Interview: Dr Ruth McManus, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra

Interview date: 26 January 2010

What book do you wish you had written?
I’m not sure that there’s a particular book I would have written, but there are many which have influenced me and, I suppose, inspired my own work, among them urban historian Jim Dyos’s seminal study of Camberwell – Victorian Suburb: A Study of the Growth of Camberwell (1961) – which opened up a whole field of research.  I admire the meticulous scholarship of many authors, but won’t name them here for fear of offending those that I’ll inevitably forget to mention!

What would you do if you were not a geographer?
My childhood ambition was to be a rural postman, but I suspect that I would have found myself working in education in some way, at some stage.

When was the last time you looked at Wikipedia?
Yesterday, when I was looking for some background on Ivor the Engine.  I find it perfect for trivia, but unfortunately sometimes find myself checking suspect essays which have ‘lifted’ material from this source.

What event had the greatest impact on history in Ireland?
From a geographical perspective, one of the most significant events in Irish history was the completion of the first large-scale survey of the entire country by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland (1829 – 1842), which was also the first time in the world that such a feat was accomplished.  The first edition six inch maps are remarkably accurate and also quite beautiful examples of the cartographer’s skill.  The work undertaken to research and standardize place-names as part of this process was also extraordinary (not to be confused with Brian Friel’s fictional account in the play ‘Translations’, as John Andrews has demonstrated).

What are you reading now?
At home, I’m reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, probably about five times tonight!  And my own bedtime reading is Jan Wong’s memoir Chinese Whispers, which recounts her visit to Beijing in search of a former fellow student.  Thirty years previously, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Wong had been one of the first Westerners to attend Beijing University.  As a fervent Maoist, she reported a fellow student who had wished to escape to the west.  Now, she tries to find out what happened to the student and, in doing so, embarks on a fascinating journey which explores the human dimension in history.  For anyone interested in the history of China, the extraordinary changes wrought by the embrace of capitalism in Beijing, or simply the ways in which people attempt to cope with difficult histories of the recent past, this is a great read.

At work, I’m dipping in to a few old favourites for courses I’m running this semester, and am also hoping to get a chance to finally read David Harvey’s Paris, Capital of Modernity, which explores the transformation of Paris from the 1830s to the 1870s.

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