By Kevin O’Sullivan
Since this is, after all, a history blog, we should probably start with the evidence. There is enough casual interest in our subject in Ireland to sustain a healthy publishing industry (peruse the catalogues of Irish Academic Press, Four Courts Press, UCD Press, UCC Press, Mercier, Gill and Macmillan et al for evidence), a dedicated monthly magazine (History Ireland), two national radio programmes (Newstalk’s Talking History and RTÉ’s The History Show), and a growing online community of bloggers and history writers. The genealogy industry continues to blossom, drawing in tourists from across the world in search of their Irish roots. Millions of others flock to Newgrange, Trinity College, Dublin Castle and a whole host of historical sites across the country. You can banquet, medieval style, at Bunratty. You can watch re-enacted cavalry training or musket fire at the Battle of the Boyne site near Drogheda. Or, if you’re not the going-out type, you can turn on the television any night of the week and watch a high-quality documentary on some period of Ireland’s recent – and not-so-recent – past (take a bow, TG4).
But still you get the feeling that something’s missing.
It’s not the strange juxtaposition that Fintan O’Toole referred to in Saturday’s Irish Times, between this history industry and the proposal to remove the subject from the core curriculum at Junior Certificate level in Irish schools. Neither is it the effect of the stinging cuts that continue to devastate our public services, including our libraries and archives. (Though both are matters of very serious concern.) It’s the fact that we, as historians, still don’t seem to be doing enough to convince people of the inherent worth of what we do, and what we contribute to the wellbeing of – and entertainment of – society as a whole.
On the idiot-box as I type is a BBC4 documentary about the life of Jane Austen, replete with the obligatory ‘wow, look at these old documents, the real-life hand-written diaries and letters from our heroine’ scenes set in an old ambiently-lit library. A few channels down, I’m willing to bet, I could find Time Team in one of its numerous Sunday night slots trawling through the mud in search of differing shades of clay while its team of landscape archaeologists and text experts dig through yellowing manuscripts to link that artefactual evidence with the written word. The subjects and their programmers are British, yet their lessons are no less apt for an Irish context. Does anyone watching in these isles stop to think about the ‘who’ (the staff in history departments across the higher education sector), ‘how’ (mainly through public resources, including funding from the EU), and ‘why’ (because someone has spent years trawling through those archives, libraries and landscapes in search of the answers) behind the information they are being fed?
If the answer is no – and it probably is – then we must ask another, more difficult question: where did it all go wrong? In theory, historians in Ireland should find it easy to play to a large and hungry market. Yet in reality we feel (and often are) under-valued, under-funded and over-worked. The members of that group bearing the horribly simplistic moniker, ‘the general public’, struggle to understand what we do outside our however-many hours of teaching a week, September to December, January to May. The question we need to ask ourselves is: why? And what can we do about it?
On a visit to New York Public Library in July I caught a glimpse of one possible solution. To better persuade taxpayers of the worth of paying for services that are at least partly publicly funded, show them exactly what their money buys, in a way that is intelligible, intelligent, and, most importantly of all, entertaining. Between 14 May and 31 December, to celebrate the centenary of its iconic home – what is now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman building – the library is hosting an exhibition of some of the most important items in its collection, while also organising a series of programmes to celebrate its ‘history, collections, and great influence on the lives of patrons in New York City and beyond’. As we stepped off Fifth Avenue and into the lobby of that beautiful building we were confronted by a fascinating array of print artefacts, from an original Guttenberg Bible to posters of the American civil rights movement, hand-written lyrics by Bob Dylan and art books by Matisse. ‘It’s amazing what they’ve managed to collect here’, my tax consultant said, to which I muttered something in reply about newspapers, prints, posters, and the papers of James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, and a host of others.
It would take more than a brief exhibition and series of public events, of course, to convince what the business world would call our ‘stakeholders’ – those pesky members of ‘the general public’ again – that paying university staff to take year-long sabbaticals to sit in dusty archives in Paris, Rome, Salamanca or London is a worthwhile exercise. And, having read number six in Juliana’s ‘new year’s’ resolutions last Thursday, I hold up my hands to say I’m guilty of not doing enough to help our cause. Yet as I looked around at the enraptured visitors to the NYPL, I could not help thinking that we, the historical community in Ireland, were selling ourselves short in the battle for souls. It may not be easy to convince the public of the importance of our mission. But the onus is on us, at the very least, to stand up and try.