Total Historian

Published in Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Volume 7

PF:    In the preface to The Land and the People of Nineteenth-Century Cork (1975), you refer to your father’s historical career. To what extent was he an influence?

JSD:    My father was a medievalist specialising in monastic history, with a particular interest in the Cistercian order, which was of great importance in the renewal of the church in the twelfth century. Many of the Cistercian foundations in Ireland relate to that period. He was an extraordinary influence on my life and on my becoming a historian. He had a distinguished career at Fordham University in New York City, both as a teacher and as an administrator, and it was there at Fordham College that I got my undergraduate degree. He knew all of the history teachers at the college, and we would often discuss their merits as historians and the books they had written, discussions which were part of my intellectual formation. Though he left academic life for publishing in the early 1960s, he never stopped being a historian and thinking like one, and he was tremendously supportive of me financially and in every other way when I was in graduate school at Harvard in the mid and late 1960s.

PF:    To what extent is your Irish-American background reflected in your work?

JSD:    At Fordham and later at Harvard I had specialised in British history, and it was only when I selected a dissertation topic that I switched to Irish history, a decision no doubt influenced by my ethnic background. However, in contrast to the experience of many Irish-American historians in the United States, an Irish nationalist consciousness was not strong in my immediate family as I was growing up. Nevertheless, my major concerns in Irish history are no doubt at least partly tied to my ethnic identity. Perhaps the Great Famine is the primary example. It has been said by others that Irish-American historians of the Famine have brought to that topic a distinctive view, particularly with respect to the question of British responsibility, which has always been among Irish-Americans an especially emotive issue. Also as an Irish-American, I felt I had a point to make about the validity of doing Irish history in a professional way because in the late 1960s and well into the 1970s Irish history hadn’t yet achieved the fairly secure place in academic life that it has since come to enjoy.

PF:    Why did you choose County Cork as the subject for your doctorate?

JSD:    When I undertook my graduate work in the 1960s the influence of the so-called Annales school of French historians was particularly strong. Their idea of ‘total history’ resonated with many historians, particularly the ones I found myself working with at Harvard. The idea of doing history from the grassroots, from the bottom up, of privileging social and economic history over political, these were ideas that were in the intellectual environment in which I found myself. Partly as a result of French influence and partly owing to the popularity of English local studies in the 1960s, the idea of focusing on a particular locality or region as a way of coming to grips with larger national issues was also thought to be worthwhile. Those were two general trends at the time that shaped the idea of selecting a county as a way of focusing on the vexed question of landlord-tenant relations in nineteenth-century Ireland. And then the question arose: which county? Cork is Ireland’s largest in territory, and it contained about 10 per cent of the 1841 population, so in terms of size and population it was arguably representative of Ireland as a whole. From the socio-economic point of view it falls into two broad regions, east and west, with many parts of West Cork having a socio-economic structure similar to that of the west of Ireland; East Cork is more aligned with eastern Ireland. Cork thus had a fair claim to offer a kind of microcosm of what a good stretch of Ireland was experiencing in the nineteenth century.

PF:    You have always been an energetic user of newspapers. Do you feel that even today we are still under-utilising this particular source?

JSD:    The awareness of the value of newspapers is now much greater than it was in the 1960s and the early 1970s, but on the other hand, for many topics, especially in the twentieth century, newspapers are still greatly underused. This would be true in relation to political history in the twentieth century. It’s also true in relation to the history of religion, particularly popular devotion in twentieth-century Ireland. In my own current work, which has to do with the Marian shrine at Knock and the role of Marianism in the development of modern Irish Catholicism, I have been a very assiduous reader of the Irish Catholic, which began publication in 1888 and is of course still going. I know of only one or two other Irish historians who have really utilised the Irish Catholic, and yet it is a tremendous source of information on Irish popular devotion in the twentieth century. This is one example of the degree to which items of the religious press, as well as of the secular press, hold vast riches and have yet to be made to reveal their secrets.

PF:    A decade ago you contributed the chapters dealing with the Great Famine to Volume V of the New History of Ireland. Since that time there has been a virtual avalanche of fresh work, research, and publication dealing with the Famine. Is there much about those chapters that you would alter or change?

