Historians as expert witnesses

Contributed by Patrick Walsh

Academics are often accused of living in ivory towers. We are supposed to have little to offer the ‘real world’, wherever that mythical place is. Instead we are encouraged to stay in our own imaginative kingdom, where we can coexist with others similarly entranced with the arcane, abstruse and antique. Occasionally, however, we as historians are tempted to engage with real life. For some this involves writing for that rarely catered for, and often patronised, ‘general reader’; for others it means writing and presenting often excellent documentaries on sound and screen; and for some it means engaging in campaigns to preserve our history and heritage. It is this last form of engagement I want to focus on today.

Recently we have seen the mobilisation of some many of our historians in the important Archives in Crisis campaign, while others have led their voices to the Save Tara campaign amongst a whole host of other worthy causes. There has been a long tradition of professional historians engaging in public debate, and often leading it. The role of the late F.X. Martin or the indefatigable Kevin B. Nowlan in the preservation of different parts of Dublin’s past spring to mind. Their campaigning efforts encompassed not just collective letters to the Irish Times, public demonstrations, and passionate oratory, but also engagement with politicians, planners and others in offices, conference suites and even court rooms.

Appearances in the latter meant and still mean employment of the historian’s forensic skills to create a convincing argument, what should after all be our bread and butter! Recently I had the pleasure to appear, in a minor capacity, alongside Professor Nowlan and a number of other academics, from a range of disciplines, not in a courtroom but at an oral hearing on a contested planning decision regarding a proposed housing development on a site of significant historic importance.

The whole experience opened my eyes fully to an interesting dimension of the historian’s public role that of expert witness. One of the key questions at stake was whether two eighteenth century landscapes on either side of the Liffey were part of the same integrated designed landscape. Would the proposed development on the former Donaghcumper demesne would impact on the world famous parklands and river walks of the Castletown estate on the opposite side of the river?

Naturally we believed the development would have a negative impact, but could we bolster our argument that there was an historic link between demesnes, and indeed between several interlinked parklands along the river. Supposition was not going to be enough; hard historic fact was going to be needed. Evidence was presented by experts on both sides, sometimes citing the same correspondence, traveller’s accounts and historic maps. History mattered. Could we enter the head of Lady Louisa Conolly and reveal her intentions over two hundred years later, and prevent the desecration of her recently restored landscape?

We made our presentations, watching for a reaction from the planning inspector, or from the historical experts working for the developers. None came, instead we had to wait, and wait (almost seven months in fact), before learning whether our arguments had convinced. Earlier this week An Bord Pleanála announced the rejection of the developer’s planning permission. The Donaghcumper landscape had been saved, thanks in small part to the contribution of academic expertise, working alongside the superbly talented representatives of the Celbridge Action Alliance, Castletown Foundation, and Irish Georgian Society amongst others. Our role as academics was small but significant, and showed that by sometimes straying from our ivory towers, we too can make a contribution to civil society and to the preservation of our heritage, and history.

Dr Patrick Walsh is an IRCHSS postdoctoral research fellow in the School of History and Archives, UCD, and the author of The Making of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy: The Life of William Conolly: 1662-1729 (forthcoming, 2010).

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2 Responses to “Historians as expert witnesses”

  1. Childhood in Ireland, then and now « Notre Dame Irish Studies Says:

    […] issue of institutional child abuse raises innumerable questions, one of which is the responsibility of scholars to become advocates for contemporary causes.  In a plenary address at the national American Conference on Irish […]

  2. patrick maume Says:

    I seem to remember that during the Wood Quay dispute a couple of eminent archaeologists of early Christian Ireland pblicly stated that the site was of no value and would be no great loss, to the despair of the mediaevalists on the other side.
    Does this sort of conflict happen often? There must be someobvious scope for it – e.g. there is a strong tendency for historians of the Normans in England to see the Anglo-saxons as a bunch of decadent barbarians and the Normans as bearers of european civilisation, while Anglo-saxonists see the Anglo-saxons as admirably civilised and the Normans as mercenary tyrants. (Apparently when JRR Tolkien spoke of the battle of Hastings it was with as much grief and rage as if it had happened the previous week and he had been there in person fighting for King Harold.)

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