Where did it all go wrong? History’s battle for souls

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.

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7 Responses to “Where did it all go wrong? History’s battle for souls”

  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Where did it all go wrong? History’s battle for souls Says:

    […] “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 …” (more) […]

  2. Richard Tobin Says:

    History lost the first battle for my soul a long time ago. I was never much good at history at school. I could never seem to get the names and dates in the right order. But I suppose that since I abandoned it after Junior Cert, you could say that I never really gave history a chance.

    I became a town planner but I couldn’t escape History. When I made a précis of the history of the city as part of the introduction to the City Plan I was reprimanded by the manager. You see, he had paid a professional historian for the original copy and he wanted to retain his money’s worth – every word of it.

    But every now and again in the old plan you would come across a proposed road or a widening of a road and you would wonder what reasoning lay behind it. Alas, no one on current the staff could remember why it was there. It had been in the last plan and the plan before that and so they kept on going on from one review to the next. I took out everything that made no sense to me but I was always looking over my shoulder in case I was, yet again, abbreviating some other paid invention.

    Then one day I was given custody of a batch of dusty files by an ancient lady of the Town Clerks department who was about to retire. “Your’e the planner aren’t you?” she said, not expecting an answer. “These are yours then”. It has taken me thirty years to unravel the story that those files tell. But now I know why some houses are set back from the rest of the street and why some land remained stubbornly undeveloped for forty years. I know that it was once proposed to use rats to scavenge garbage; I discovered that according to the Turkish Civil Defense, eight houses per acre was the optimum density to protect against aerial bombardment and I found that a Papal Knight who seemed to have had no apparent qualifications was one of the most prolific designers of public buildings.

    In short I have had to extract from those files the twentieth-century corporate history of our organization because no one else thought sufficiently of it to write it down. All the while, we named our streets and parks for forgotten clerics or fading heros of the revolution but we never thought to make a note of why we gave our cities the shape they now possess. I find it even stranger that those who write about this subject in a way that I can understand are not historians or planners but professors of literature like Terence Brown or Andrew Kincaid.

    History may have lost the first battle for my soul, but in the long run I think that it may win the war.

    Richard Tobin
    September 2011

  3. Joanne Says:

    History’s battle for souls appears to have made yet another significant advancement this evening with the first of a four part historical documentary series entitled ‘Reabhloid’,which looks back on some significant, though perhaps not so well remembered, figures who played prominent roles in the Easter Rising. It started tonight with the story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a founding member of the citizen army, a feminist, and a pacifist intellectual who was shot under military arrest by Capt. J.C.Bowen-Colthurst, a member of a Co. Cork landed gentry family. With commentary from Prof. Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and Dr Fearghal McGarry, if this first offering is anything to go by the next three episodes should prove equally stimulating. For those who missed it check out RTE player or tune in next week RTE 1 at 7.30pm. The week’s episode follows the story of the first British officer killed during the Rising.

  4. thelittlereview Says:

    As a history postdoc, I’ve also been thinking about what Kevin describes as ‘history’s battle for souls’. Historians do seem to be losing one of their PR battles, with history being taken off the junior cert curriculum, while at the same time the appetite for history books, documentaries etc is as strong as ever. I think Richard’s here is very interesting – even though people might be skeptical of ‘academic history’, in schools or universities, it’s difficult to get away from it completely. Maybe it’s about rethinking what history is and what it’s for. It’s not just something that can be accessed in texts or that is concerned with politicians and dead heroes; it’s fundamentally a ay of understanding how life was lived and how it has changed over time. The emphasis on space is a great point – geographers and archaeologists have always understood how space and enviromnent shapes society but historians are only coming around to it more recently. But history is just as much about how we use our streets, build our homes, and arrange our living spaces inside as about anything else, and it’s crucial to understand these things. The only problem with this kind of approach though is that disciplinary boundaries seem to dissolve very quickly; is it archaeology, is it sociology or is it history? Interdisciplinarity is a great buzz word these days, but how easy is it to ‘sell’ in practice? Probably a question for another day though…


  5. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks Richard, Joanne and Niamh for the comments.

    I think that from the three different ways that you’ve come at the issue, it’s clear that there’s no simple answer to the ‘how to’ question at the heart of my piece. Except, perhaps, to say that people obviously enjoy history – the practice and the watching – and that they know too little about how we inform that practice. It is clear that some form of re-connect has to happen between the non-academic and academic worlds. But what it will look like I still have no idea.


  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    Great piece Kevin- very thought provoking as usual.

    This is an excellent idea and a good place to start- pioneered in Ireland by Orla Murphy (Orla Murphy’s blog is http://orlamurphy.blogspot.com/) and Cal Duggan both in the English department in UCC. They have asked PhD students to present their PhD topics to the general public in just 2 minutes and 40 seconds- the idea being that they present it in an accessible format:


    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Thanks Lisa. Saw the piece about Orla Murphy in the paper myself too – brilliant idea. And will undoubtedly push students into dropping all that nonsense PhD-ese that we’ve all been guilty of. I’d love to go and see one of the presentations!


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