JSD:    There would be a variety of changes that I might introduce if I were doing them again today, and I hope fairly soon to produce a comprehensive book about the Famine. First of all, thanks to the work of Peter Gray especially, we now have a much better understanding of the dynamics of policy-making at the highest level of government in Britain among the Whig administration led by Lord John Russell. We have taken a major step forward in our understanding of British government policy in the late 1840s and early 1850s. We have a better appreciation than we did ten years ago of the constraining influence on Russell’s government of middle-class British voters, and also a better understanding of the gains made by middle-class radicals in the 1847 general election. By that I mean that the role of British responsibility in aggravating the horrendous toll of mortality must be understood in the context of the economic and social as well as political attitudes of the educated middle-class and upper-class public in Britain, and the more we probe, the better we understand the egregious shortcomings of the Whig government. I would draw attention in particular to the increasingly strong attitude among the British middle classes that the Irish really needed to learn how to do things for themselves and that Britain was not capable of supplying the initiative that the British felt was so lacking in Ireland. This attitude manifested itself in the face of a famine catastrophe which seemed to call for massive government intervention. The lack of it was really bound to increase the death toll in Ireland tremendously.
The extent and significance of the Famine in Ulster is now better understood.  In the spate of publications associated with the commemoration of the Famine historians in Ulster began to ask significant questions about the impact, extent, and significance of the Famine in the north. Cormac Ó Gráda and Larry Geary have been spreading their knowledge of the demographic and medical history of the Famine in ways that I think are very important, and which anybody like myself thinking about revising chapters written ten years ago would have to take into account. Lastly, I’d give much more attention now to an issue that was very prominent in discussions about the Famine connected with the commemoration, and that is the whole question of the memory of the Famine in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Here, taking notice of work that has been done in other fields of historical study, obviously in connection with the Holocaust, I would give much greater attention to the question of the construction of the memory of the Famine. In fact, in some of my writing I have already been concerned with the construction of this memory, and I use that word ‘construction’ advisedly, because we now appreciate that memory is not just something that people have willy-nilly but rather something that various groups in society have an interest in constructing and reconstructing, or re-presenting. This was very important, I feel, in the way in which certain views about the Famine came to be lodged in the general public consciousness of people here in Ireland as well as in Irish-America.

PF:    Do you have a favourite historian?

JSD:    There isn’t just one in particular but rather quite a few since our profession today is full of wonderful historians. Confining myself to religious history or more narrowly to popular religion, I would start with the work of Keith Thomas, particularly his Religion and the Decline of Magic, which I regard as one of the most important books of history of any kind produced since the Second World War. I would also add Carlo Ginsberg, the masterful micro-historian, the author of such books as The Cheese and the Worms  and Night Battles. And I might also invoke the name of the Harvard historian David Blackburn. His book Marpingen is particularly important for me right now. It is about a German Marian apparition of 1876 and the way in which that site became a controversial focus of popular devotion in Germany, almost around the same time as the Knock apparition of 1879. Both apparitions were products of the great flowering of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Western Europe after 1850.

PF:    When you’re writing history, to what extent are you conscious not only of an academic audience but also of a wider public, both in America and in Ireland?

JSD:    I believe very strongly that we historians should aim much if not all of what we produce at the educated lay public and not just at our fellow academics. This is not to say that there isn’t a place in our profession for the kind of work, let us say specialised work, in demographic history or intellectual history for which it might be hard to find a general audience. But I think that historians and other scholars who cut themselves off from the public by using a language or a set of languages that only professional academics can understand do so at their peril. We run the risk of bringing many aspects of the general academic enterprise into disrepute by cutting ourselves off from sources of financial and political support which universities and a whole variety of academic institutions dearly need.

PF:    How do you see Irish history and Irish studies in the academic field in America?

JSD:    Irish studies in the United States is a very broad field. Undergraduate interest in Irish history is at a remarkably high level throughout all of America. Anywhere that Irish history courses are being taught, student enrollment tends to be very high, sometimes among the highest. For example, at my own university in Madison, Wisconsin, and my situation is not unique, my course on modern Irish nationalism regularly enrolls somewhere between 90 and 120 students year after year, and for quite a few years now I get more students in my Irish history course than I do in my modern British history course. There’s also a very keen interest among prospective graduate students. The difficulty is that for some time now there has been a deep academic job crisis which affects almost all of the main areas of the historical discipline in the United States. Every year the American Historical Association compiles an academic job-register, and at its annual meeting a few years ago there were three times as many graduate students with recent PhDs as there were jobs advertised: 750 people chasing 250 jobs. There is no substantial evidence that this situation has improved very much in the last year or two—perhaps a modest improvement but certainly not a turnaround. American universities have responded to the shortage of resources by employing people on a part-time basis. This has reached such dimensions that somewhere between a third and two-fifths of all the jobs in third-level education in the United States are held by this group of academics, typically referred to as ‘adjuncts’, who have one or another kind of temporary position, shockingly low salaries, and usually no fringe benefits. Related to this problem is that while the status of Irish history has perhaps increased in reputation and acceptability, British history relatively has been falling, and this has adverse effects on would-be Irish historians because in America an Irish specialist would normally be expected to be a British specialist as well. So the short-term and intermediate-term outlook for new PhDs in Irish history is decidedly pessimistic. Will Irish studies be able to hold the higher place that it has recently come to enjoy? Two colleagues of mine who are approaching retirement age—Emmet Larkin (University of Chicago) and Perry Curtis (Brown University)—at a recent public meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies expressed serious doubts about whether, when they retired, they would be replaced by someone whose specialty was Irish history.

