Pull up a pew at the picnic for the history session: Diarmaid Ferriter at the Electric Picnic

By Lisa-Marie Griffith

CIMG0916I have to admit I was a little surprised to see Diarmaid Ferriter listed as one of the speakers at the Literary Tent at the Electric Picnic  festival this weekend.  Ferriter, there to promote his new book, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Irelandspoke alongside a weekend line-up that included Roddy Doyle, John Banville and Florence (of Florence and the Machine). My curiosity got the better of me and so I took some time out from the music to go along.

I posted a blog about the historian Simon Schama speaking with world renowned literary giants at the Dublin Writers Festival so why was I surprised? Well it’s a music festival- a place where people convene to see bands and engage in more popular pursuits like music. There is something about the Irish literary figures, stereotypically drunk, broke (or both) and with destructive personalities, that seems to fit with the idea of a rock stars and their lifestyle so I suppose I have always seen the addition of such a popular subject area as literature to a Music and Arts festival like Electric Picnic as natural. But does a historian really belong at a boutique arts and music festival like ‘The Picnic’?

Pue’s has in a number of posts raised the issue in one guise or another: ‘how popular is it acceptable for a historian and history to be while remaining academically true?’I must admit that seeing Ferriter reminded me of this. His tent was full and the crowd sat on pews (not the church of rock I suppose but the church of the literary canons) or on the ground. Feeling like a bit of groupie, I caught a quick word with Ferriter after his session and asked him how he felt on being asked to speak at a music festival (it is after all primarily about the music). He answered quite simply that as historians ‘we are here to communicate’ and what a better place to do so. I will have to add this makes a lot of sense to me.

I was a little disappointed that his talk was not followed questions from the crowd who all seemed to have enjoyed him thoroughly. Not as openly charming as Schama, or as all knowing as Starkey, Ferriter is a indeed a good communicator, frank and articulate; he deals with issues that Irish people have shied away from like sex with a careful seriousness.

The audience at festivals like Electric Picnic are usually looking for a little more than rain and music so literature and political debate were added to the lineup. I am not sure if Ferriter’s appearance marks the further incorporation of historians into the literary genre or indicates the inclusion of a wider range of subjects at a festival like Electric Picnic; the Science Gallery had a tent of their own and had demonstrations all weekend. I am all on for supporting the increasing demand for history. It fuels jobs and lets face it they can be hard to come by! Ferriter and his cohort are ensuring that History as a subject is constantly in the public eye, being consumed, discussed and purchsed and that has to be a good thing. Thats why Pues is here after all.

I thought that this would be a good opportunity to open a post up to our readers for a general discussion. Increasingly it would seem that history has expanded to meet popular demands and that I suppose is the concern. Does this compromise what we do? I would be really interested to here any thoughts other people have on this…

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14 Responses to “Pull up a pew at the picnic for the history session: Diarmaid Ferriter at the Electric Picnic”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Good question: Does this compromise what we do? I’m definitely in the pro-accessibility category. Good history is good history, bad history is bad history. People can tell the difference. There are plenty of bad historians who have never seen the light of day or whose books will never make it out of an archive, just as there are plenty of great historians whose voices more people should hear. Why keep them locked up for academia just because they have something interesting to say?

    And I certainly don’t agree with that old chestnut that just because something is written with a wider audience in mind it can’t play a role in academic debate. That whole argument badly underestimates the intelligence of an audience who just happen to not be consumed by academia.

    To your list, by the way, I might add the ‘historian of the present’, Guardian writer and well-respected commentator, Timothy Garton Ash, who I wrote about here (https://puesoccurrences.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/history-making-historians/) and whose new book, Facts Are Subversive, I’m enjoying at the moment, and there are dozens of prominent political scientists whose work borders on history but whose methods might slightly differ and thus are pushed to one side. (But perhaps that’s a debate for another day).


    • Tomas Says:

      And here’s where we come full circle…

      It seems like what we’re discussing here could easily be referring to the music scene. Are a band credible once they start selling a million records and getting played on the radio? Some will take the opinion that because so and so is a popular historian, they can’t be taken seriously. Obviously it should always come down to the merits in the respective work, but it can be hard to get past that when you’re bombarded with, lets say, the Kings of Leon, or Richard J. Evans, in every Easons, Starbucks or airport you pass through (I try not to pass through many, by the way).

      Are history ‘fans’ like music fans in getting a bit territorial about their favourite artist and disowning them when they make it big? Do they long for the flawed but brilliant first book over the populist and somewhat generic MOR fourth tome (not discounting the difficult post thesis second book)? I’m not sure that they do, but historians seem to be seen to lose credibility (whatever that actually means) when they hawk their book for the Christmas market or bag their first Emmy.

      A huge disclaimer: I couldn’t think of the correct analogy between band and historian, so just put the Evans/Kings of Leon up their for argument’s sake (being two artists who have become household names). I am, however, convinced that Jeremy Black, a historian who just keeps on banging out the hits, equates quite well to a polished boyband, but my knowledge of the latter doesn’t extend much further than Westlife.

