History Ireland Hedge School launched

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2010), News, Volume 18

Punks or posers’?—the History Ireland Hedge School panel outside Phibsborough Library, Sunday 11 September (l–r): Pete Holidai, Eamon Delaney, Billy McGrath, David Donnelly and Cieran Perry. (Fionán O’Connell Photography)

Punks or posers’?—the History Ireland Hedge School panel outside Phibsborough Library, Sunday 11 September (l–r): Pete Holidai, Eamon Delaney, Billy McGrath, David Donnelly and Cieran Perry. (Fionán O’Connell Photography)

A tent in Laois is about as far removed as one can get from a traditional history conference venue, but it was at this year’s Electric Picnic in Stradbally that the History Ireland Hedge School series was launched. Presided over by ‘Master’ Tommy Graham, diverse audiences have attended a series of discussions on a range of issues, listening and engaging with historians, social commentators and experts of various kinds. From Daniel O’Connell to the Virgin Prunes, there has been no shortage of debate.


First up at the Electric Picnic (Saturday 4 September) was the proposition ‘Irish neutrality: principled or pragmatic?’. Even the non-appearance of former Respect MP George Galloway (delayed flight) did not deter a large crowd, who were entertained by Eunan O’Halpin (TCD), Eamon Delaney (Sunday Independent) and T. Ryle Dwyer (Irish Examiner). (George did make it to a later discussion on the prospects for peace in the Middle East—which was anything but peaceful! When asked to comment on the range of footwear thrown at his former leader, Tony Blair, at the latter’s book-signing in Dublin the same day, George replied: ‘Shoes are too good for him!’) Discussion centred around the Second World War, and a lively debate flowed between panelists and audience members alike. T. Ryle Dwyer argued that Irish neutrality was ‘phoney’, pointing out that the Irish government did a great deal to assist the Allies; he noted, for example, that no Allied seamen were interned in Ireland but that 213 German sailors were, even though they should have been released as stranded mariners under international law. The issue of de Valera’s now infamous condolences offered after the death of Adolf Hitler inevitably arose, and Dwyer noted that it was a political mistake ‘. . . because it reinforced the misconception deliberately generated by Gray, Roosevelt and Churchill that de Valera was sympathetic to the Nazis’. Eunan O’Halpin, on the other hand, argued that Ireland was as neutral as it could have been in the circumstances. The discussion was not limited to the Second World War, however. Eamon Delaney noted how our increased involvement with the European Union had, whether we liked it or not, compromised our traditional policy of military neutrality.
‘Mafioso or Machiavellian? The life, loves and legend of the Great O’Neill, 1550–1616’ was Sunday’s topic. Academics Hiram Morgan (UCC) and Ciaran Brady (TCD) were joined by Oscar-nominated actor Stephen Rea and Conor Lenihan TD, grateful for the time off from his day job as a government minister. Ciaran Brady compared the problem facing the English government in sixteenth-century Ireland—how to impose law and order and how to pay for it—with our current fiscal difficulties. In the absence of the Great O’Neill himself, Stephen Rea, who played O’Neill in various TV and theatre productions, most notably Brian Friel’s Making history, was the next best thing, sharing with the audience insights into the subject’s psychology and motivations. All were agreed on O’Neill’s ruthlessness, although Hiram Morgan noted that this was par for the course for the time, while Conor Lenihan, despite promptings from the chair, was reluctant to draw any lessons for contemporary politicians. While Sunday is normally associated with the collective campsite hangover, the Hedge School drew a large crowd and a high level of audience participation.
Part of the audience at the PhizzFest (Phibsborough Community Arts Festival) Hedge School. (Fionán O’Connell Photography)

Part of the audience at the PhizzFest (Phibsborough Community Arts Festival) Hedge School. (Fionán O’Connell Photography)

Hugh O’Neill could not have been further removed from the next Hedge School the following weekend (part of PhizzFest, Phibsborough Community Arts Festival), a nostalgic trip down memory lane—‘Punks or posers? Dublin’s late ’70s New Wave scene’. Nearly 200 people gathered outside Phibsborough Library on a (mainly) sunny day to hear tales of one of Dublin’s most under-studied youth subcultures. Eamon Delaney recounted tales of a misspent youth (before he became a diplomat) and brought along his own personal archive of vinyl records, fanzines and posters. Billy McGrath (UCD Ents officer, 1976–7) was on hand to discuss another side of the scene, managing and promoting bands. Pete Holidai, formerly of the Radiators From Space, explained what it was like to be a punk in a country where showbands still ruled the roost. David Donnelly, formerly of the Black Catholics street gang, spoke candidly about the darker, sometimes violent, side of the subculture, while Cieran Perry argued that the New Wave scene in Ireland was never as political as it was in Britain.

‘Daniel O’Connell: liberator or demagogue?’ was the topic at the RDS on 16 October, part of the ‘Back to Our Past’ exhibition. Patrick Geoghegan, a biographer of O’Connell and presenter of ‘Talking History’ on NewsTalk, was joined by Kevin Whelan (Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre), Shane Mac Thomáis (Glasnevin Trust) and Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh. Discussion ranged from O’Connell’s commitment to non-violence (not entirely straightforward, given that he killed a man in a duel) to his sex life (much to the disappointment of the audience, the consensus was that stories of O’Connell’s womanising were exaggerated and due to the Irish public’s desire to attribute insatiable sexual energy to their heroes).

The next History Ireland Hedge School, in association with the National Library, Kildare Street, will be held at 7pm on Wednesday 12 January 2011 and will discuss ‘1916 and all that: how should the forthcoming centenaries (Home Rule, First World War, 1916 Rising) be commemorated?’ Speakers include Kevin Whelan, Fearghal McGarry (QUB), Edward Madigan (TCD) and Roisín Higgins (UCD). Podcasts are available at https://www.historyireland.com/hedge/.  HI

Donal Fallon is editor of ‘Come Here To Me’, a blog on Dublin life and culture, http://comeheretome.wordpress.com/.

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