headmaster, who begins to respond in English that he... (full context)
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Soon, the Headmaster interrupts to introduce Irwin as a new professor at the school. Then, in English, he tells the boys to... (full context)
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The scene changes to Irwin’s classroom, where he is passing back essays. He says that they are all “dull.” Dakin... (full context)
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Irwin pauses. Then he says that during the Reformation in the history of Christianity, “fourteen foreskins... (full context)
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Irwin looks at them again, and asks if any of them have been to Rome. They... (full context)
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After the class, Timms calls Irwin a “wanker.” Dakin says that all teachers have to “show you they’re still in the... (full context)
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The scene shifts to the staff room. Mrs. Lintott remarks to Hector that Irwin seems “clever.” Hector agrees: “depressingly so.” Mrs. Lintott says that men are generally good at... (full context)
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The scene changes to Irwin’s classroom. He says that the boys’ essays have come to a “less-than-startling” conclusion that poets... (full context)
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Irwin offers an alternate interpretation, suggesting that Britain is partially responsible for the war, and that... (full context)
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Irwin says that poetry can “add flavor” to an essay. Dakin likens this to the foreskins,... (full context)
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Then Irwin tells Scripps that “truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at... (full context)
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Dakin then says that he’s beginning to like Irwin more, though Irwin still doesn’t like him. Posner begins to sing a song, “Bewitched,” while... (full context)
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...a Mozart opera, and the Bible. Timms looks outside, and says that the knocker was Irwin, but that he’s gone now. Hector muses about other knocks, from death, love, and opportunity. (full context)
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...Lintott enters and sees Rudge. She asks him how the class is getting along with Irwin. Rudge says it makes him miss her lessons, and she is flattered. He says that... (full context)
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The scene changes to Irwin’s classroom. Timms asks Irwin where he lives, and he gives a vague response. Akthar and... (full context)
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Scripps steps out to deliver narration to the audience. He says that Irwin eventually became well known as a historian who always took an unconventional point of view.... (full context)
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Back in the present, Irwin says that the boys should take exam questions about things they don’t know and answer... (full context)
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Irwin asks whether Hector has a “programme” to his teaching, and Akthar and Timms say that... (full context)
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Akthar changes the subject, commenting that Irwin is very young. Lockwood asks whether teaching at the school is “just a hiccup between... (full context)
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Irwin asks them whether they could answer an exam question about Auden, and they all protest.... (full context)
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The scene changes to the staff room. Mrs. Lintott asks Irwin whether he’s earned a nickname from the boys. He says he doesn’t think so. Mrs.... (full context)
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Posner asks Irwin whether this is a phase, and says, “some of the literature says it will pass.”... (full context)
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Irwin, back in the scene with Posner, asks what the boys do in Hector’s lessons. Posner... (full context)
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Irwin asks why Posner came to him about Dakin, and not to Hector. Posner says that... (full context)
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...the exam. Dakin says he isn’t, but Scripps says it’s the kind of thing that Irwin would say. Dakin says it was Irwin who opened him up to this way of... (full context)
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The scene changes to an unidentified location. Irwin and Hector are mid-conversation. Irwin says that he’s gathered that the boys know a lot... (full context)
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...characterization, saying, “codes, spells, runes—call them what you like, but do not call them gobbets.” Irwin protests that he was only thinking that the ideas might be useful, and Hector objects... (full context)
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The scene changes again. The Headmaster asks Irwin how the boys are doing, and Irwin says he thinks they’re doing well. The Headmaster... (full context)
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Mrs. Lintott enters, and the Headmaster exits. She tells Irwin that if he remains a teacher, he’ll learn that Headmasters are often the enemy of... (full context)
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...saying that this unfortunate circumstance leads him to ask that Hector share his lessons with Irwin for the remainder of the term. He says that he has always considered Hector’s lessons... (full context)
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...Dakin is coming too, and Posner says he’s busy going over old exam questions with Irwin. Hector compares this to “pornography,” and asks Posner what he’s learned to recite this week.... (full context)
Act 2
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Act two opens with Irwin, about five years after the end of act one, sitting in a wheelchair and talking... (full context)
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Irwin goes on to say that these “rags are hallowed…by time.” They have become “sanitised by... (full context)
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The Man says that Irwin was a “good teacher,” and Irwin replies that meretricious people are often effective teachers, especially... (full context)
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Replying to Irwin’s question about the money, the Man says that his counsellor told him payment would be... (full context)
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Then the Man says that the piece doesn’t mention anything about Irwin and Dakin. Irwin says that nothing happened with Dakin, and the Man says he doesn’t... (full context)
