The View from Pittsburgh

Published in Features, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), Volume 13

The View from Pittsburgh  1JS: Tell us about your background.

DM: My father was a civil engineer, and I grew up in the Deep South because my father’s work took him there during World War II, and he established an office for the company he was with in Jackson, Mississippi. This greatly affected my career, in ways I can only understand in retrospect. When I finished high school I went to Rice University in Houston, Texas, which was then very much an engineering and science-orientated place. The understanding was that I would pursue a scientific or engineering career. I was very good at math, for example. But to the horror of my father, at the end of my sophomore year I decided to become an English major. There was some strain in our relationship. What I was going to do with a humanities major was certainly a puzzle to him. Then in my junior year I was arrested at a civil rights demonstration in the Houston railroad station. It’s probably hard for people to understand today, certainly in Ireland, just how much anxiety that would have caused my parents. My father had built up a business in a Deep South city; he was a Yankee, but he had managed to find his place not only professionally but as a civic leader. This was 1961, one of the most tense moments in the civil rights movement, and I guess the other thing that is relevant is that the people who showed up to get me out of jail were Protestant campus chaplains (I’ll explain as I go along what that has to do with where I ended up). After I graduated from Rice I spent a year at the University of Wisconsin getting a master’s degree in English, deciding that I really did not want to do literature, I wanted to do history. I ended up in the history of culture PhD program at the University of Chicago. Some people assume that I went to Chicago to study under Emmet Larkin. Actually Emmet wasn’t there at that point; I learned that Emmet (he was then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was coming to Chicago on the day that Nelson’s Pillar was blown up—so I didn’t come to Chicago to study under Emmet, Emmet came to Chicago to study over me! When I finished my PhD I got a job at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where I still am, a place that was a lot like Rice, an institution that had started off mainly as an engineering school—and in Carnegie Mellon’s case fine arts—and which at the time I arrived was just beginning to build humanities and social sciences.

JS: Why Irish history?

DM: For no good reason really. When I got into the interdisciplinary programme at Chicago, they asked me: what is it you want to do here? At Wisconsin I did a course on Victorian literature that included a unit on the Gaelic Revival. So with almost no knowledge of Ireland I tumbled to the idea that maybe there was an interdisciplinary topic to be found in that area. In my first quarter I took a seminar in church history under Martin Marty and did a paper on Archbishop McHale. Rather than simply searching for a dissertation topic I found myself grappling with a bunch of questions which I still haven’t quite answered, that had to do with my own background. It sure seemed to me that Ireland was a lot like the American South. But why was it like the American South? What was it that was like the American South? Who in the American South were the Irish like? Were they like the whites who wanted to secede—that’s the way a lot of the Irish saw the situation at the time of the American civil war. (I once came across a biography of Robert Emmet by Varina Ann Davis, daughter of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and according to her publisher’s blurb ‘a daughter of the Old South’. Davis depicts Emmet as an icon for the dilemma of the White South.) Or were the blacks, who were oppressed, like the Irish? And what was the role of religion in all this? Was it part of the problem, like the fundamentalists who exacerbated racism in the South, in which I had grown up? Or was it part of the solution, as had been my understanding at the time of my ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ in the Harris County Jail. Those were the puzzles that were in my mind, and although I haven’t consciously conjured with them in a long time they still govern my way of coming at Irish history.

JS: Do you agree with E.H. Carr’s well-known injunction: ‘Before you study the history, study the historian’?

DM: Yes, I think there is some merit to that. In fact I would hope this interview would help people who read my books to understand where I’m coming from.

Queen’s rebels (1978)—prompted by a desire to say something relatively soon—during the troubles—about Northern Ireland.

Queen’s rebels (1978)—prompted by a desire to say something relatively soon—during the troubles—about Northern Ireland.

JS: Your 1978 book, Queen’s rebels, Ulster loyalism in historical perspective, was published hard on the heels of A.T.Q. Stewart’s The narrow ground, aspects of Ulster 1609–1969. Both books tackle similar issues, over the same period, though in very different ways. Was the proximity in publication merely coincidence?

DM: I met Tony during my first research trip to Belfast in 1972 and I knew that he was writing a book about the Ulster problem and he knew that I was. So, in the sense that both of us were attempting to write something that would speak to the acute crisis that Northern Ireland was going through, their appearance around the same time was not coincidental. But there was no conspiracy between the two of us to come up with books at the same time. One thing that did affect the conclusion in Queen’s rebels, I would be happy to admit, was Theo Moody’s 1974 book The Ulster Question. That book went to press at the moment of the Sunningdale Agreement (of which he approved, as did I) and it reached the shops after the loyalist strike had brought down the power-sharing executive and the agreement had collapsed. Yet it had this enormously optimistic conclusion. One thing I was determined to do was not to be over-optimistic in the conclusion to Queen’s rebels. I can’t answer as to what motivated Tony, but I think he is inherently a more pessimistic person than me—which I don’t count as a fault!

JS: Do you think there is a distinct Ulster history that transcends regional studies?

DM: I was thinking, probably about the time I met Tony, that I would write a big magnum opus on the history of Ulster. But between 1972 and 1975, when I was in Belfast at the Institute of Irish Studies, I changed my mind and came up with the idea for Queen’s rebels, and I think it was mainly a matter of wanting to say something relatively soon—during the troubles—about Northern Ireland that prompted me not to go down the road of writing a history of Ulster, rather than any serious doubts about whether Ulster is the right unit for analysis. I’m now working on a book, with the working title ‘Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Catholics in the Famine era, c. 1829–69’, and the geographic area that I plan to cover is the nine counties of Ulster, plus northern Leinster and northern Connacht. I have reasons for doing that. I think that Presbyterians saw at least northern Connacht as part of their natural, or potential, missionary zone, until they lost interest in missionary activities directed towards Catholics in the 1850s. I think that this ‘greater’ Ulster is a natural unit of analysis in the mid-nineteenth century. But there is another dimension to your question that was raised with me back while I was writing Queen’s rebels. Sitting in an office at the Institute of Irish Studies one day there was a knock at my door and a young man, who is now a distinguished social scientist, came in and engaged me in a long conversation, and the burden of his complaint was that Ulster Protestants were a people without a history and that if I completed this book I would be giving them one. This, he said, was an inappropriate thing to do and I should give it up forthwith. I didn’t take his advice, but I guess this really gets at the question of what history is about and what we ought to be doing.