PF:    To what extent is the future of academic Irish studies linked to the broader Irish-American community?

JSD:    One of the paradoxical results of the increasing education levels and the higher socio-economic standing of Irish Americans in the last generation is that this has manifested itself in much higher levels of interest in the Irish and the Irish-American past among both the descendants of the original immigrants and their children, and this has carried over into the classrooms. So the increasing maturation of the Irish-American population has not resulted in a decline in their sense of identity with Ireland but perhaps an exaggeration of it.

PF:    As a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, do you in any sense feel remote from your area of primary academic interest?

JD:    Not at all. Owing to the generosity of my university’s research-support system I have had the opportunity to pay frequent visits to Ireland—about two summers out of every three. I’ve also had the opportunity occasionally to spend longer periods, such as the one that I am currently enjoying at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s. Also, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has great library resources, with significant holdings in Irish studies, so I have never felt any acute shortage of research materials either for myself or for my graduate students. Usually, a dozen or so of my graduate students will be pursuing research on one or another topic in modern Irish history. My frequent contact and intellectual exchanges with them would certainly remove any feeling of remoteness that I might otherwise have. Over the years I have been involved in the American Conference for Irish Studies and more recently in the Irish American Cultural Institute, two organisations which are at the forefront of the promotion of serious interest in Irish studies in North America. The Irish American Cultural Institute has for many years published the journal Éire-Ireland, and in recent years I have been associated with its editorial management. In the Midwest for quite a number of years now the vitality and degree of interest among Irish-Americans in Irish culture has been at a very high level. For example, in Milwaukee we have a huge Irish music festival over a weekend every August which attracts up to 100,000 people. In Minneapolis, where there is a very strong Irish-American and Irish community, the number of Irish-related cultural activities in theatre, music, and other creative areas is very great indeed. In Chicago, Notre Dame, and Madison there are similarly high levels of Irish cultural activity. So the interest in things Irish that we find so exuberantly expressed all over America in the 1990s is, if anything, at an even higher level in the Midwest. Though we Irish studies specialists welcome every opportunity that comes our way to transplant ourselves to Ireland, the richness and vitality of Irish studies and Irish cultural activity in North America is such that not too many of us feel lonely.

PF:    On the eve of the millennium what trends might we see developing in terms of Irish history and the way we view Ireland’s past in the new millennium?

JD:    As we approach the millennium, we are all conscious that the Irish economy is performing at a remarkably high level. Ireland in the 1990s is probably experiencing its most prosperous decade in 200 years—perhaps ever. That tremendous economic development, which is also productive of rapid cultural change, is going to affect the way in which the younger generation of Irish historians will view the Irish past. Some old chestnuts are going to be pursued in perhaps more insistent ways. For example, historians will ask again why Ireland’s widespread poverty persisted for so long, why it was only in the 1990s that this society got the opportunity, if not to eliminate poverty, at least to greatly reduce its dimensions. The role of the Catholic church in Irish society in the twentieth century is going to be re-examined because as a result of the rapid economic and cultural changes that have taken hold since the 1960s, the position of the church has been undergoing a very significant transformation. As we enter the new millennium and we see a further decline in the role of the Irish Catholic church, there will be questions about its traditionally strong place prior to the 1960s, and also new questions about the precise relationship between rapid economic and cultural change and the declining position of the church in society since that time. It has also been obvious to people for quite some time that this rapid economic and cultural change has led to a gradual re-fashioning of Irish cultural identity since the 1960s which will itself become a very active and fruitful area of study in the new millennium.

Paddy Fitzgerald is a lecturer at the Ulster American Folk Park, Omagh, Co. Tyrone.


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