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The Man says that it won’t go to print without a comment from Irwin, and that it’s a chance to tell his side of the story, to avoid looking... (full context)
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Irwin goes back to the lighted area to film his narration. He says that nowadays, people... (full context)
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...off, saying that they know: Hector is now going to share his lesson times with Irwin. Hector begins to say that that wasn’t what he was going to tell them, but... (full context)
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...is treating her as a safe person to confide in because she is a woman. Irwin enters, and Mrs. Lintott says to him that the Headmaster is “a twat.” (full context)
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Mrs. Lintott asks Irwin if he thinks that Hector is a good teacher, and Irwin says he supposes that... (full context)
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The boys and Hector enter the room. Irwin asks Hector how they should start, and he says that he usually has the boys... (full context)
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...an exam question is inappropriate. He says that any answer will “demean the suffering involved.” Irwin says that “tone” or “tact” is the issue, and Hector calls it instead “decorum.” (full context)
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...that in the Holocaust, people were “processed” and killed, and that this makes it different. Irwin says this is good, and Hector objects, saying, “Posner is not making a point. He... (full context)
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Irwin starts to say that for one thing, the argument isn’t true. But Scripps cuts in... (full context)
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...all,” and Hector is again discouraged by the shallow use of this quote (he groans). Irwin says Posner’s point is “good” and Posner counters, “It isn’t ‘good.’ I mean it, sir.”... (full context)
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The bell rings. Irwin tells Hector that he thought the lesson went well. Hector says that it was discouraging... (full context)
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Dakin tells Irwin that he and Scripps were just discussing whether Irwin is disingenuous—insincere—or meretricious—falsely attractive. Dakin says... (full context)
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Scripps teases Dakin for flirting with Irwin. Dakin says that he wants to impress Irwin in a way that surprises even himself.... (full context)
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The scene changes to the Headmaster’s study. He tells Irwin that he’s gotten a letter from Posner’s parents, who are Jewish, and object to Irwin’s... (full context)
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In a new scene, Irwin is passing back essays. Dakin boasts that he’s getting the hang of Irwin’s expectations—“it’s like... (full context)
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...says he looks forward to more sex—and he just wishes that it could be with Irwin. Dakin exits. Posner tells Scripps that he knows Irwin likes Dakin. Posner always looks at... (full context)
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The scene changes. Hector, Irwin, and Mrs. Lintott are sitting behind a table, giving the boys mock admissions interviews. They... (full context)
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Irwin calls Rudge for a mock interview. Mrs. Lintott asks him how he defines history. He... (full context)
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Dakin and Irwin are left on stage. Dakin asks how Irwin did at Oxford, and he says that... (full context)
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Dakin asks Irwin how history happens, then fills in the answer: people “make moves.” Irwin responds that “others... (full context)
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Irwin and Mrs. Lintott wait for the Headmaster. They are not sure what he wants to... (full context)
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Irwin wonders aloud how the boys will do at University. Mrs. Lintott asks him if he... (full context)
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Hector tells Irwin that the discussion will be about his “marching orders,” and Irwin says that Dakin has... (full context)
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Irwin asks if a student has ever made Hector “unhappy,” and Hector says that he’s over... (full context)
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...a grope. It is not the Annunciation.” Then she says that the Headmaster is hoping Irwin will take over her position when she leaves next year. The Headmaster comes out and... (full context)
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...with a pitiable host and that he looked at a list of college alums, visited Irwin’s college, Corpus, and didn’t have sex. Posner says that he “can see why they make... (full context)
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...received places at Oxford and Cambridge, with special honors for Posner and Dakin. He congratulates Irwin and Mrs. Lintott. Mrs. Lintott reminds him that Rudge didn’t get a place, and the... (full context)
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In a new scene Dakin and Irwin are alone together. Dakin tells Irwin that he looked up his name at Corpus while... (full context)
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Irwin says that he can’t tonight. Dakin suggests tomorrow. Irwin can’t. Dakin says that the drink... (full context)
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Irwin protests that Dakin has already had to endure Hector’s gropings, but Dakin says that Hector... (full context)
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Dakin tells Scripps that he made Irwin this offer as a way of saying thank you. Scripps jokes that this seems excessive.... (full context)
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The Headmaster enters and sees Dakin in the motorcycle helmet. He immediately protests, and then Irwin walks in. Scripps says, “and here history rattled over the points…” and the Headmaster tells... (full context)
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Irwin begins narrating from his wheelchair. He says that he doesn’t remember anything after his conversation... (full context)
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The whole staff, including Irwin in his wheelchair, and the students sing the song Bye Bye Blackbird while photos of... (full context)
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Irwin, Mrs. Lintott says, was a journalist, too—first at the school, and then on TV. Now... (full context)
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...Lintott to finish, saying, “the bright day is done and we are for the dark.” Irwin says that Hector’s teaching was not suited to this time period. Scripps disagrees: “love apart,... (full context)