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Author: Gary Peating
Title: Ireland's Past?
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
December 2004

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Source: Ireland's Past?
Gary Peating

vol. 7, no. 3, December 2004
Article Type: Editorial

Ireland's Past?

Gary Peatling

The popular clich about the island of Ireland being a place that the flow of time has left beyond is endorsed by a variety of perspectives. Emigration has made such a huge impact on Irish history that the Irish diaspora and its descendants far outnumbered the inhabitants of the Ireland of Ireland itself, and many of those outside Ireland who claim Irish descent remain emotionally attached to a conception of the old country, whose image in their minds is strongly associated with the distant experiences of their ancestors. The Irish tourist industry, conscious of the lucrative market linked to such conceptions, has repeatedly packaged the country as characterised by a slower, almost pre-modern pace of life, picture postcards often depicting even rush hour in Ireland as bucolic and serene.  [1] Less comfortingly, there are images of the explosive political problems of the island as an indication that its inhabitants, and especially those of Northern Ireland, remain stuck in the seventeenth century in attitudes to politics and religion.  [2] Even relatively influential academic voices perceive the recent problems of Northern Ireland politics as a product of the backwardness of Irish society, or of particular groups within it.  [3] British establishment voices have long compounded this image by attributing political difficulties in the country to an atavistic obsession with history among its communities, and thus an inability to forgive imagined or actual wrongs inflicted (not least by British hands) many generations ago.  [4]

Yet there is also an opposite set of clichs surrounding Ireland and the Irish and their relationship to temporality which suggests the unusual liberation of place the people from history, and the novelty and freshness of Irish society. Ireland has also been portrayed as a young and vibrant society. Its recent experience of rapid economic growth (the so-called Celtic tiger economy), has facilitated the representation of its people as enterprising, at the cutting edge of technology and artistically creative.  [5] In stereotype, Irish people have long been depicted as a people characterised by bouts of Bacchanalian hedonism, often lubricated by the consumption of alcohol, and this too may be conducive to the exciting image of a free, untethered people. The Irish Republics recent strong commitment to a closer European union has led some commentators to see the country as a society able to embrace a new post-national era without the historical hang-ups of more established European powers, not least its neighbour, the United Kingdom.  [6] The contrast has been emphasized in recent times by the Irish economys catching up to and outstripping of the UKs per capita Gross Domestic Product.  [7] Finally, in recent years, with the vaunted peace process, Ireland has been seen as a society able to achieve an allegedly breathtaking transcendence of historically entrenched animosities.  [8]

To those of us who live outside of Ireland, the Ireland of our imaginations is in many cases a pastiche of such contradictory images. The existence of such contradictions suggests however that such stereotypes do not always have even the bare grounding in reality that lazy adherents assume they must have. Ireland is in fact, like many societies, a delicate blend of old and new. Recent debates about the allegedly relatively high quality of life in Ireland have highlighted the supposed merits of its blending of such elements.  [9] Irish society comprises people who consciously trace their descent directly to ancient settlements and migrations, and major political, cultural and social institutions that are young by comparison with many in the western world. This issue of the Journal of the Association for History and Computing acknowledges, analyses and reports on a dimension of this combination of new and old; the way in which new forms of knowledge, new ways of transferring and receiving knowledge, new techniques and new technologies have been used by local and international scholars to describe and understand episodes in the islands long, eventful and important past.

Ireland continues to fascinate scholars from many parts of the world. Journals devoted to Irish history and Irish studies flourish, and there are scholarly networks and regularly conferences around the world.  [10] This international interest might seem disproportionate to the size of the country itself, but large claims have long been made for Irelands significance and, indeed destiny. Some have suggested that Irish scholars and monks kept alive a western tradition of learning through the dark ages, while for others immigrant groups from Ulster, especially from its Presbyterians population, were largely responsible for the providential emergence in the United States of the freest political institutions and the most powerful society in the world.  [11] Such assertions continue to find a large popular audience; but we may deprecate the extravagance of glossily-packaged, ethnic self-congratulation without failing to acknowledge the tangible bases for continuing scholarly and non-scholarly global interest in the island and its genuine importance to a range of relatively new scholarly movements and approaches.

