The Good Life at the Dáil

Contributed by John Johnston-Kehoe

Dail library

“Historians have a good life because you never really retire. You just switch workplaces.” So commented Richard A. Baker following his retirement last week after thirty-four years at the United States Senate Historical Office. Baker served as one of a team of historians that function as “the institutional memory of the assembly”, fielding queries and generating publications.

This autumn in Dublin some historian will switch workplace to the elegant Library of Leinster House, as the inaugural Oireachtas Parliamentary Fellow. The Fellowship was announced earlier this year as part of the programme to mark the 90th anniversary of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann, and appointments will be made annually up to the 100th anniversary in 2019. A Board chaired by Ceann Comhairle, John O’Donoghue TD, that also includes includes Dr Garret Fitzgerald and Prof John Horgan will oversee the Fellowship. 

How good a life can a Dáil historian look forward to? Well, on a stipend that is less than two-thirds of the average industrial wage, their job will be to produce a monograph on a pre-agreed topic during their 12-month tenure. Their work will sustain peer review and will be published on completion next year and in a collected volume in 2019. The Fellow will be required to uphold “a commitment to confidentiality, impartiality, excellence in service and professionalism”. Applications will close in the same month as one Dáil Deputy pointedly decried what he perceived as an encumbering deference to procedural tradition in the Oireachtas. 

The Oireachtas Parliamentary Fellow will one of a growing number of historians enlisted by an Irish institution to produce its history, a development noted by Kevin O’Sullivan on this forum. Some state institutions, such as An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces do afford independent academic historians archival access, encouragement, and advice. It may appear indulgent to mull over the commissioning of new history writing. It is promising that budget space is allocated to commissions historians, and that the imprimateur of the historical academy is sought by non-academic institutions. One need not return to Classical literature to enjoy an unabashed partisan version of a figure or cause to whom the writer owed patronage. However, institutional history implies a different imagined reader than those history graduates are trained to please. We are accustomed to writing for ourselves, for the cute classmate implored upon to read our efforts, for an academic supervisor, a peer researcher, a recreational history buff, or the relatives and friends of a biographical subject. Instead, and in the first instance, our reader is an institutional colleague or programme board. How do practicioners relate to a patron that is at once the commissioning editor of an institutional history and a custodian of the reputation and image of the institution? Will institutional histories squeeze unfunded and unfettered academic history off the bookshelves and down the reading lists? Is this a workplace switch with a historiographical twist, or is it – a stipend, status, and a publication opportunity – just the good life?

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