Information, Media and Power through the Ages, 24th Irish Conference of Historians, University College Cork 20-22 May 1999

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 1999), News, Volume 7

The first biennial conference of the Irish Committee of Historical Sciences was held in July 1953 and since it has rotated between Ireland’s universities. The publicity flyer from University College Cork, host for this, the 24th Irish Conference of Historians, stated that it was considered appropriate that, being held in 1999, a suitably millennium-related theme be identified to reflect the depth and breadth of historical investigation existing at the end of the twentieth century. Information, Media and Power Through the Ages was the result, the aim being ‘to examine the collection and dissemination of information from stone-age cave paintings to the Internet’.
That the challenge of the stated aim was met is evidenced in the programme of lectures and the range of disciplines represented at the conference. Following the keynote lecture by Elizabeth Eisenstein (Washington DC), ‘Perspectives on Print Culture’, a number of themes were explored through the various strands of the conference: Information, Spies, Media, Computers and the Internet, Globalisation, Television, and The Press. Brian McGing’s (TCD) ‘Gift of the desert—papyr evidence from Greco-Roman Egypt’, and Fionnbarr Moore’s (National Monuments) ‘Ogham stones and the written word as witness’ set the scene for issues related to ancient historical topics. Chris Bayly (Cambridge) explored more recent times through ‘Empire, nation and community: informing the metropolis, c.1880-1920’, while reflections extended right up to the present day through topics such as Adrian Quinn’s (Teeside) ‘Conspiracy theories on the Internet’, and Gregg Zachary’s (Wall Street Journal) ‘The social construction of the computer: how the Cold War and the counterculture created the PC, the Web and the Internet’.
The conference strand ‘Spies’ included presentations from Tom Bartlett (UCD), ‘Informers: Dublin Castle’s intelligence network in the 1790s’, and Christopher Andrew (Cambridge), ‘Secret Intelligence in the Cold War’ which examined how recent research is revising understanding of how secret intelligence changed the Cold War. Sian Lewis’s (Cardiff) ‘Tyrants, spies and the general’s dilemma: the ideology of information in the Greek polis’ examined the nature of information control under Greek tyrannies and the ways in which democracies in particular were hampered by the need to preserve political freedom.
Under the broad umbrella of ‘Media’, Jennifer O’Reilly’s (UCC) ‘Medieval scribes: images and their message’ asked whether early medieval scribal images could reveal something of the monastic and manuscript culture within which they were produced, and Tony Ballantyne’s (UCG) ‘Print, colonialism and identity: the Maori case’ explored the impact of the introduction of ‘print capitalism’ to New Zealand in the 1830s and 1840s.
In the ‘Press’ strand, Patrick Maume’s (QUB) ‘Commerce, politics and the Irish Independent, 1891-1919’ used the early history of the Independent to discuss the tension between political and commercial considerations in early twentieth century newspaper management. John Horgan’s (DCU) ‘“Government sources said last night…”’ examined the parliamentary lobby system in both the UK and Ireland arguing that the power of the lobby system is changing, with the emphasis now on television news.
For me, and this is a reflection of my own fascinations, there were two presentations which were especially stimulating. Chair for the session was John Bowman, presenter of RTE’s Questions and Answers current affairs programme, and whose insight into the issues added a significant depth to the topics explored. Finola Doyle-O’Neill’s (UCC) ‘The Late Late Show and modern Irish society’, which was delivered, coincidentally, on the day following the last edition of the programme as presented by Gay Byrne, examined some of the fact and fable associated with the show’s thirty-seven year run. Robert Savage’s (Boston College) ‘Ireland: The Tear and Smile : a CBS documentary made by Willard Van Dyke and scripted by Elizabeth Bowen in 1959’, offered an examination of the image presented of Ireland through this US television package at a time before the Irish television service began.

Bill Sweeney lectures in media professional studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

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