Modern Irish History Workshop

Hugh Hanley

The Cambridge-Edinburgh Graduate Conference (#MIHWorkshop) brought together doctoral researchers specialising in Modern Irish History to present papers ranging in time and place from children in rural Ireland’s 19th century workhouses to Irish language speakers in late-19th century Philadelphia to representations of the Irish in 1980s Britain. The range and quality of the research presented and the engaging discussions the papers generated indicated that this generation of Irish scholars might finally be able to move beyond the history wars of the past and finally normalise the study of Irish history. The conference, hosted in the splendid surrounds of the University of Edinburgh on 8 and 9 December, was the second such conference to occur in 2016 with the ‘first leg’ taking place in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in January. Those presenting papers ranged in experience from those fresh from passing their vivas to those who were just beginning, and this diversity fostered an atmosphere that was both rigorous and sympathetic. The speakers touched on numerous themes

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Kicking things off was Stuart Clark (Edinburgh), who explored the ways in which Dublin’s Scottish commercial elite expressed their Scottish identity and took an active part in the governance of Ireland’s capital. Clark paid particular attention to the role of the Dublin Scottish Benevolent Society of St Andrew in this regard. The first contribution from Cambridge came from Simon Gallaher, whose paper sought to give voice to the silent pauper children of the nineteenth century Irish workhouse, and demonstrated the disconnect between the state’s idealised child and its imagined pauper child, which continued to be thought of as a famine orphan long after that crisis was over. Keeping with the theme of institutions, Stella Isaac (Cambridge) presented an enormously engaging account of how Church of Ireland schools, particularly The King’s Hospital, struggled to come to terms with the demands of independent Ireland. Particularly enlightening, was Issac’s investigation of the difference between the ailing school’s resplendent public façade and its disastrous academic performance.

The second, and final, panel of the first day was made up of Dr Thomas (Tommy) Dolan (Edinburgh) and Hugh Hanley (Cambridge), who were each at opposite ends of the doctoral journey. Dolan’s paper noted the lack of scholarly interest in the development of John Hume’s political ideas, criticizing earlier historians for writing about Hume in a way that leaves the impression that he came into the world with fully formed ideas. He eloquently reconstructed the intellectual shaping of the Nobel prize winning peacemaker during his spells at Maynooth, pointing to the influence of Plato on Hume’s thinking. Hugh Hanley (Cambridge) introduced the beginnings of his project on the ‘post-heroic generations’ of Irish ‘public moralists’, and argued that studying the ideas of Ireland’s intellectuals – many of whom were intrinsic to the creation and execution of Irish diplomacy – we can breathe new life into the writing of Irish diplomatic history. Following this panel, the conference was invited to a reception at the Consulate General of Ireland where our host Anne-Marie Flynn, the Vice-Consul General of Ireland, gave us an extraordinarily warm welcome.

The first panel of day two focused on transnational approaches to Irish history, presenting papers on the Irish in Britain, America, Australia, and Canada. Roseanna Doughty (Edinburgh) presented a tremendously interesting paper on media representations of the Troubles in Britain and the effect that they had on the experience of Irish people living in Britain and how they contributed to the emergence of an Irish voice in late-twentieth century Britain. Engaging with the recurring theme of generations and the problems associated with studying them, Chris Morash set out his PhD project on the Young Ireland generation of 1848 and explored their contributions to state-building and the creation of separate national identities throughout the Anglo-World. The final speaker of the morning was Bobbie Nolan (Edinburgh), who scrutinized Philadelphian newspapers to unearth the continuance of Irish as a spoken language in the New World.

Trisha Kessler (UCD) looked at the criteria that made for a desirable female employee in the West of Ireland during the 1930s, and her paper highlighted the advantage that Irish-speaking farmer’s daughters had over their urban counterparts when it came to employability on account of their perceived respectability. Rose Luminiello (Aberdeen) demonstrated the benefits a comparative methodology can have on our understanding of Irish history in her paper on Catholic nationalists in Ulster and Poland. In one of the more amusing anecdotes of the conference, Luminiello spoke of thousands of Catholic school children striking against learning religion through German instead of Polish.

The final panel of the conference looked at military traditions in Ireland north and south. Gareth Lyle (Edinburgh) presented an incredibly detailed casualty analysis of Ballymacarret’s Great War memorials, using this analysis to construct a social history of the eighth Ulster rifles. Of particular interest in Lyle’s presentation was his map of where these men lived within Ballymacarret. The task of rounding off the conference was left to Dr Loughlin Sweeney (Cambridge). His paper investigated the development of Irish militarism in the Edwardian era and also explored the idea of military Irishness in the British army officer corps. Prof Delaney and Prof Biagini then brought the conference to a close, and in their remarks they encouraged continued collaboration between young researchers and noted the promise held in this new generation of Irish historians.

Our thanks to the Modern Irish History Research Group at the University of Edinburgh (@MIH_Edin) and the Irish Consulate General in Edinburgh (@irlscotland) for a thoroughly enjoyable conference!

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