In this scholarly investment we again see the impact through the diaspora. Those of us who teach Irish history in North America can testify to the fact that the core controversies of Irish history continue to engage the passionate interest of new generations of students who trace their ancestry back to Ireland. Studies of the diaspora (or diasporas) from Ireland have themselves grown recently at an exponential rate, in many cases the interest of scholars in the field themselves being legitimately roused by a consciousness of their own Irish descent.  [12] But, in recent years, new interest from new disciplines and approaches, from students of social and cultural change, practitioners of conflict studies and resolution,  [13] from cultural and literary studies and from the study of colonialism and post colonialism, have supplemented and sharpened the existing fascination of historians and other scholars with Irish studies. The extent to which the British-Irish relationship was (or is) an imperial one is a keenly contested question,  [14] but for some scholars the secession of southern Ireland from the British Empire played a ground-breaking role in the latters decline. Interest in facets of Irish culture has also been accentuated by other fields of academic study of growing prominence, such as gender studies,  [15] postmodernism,  [16] and study of identity.  [17]

This ongoing significance of Ireland and Irish studies for scholars justifies a special issue of this journal devoted to the country. In devoting an issue particularly to recent ways in which information technology and other media have been used to assist research in (and consumption of) Irish history, we meet applications relevant to several of the above themes and developments at the cutting edge of the most recent tendencies in Irish historical and cultural studies. These include the study of migration, efforts to investigate and better understand political dimensions of the historical British-Irish relationship, the emergence networks of Irish studies and other technologically-supported aids to international researchers, and the politics of commemoration, representation and identity formation as they especially relate to a divided society.

Louise Tennants article describes the strategies used in the construction and compilation of a major aid to researchers, the Irish Emigration Database. The funding and space problems of, and the paucity of permanent staff in, such a worthy enterprise may surprise scholars involved in well-funded analogous projects in North America, especially those who stand to benefit from expanded access to the rich resources available to emigration history. Yet unfortunately this is so often the difficulty for such projects based in the old world. The heroic endeavours of Louise and her colleagues described in her article have nonetheless furnished in the Irish Emigration Database a vitally important contribution to scholarship, and one for which many of us in relevant fields have great reason to be grateful.

Emigration attracts some recent scholars as a form of history from below, providing an enlightening perspective on human experience outside of the official records of state and governments on which political historians have often depended. There is certainly a danger of assuming a pro-state perspective from over dependence in research on such official records. But that danger can be overstated, not least because the same state and official papers are themselves often surprisingly underused, in part due to access problems. This is a concern that Peter Gray and his colleagues on the EPPI (Enhanced Parliamentary Papers Ireland) project have been trying to rectify by offering improved facilities to search and access one key resource, the British parliamentary papers. The results are described in Grays contribution here. Like the emigration database, this is ongoing project, being enhanced in detail and in coverage, and which it will pay interested researchers continually to revisit. For any researcher of the relevant period (1801-1921), whether primarily interested in Irish history or not, the EPPI database will repay consultation before a trip to any center which contains many of these papers

When considering Irish history, even at a scholarly level, it would be a distortion not to acknowledge that history continues to be lived in Ireland in the sense of being felt by many people to have immediate impact on or repercussions for their day-to-day experiences. It is relevant in this issue thus to look beyond how perceptions and study of history are changing for communities of scholars, to the changing narratives of history told [do you mean reproduction?] closer to the lives of individual Irish people. That memorials of the past in Ireland can cater to outsiders as well as residents consciousness of the significance of that past is, as has been mentioned, evident from aspects of the tourist industry both north and south of the border. My own paper offers a reading of one such memorial, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, located in Cultra in County Down, Northern Ireland. Ireland has a reputation as a society where conceptualisation and memory of historical processes is unusually contentious, although it may be in fact that the controversy is more peculiarly overt in its forms than peculiar in its predominance. It may therefore be especially difficult for museums in Northern Ireland to avoid politically charged issues, although the contrast with other locations may be overstated. The task of reading the extent of political intention and propagandistic effect behind a museum, and, more importantly, assessing ways in which the creation and running of a museum constitute evidence which a historian can utilize, even apart from the artifacts themselves, thus have implications by no means for Irish studies alone, although a repository of memory in modern Northern Ireland must certainly be read in the light of knowledge of that context.

