Unexpected discoveries, fresh perspectives: thinking outside the (archival) box

Unexpected discoveries, fresh perspectives: thinking outside the (archival) box

This week, MA student Barry Sheppard explains how the discovery of an unexpected source prompted him to reconsider the role cast for the British-Irish relationship by political history and what impact this was to have on his own research.

How far can one small bit of primary source material change the direction of your research?  As I have found out, quite considerably.  Uncharacteristically for me, I had chosen my topic for postgraduate research by the time the ink was dry on my undergraduate dissertation.  A large chunk I hadn’t been able fit into my first extensive bit of research would, if all went to plan, give me a much needed head start in my new life as a postgraduate history student.  In a fit of equally uncharacteristic impatience I decided during the time between finishing one degree and beginning another I would get to work on the source material I had.  However, a chance find of a single letter took my research in a direction I was unprepared for. 

In Dublin’s national archives one cold January day I found hidden in the back of one of the archives’ well-thumbed files a letter with a memo attached.  The letter was from a British agrarian group asking for help from the Irish government, the memo (for internal eyes) basically said “say nothing”.  The year was 1936. Intrigued by this curious plea for help, not only did it change my ideas for an MA dissertation, it changed my choice of MA which was to be Modern Irish History to one with a wider approach.  The piece of paper I found took me outside of my comfort zone to something different.  I had been working on what I thought was ‘merely’ a highly contested social engineering project in 1930s Ireland against the backdrop of the world-wide economic crash, the Rathcairn Gaeltacht project.  I hadn’t, however considered the underlying religious element to the project until finding this particular letter.

I had become familiar with 1930s Irish society from my undergrad dissertation, and was quite aware of the level of secrecy and animosity between the two nations around issues of land during the ‘Economic War’ period.  Therefore, it was quite a surprise to discover this plea for help relating to land, and from the unusual direction of Britain to Ireland.  The letter, from a Catholic agrarian group with branches across Britain was asking the Irish Government for help in establishing rural Catholic colonies to house people affected by the same economic downturn as those in Ireland, based upon the blueprint of the Rathcairn model.   Delving deeper I was to discover that what seemed to be a very Irish social experiment (promoted as saving the Irish language) mirrored other projects around the globe in the period, albeit without that Irish language element.  What tied these geographically sparse projects was that they derived from the teachings contained within the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum

Ireland was somewhat unique in terms of the acceptance of these teachings, in that it became part of government policy in the period.  Other groups who adopted the teachings remained outside of government in their respective countries, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that they looked to Ireland for inspiration.  However, official Ireland’s insistence on ‘saying nothing’ in such instances shows an isolationist mentality which transferred into the teaching of the nation’s history.

Leading on from the theme of nation-centrism explored in a previous post by Sophie Cooper, the teaching of Ireland’s history was for many decades centrist.  In third level education, especially at postgraduate level it would be almost impossible to fall into this now outdated centrist view of Irish history.  Nevertheless, the popularity of Irish history within Ireland is stronger than ever.   Perhaps this owes a great deal to the unanswered questions in terms of the relationship with the nearest neighbour, drawing students towards Ireland as the focal point of their scholarly efforts with Britain merely becoming the ‘other’ to Ireland’s protagonist.  Certainly my own self-proposed area of study was to focus upon Ireland with Britain hovering somewhere in the far distance.  This approach works to a certain degree if the focus is strictly on political history. 

My find in Dublin’s archives took me away from that strict political history, to include religious and economic elements.  However, as the letter highlighted the financial plight of co-religionists across territories without reference to the political regimes in place it has (hopefully) taken me away from the well-trodden traditional paths of religious and political history.  It transcended political territories, as the economic crash did, to give a new perspective on identity, particularly religious identity in the modern world.   My task now, is to develop this beyond MA level, barring of course another divine letter of intervention at the back of a dusty file.

Barry Sheppard is studying for an MA in Religion, Identity and Conflict in History at Queen’s University Belfast. He is especially interested in religious identity and secularism in society. Barry won the Robert Dudley Edwards History Prize at the Irish History Student’s Association Conference 2012.


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