JS: Outside perspectives sometimes produce penetrating insights. Richard Cobb—English to the point of caricature—wrote brilliantly on France, for example. Does the view from Pittsburgh clarify or refract Irish history?

‘The maps that I present in my work [are] also . . . metaphors.’

‘The maps that I present in my work [are] also . . . metaphors.’

DM: I’ve been conscious of this issue for a very long time. I had a colleague back in the 1970s, Irving Bartlett, a very distinguished American historian, who once compared historians to priests, and said that in a national culture this is what historians are. And I remember saying to him I don’t feel like that! Not only does the role of priest fit very badly on me, but I’m a historian of a different culture from my own; I don’t feel that I have a role to play that resembles a priest in any way. I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but I think he meant both priest as celebrant and priest as judge and confessor. Historians exist on a continuum between celebrating and judging the past on the one hand, and trying to understand and explain it on the other. I tend to be at the understanding–explaining end of that spectrum, and I think indeed that the fact that it is a view from Pittsburgh, rather than a view from Ballymena, is very much to the point. On the other hand, the view from Pittsburgh can be one that causes a historian to be more engaged. I have an essay in press about Ulster Presbyterians in transatlantic perspective—‘Religious commotion in the Scottish Diaspora’—a diaspora in which Pittsburgh is very much a significant centre. And this gets back to what I talked about a few moments ago—the role of religion and whether it is part of the solution or part of the problem—and that in a society in which I am very invested. When you read that article you’re going to find little traces of passion that you probably don’t find in other things that I’ve written. Should African-American history be written only by African-Americans? It is certainly important that African-Americans do write it, but I think something would be lost if non-African-Americans were not also involved.

JS: In the preface to Queen’s rebels you list history as a social science, and your work draws on, for instance, modernisation theory, anthropology and political science. Is that still your view?

DM: I wrote that before I had my most intensive contact with other social scientists. I’d be more inclined nowadays to place the historian somewhere in limbo between the humanities and social sciences. In the late seventies I became involved with the use of computers in instruction, and one of the things people say about my recent work at conferences where I use an overhead projector or data-projector is that they love the maps that I produce. I think that there is more to those maps than meets the eye. For several years I saw my colleagues’ eyes glaze over when I showed them things that you could do with historical phenomena by producing cross-tabs, statistical tables, chi-squares, etc. on the screen of the computer. I next became interested in maps of social data. I showed some of these to colleagues and they reacted in a very different way than they had to numbers, even though there were vast amounts of numbers underlying these maps. They immediately began to see patterns in the maps, to ask questions, about why rates of literacy, say, were higher here as opposed to there, and so forth. Here I was on to something about the relationship between history and the social sciences. I look at the maps that I present in my work not just as maps but also as metaphors. What I think really distinguishes history from the hard social sciences is that in the social sciences the name of the game is testing hypotheses; you get nowhere in sociology or political science unless you identify a hypothesis, operationalise it, collect some data, and run statistical tests that will confirm or refute that hypothesis. The heart of the discipline of history is very different. Most social scientists are astounded when you tell them you are an Irish historian and it wouldn’t occur to you to take a year and go work on the history of, say, Cuba or South Carolina. For better or for worse you’re going to slog on doing Irish history. They think that’s crazy. Yet the way you become a recognised scholar in our discipline is that you spend your life addressing and consuming huge amounts of information about a particular topic or area, in my case late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. And so you reach a point where you can see patterns in that evidence that other people can’t see because they haven’t spent a lifetime immersing themselves in enormous amounts of very messy data. In my view the core of our craft consists in seeing patterns, which is not the same thing as testing hypotheses: it’s creating hypotheses, framing hypotheses. So in a sense the maps are a kind of metaphor for a much larger component of the historical profession. Obviously I have some of the skills necessary to do that hypothesis-testing. There’s a paper coming out on the 1834 Mass attendance data that I’ve spent so much time working on that does that. But in my view that activity is secondary to trying to generate hypotheses from data that are inherently very difficult to apply exact statistical tests to.

The View from Pittsburgh  4JS: Might more social scientific approaches offer a route out of the closed circle of revisionist/post-revisionist debate?

DM: In some sense the revisionist/post-revisionist division relates to the question of exceptionalism. Is Ireland a special place whose history is different from everywhere else’s? In general the social sciences tend to subvert that kind of thinking, and insofar as they do that I think it might well have an effect on that debate.

JS: Which history books do you most admire?

DM: John Bossy’s Christianity in the West 1400–1700. Turning to Ireland, a small country, I think that the Irish historical profession still needs to figure out how it’s going to address the larger historical questions and the rest of the academic profession. Relatively little Irish history gets read by people in other fields. And when they do read it they often read not the books you or I would send them to first. I think that in my area, the history of religion, there is no Irish equivalent of Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the altars, no big classic text. Yet it ought to be the case that people who write about American Catholicism and American Protestantism, for instance, would have much more understanding of the Irish antecedents. That they don’t is partly our fault. There needs to be a work of commanding stature to engage the relevant historians here in the United States.

Jim Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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