The information revolution has brought many developments of convenience to the scholar. But as Bruce Stewart notes in his extensive survey of such aids and of cognate developments in the field of Irish studies, it is not luddite to note that with each technological advance there are losses as well as gains. The resources available to scholars of Irish studies online are growing, yet the coverage is by no means yet adequate, especially as compared to the body of printed and manuscript materials. Nonetheless, as scholars we seem to be spending a larger and larger proportion of our working time in front of PCs and laptops. The evidence of resulting difficulties is even greater if one expands ones attention beyond the research process itself. To teachers in higher education it is clear that each new intake of students seems to become more and more used to depending on what resources are available online, and more and more oblivious to the limitations, and often indeed oblivious to the very dubious quality, of many such resources. As we read Stewarts article our experience of doing so online itself an example of the changes he describes we gain a sense that he is also outlining dilemmas, concerns, and, hopefully solutions, shared by scholars far beyond the specific field of Irish studies.

Such considerations indeed demonstrate what is most productive about orienting an issue of this journal on the fields of Irish history and Irish studies. It cannot be claimed that a comprehensive survey of the recent impact of computing or of other new developments on Irish studies is offered here. It may appear that claims are being made here as to exceptional developments (or absence of developments) taking place in the field of Irish studies. But on the contrary, what unites these papers is that there is much in their meditations of relevance to researchers in other fields. The making available of resources in forms appropriate to the media in which scholars increasingly work, the political context of historical memory and memorials, and (especially) the pitfalls as well as the benefits of applications of computing technology, all affect historical research, and indeed research in other academic disciplines, far outside of the narrow realm of Irish studies.


1. Terry Eagleton, The Truth about the Irish (Dublin: New Island, 1999).

2. Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, Why cant you just get along with each other? Culture, Structure and the Northern Ireland Conflict, in Eamonn Hughes (ed.), Culture and Politics in Northern Ireland, 1960-1990 (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1991) pp.27-44.

3. Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson, The State in Northern Ireland, 1921-72: Political Forces and Social Classes (New York: St. Martins Press, 1979): Liam ODowd, Bill Rolston and Mike Tomlinson, Northern Ireland: Between Civil Rights and Civil War (London: CSE Books, 1980): Sabine Wichert, Northern Ireland since 1945 (London: Longman, 2nd ed., 1999, first published 1991).

4. Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, Ethnicity, the English and Northern Ireland: Comments and Reflections, in Dermot Keogh and Michael H. Haltzel (eds.), Northern Ireland and the Politics of Reconciliation (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1993), pp.203-7.

5. Rory ODonnell, The New Ireland in the New Europe in Rory ODonnell (ed.), Europe: The Irish Experience (Dublin: IEA, 2000), pp.161-214: Fintan OToole, The Ex-isle of Erin (Dublin: New Island Books, 1997).

6. Richard Kearney (ed.), Across the Frontiers: Ireland in the 1990s: Cultural-Political-Economic (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1988).

7. Imperial Measures, Guardian, 26 July 2004, available at,,1268943,00.html

8. Paul Arthur, Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland and the Northern Ireland Problem (Belfast: Blackstaff, 2000).

9. Owen Bowcott, Ireland leads World for Quality of Life, 18 November 2004, Guardian, available at,,1353516,00.html

10. See the evidence of the Irish American Cultural Institute, the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies, the British Association for Irish Studies, the Canadian Association for Irish Studies, the Nordic Irish Studies Network and the Scotch-Irish Society of America. Also see the special issue on Irish Studies Today in the International Journal of English Studies, ii, no.2 (2002)

11. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: the Untold Story of Irelands Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Doubleday, 1995): James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway 2004).

12. See for instance Kevin Kenny (ed.), New Directions in Irish-American History (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).

13. John Darby and Roger Mac Ginty (eds.), The Management of Peace Processes (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

14. Stephen Howe, Historiography, in Kevin Kenny (ed.), Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp.220-50: Clare Carroll and Patricia King (eds.), Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).

15. See volumes 4 and 5 of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (general editor, Seamus Deane), Angela Bourke (ed.), Irish Womens Writing and Traditions (Cork: Cork University Press, 2002): Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (eds.), Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004).

16. John S. Rickard (ed.), Irishness and (Post)modernism (Lewisburg [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press, 1994).

17. Colin Graham, Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001).