      • puesoccurrences Says:

        I completely agree with you Tom! ONce a historian is mainstream is it ok to like him/her any more or does the inner snob want to downgrade their work…

  2. Kathleen Says:

    Generally I agree with Kevin – I don’t think there necessarily has to be a tension between accessibility and quality, and I also think it’s silly to be snobbish about a non-specialist audience. Why leave all these intelligent people to the Wikijournalists?

    On the other hand, I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about ‘the’ non-specialist market given the size of it. Plenty of people are certainly well able to discriminate (probably the ones most of us would tend to target), but if absolutely everyone can tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, who’s been buying Dan Brown?

    I’m inclined to be critical of the more bandwagony end of the spectrum, i.e. the sort of approach that starts by asking ‘let’s see, what will the punters buy? hmmm, they seemed to like “1599” so I know! I’ll write a book on 1722’. (Random year – if there is a ‘1722’, no disrespect intended). No, have something to say first… but certainly there’s no need to say it in code to eleven people or fewer just to prove that one is a ‘real’ scholar.

  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    Is that a dig at the 1759 conference Kathleen?

    I think that concerns are raised when you see so much bad history around you- ‘If Lynch had invaded’ is a case in point. It had lots of well respected academics, such as Ferriter, line up to speak and give it backing adn credibility. The program was terrible even though they participated in it and lent their historical knowledge to it.

    Is it just the media warping the message? I know you have done media work Kevin so I would be interested to see what you have to say on this.


    • Kathleen Says:

      1759 conference?? No.

      • puesoccurrences Says:

        It ran in Queens this year… I didn’t get a chance to go but apparently it was excellent. The aim was to see if they could run a conference on one year. Apparently Guinness sponsored one of the sessions…

  4. Adrian Says:

    Just a quick comment on the media warping the message. Edward Longwill, who has done extensive research into the Irish gov reaction in Aug ’69, was interviewed by the producers of ‘If Lynch had Invaded’. His research completely refutes the thesis of the programme. They didnt include his contribution in the programme but credited him (without his approval) at the end for “additional research”.

  5. Brian Hanley Says:

    I think one of the problems of working with the media for a historian is control. If you give a public lecture on your chosen subject you will generally be able to give a nuanced and complex account of the various areas of your work. If you publish an article or book, ditto, after some compromises and debate with your editor. However when you are interviewed for a documentary for example, you may answer questions for an hour or more, but you generally will only have a couple of minutes air-time. Unless you are a very important person you will have no idea what segment of what you said is going to be shown. It could be the least convincing answer you gave. While most of us, particularly when talking about our own area of expertise, want to give a balanced and nuanced comment, programme makers generally want snappy, uncomplicated responses that don’t confuse the viewer. Which can cause problems.

  6. jjk Says:

    Kevin daydreams on this blog about historians playing to sell-out crowds at Wembley one day … and Ferriter thrills the picnicers at Stradbally within weeks – you guys rock! 🙂
    great to have some reportage from Stradbally for stay home stuck-in-the-muds like me.
    I don’t think a greater exposure of themselves and their work necessarily compromises historians or their work. But different media have different criteria. I’d hazard to say that the rich format media that historians might adopt does exist, but as it stands – for me – the printed format is the most satisfying.
    I’m for trashing the electronics, chucking the telly out the hotel window, and flopping into a comfortable chair to read their book or article.

  7. David Evans Says:

    Quite apart from the number of academic and non-academic books being published, the public thirst for knowledge of history is also evident in the number of TV and radio programmes that are produced, leaving aside the history talk at the Electric Picnic. I also venture to say that the popularity of costume dramas is an indication of this too.
    However, it must be recognised that most of this desire for history is required in a form that is relatively light and not too demanding – in other words it needs to be entertaining.
    If there is a need for entertainment, the media will fill it. So, the question is, whether it would be better for a professional historian to fill the need or some actor or TV celebrity? Surely it must be better for historians to be involved and to be in the forefront. A celebrity who made unsustainable comments would not suffer recriminations but any historian who courts the limelight would need to be sure of their evidence if they wish to retain their credibility.

  8. Juliana Says:

    I think David has brought up some interesting points, and they are strikingly similar to what scientists would say about science in the media or popular culture. In fact, scientists are so interested in how the media deals with their discipline that you can get an MSc degree in ‘Science Communication’ at DCU (I have one, in fact). There are lots of such programmes. The original idea behind these programmes was that somehow science was particularly tricky and also particularly important to communicate, but now they tend to examine the process of communicating science in a critical manner and question why scientists want to control the process. Scientists who were/are good communicators also tend to suffer at the hands of fellow scientists, but it’s not always clear that it is because their science is no good. There’s always a bit of jealousy and one-up-manship thrown in. Plus, it seems to me, that many subscribe to the idea that a scientific idea that the public can truly understand must not be that sophisticated. Anyway, I think it would be interesting to look at history communicators in the same way. Are those who ‘pander to the public’ treated differently by colleagues? I don’t think historians are quite as precious about their subject as scientists, but I could be wrong.

  9. Pue’s 100th Post « Pue’s Occurrences Says:

    […] appearance at Electric Picnic that asked, now that history has expanded to meet popular demand, ‘does this compromise what we do?’ We’ve also posted some great reviews: Kevin’s piece on the history students oblivious to […]

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