By Roseanna Doughty |
A few weeks ago Rachel Davis wrote a brilliant blog post describing her struggle to reconcile her identity as both a feminist and a gender historian. This prompted me to think about my own background and how it relates to my research into media representations of the Irish. Countless times I have been asked if my parents or grandparents are Irish when my English accent gives away my own origins. (Disclaimer: the last member of my family to have been born in Ireland died in the 1890s). Nobody has ever asked me whether I am of journalist stock though! Most will then leave it at that, but occasionally the term ‘Plastic Paddy’ and ‘wannabe Irish’ gets bandied around.
There are those both inside and outside academia who argue that in order to study Irish history you need to be Irish. Obviously I disagree with the idea that your birthplace should have any bearing on what history you can or cannot do, otherwise I’d be doing a somewhat unenthusiastic industrial history of Oldham or identity crisis on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border- people do drive around my village with Republic of Saddleworth bumper stickers proudly displayed in their car windows (post-doc idea!!!). Yet while I am sure both these options could produce very interesting projects, I prefer my identity history with a touch of political violence.
Amongst Edinburgh’s cohort of Irish history postgraduates, two thirds aren’t Irish. It is worth noting however, that the majority of us focus on the Irish diaspora and those who buck this trend look instead at Scottish/Irish relations. Granted Edinburgh is home of the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies and boasts a large number of specialists in immigration history, which could explain this tendency, but it is curious that we have, almost universally, chosen to research the diaspora, whilst the majority of our Irish colleagues have chosen to focus on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Maybe our outsider status makes us ideal candidates for writing diaspora history- it would certainly be interesting to investigate this further. Likewise some of the most renowned Irish historians, Don MacRaild, Kerby Miller, David Fitzpatrick to name but a few, were not born in their country of research (and have done outstanding work on the diaspora!). This is not restricted to the field of Irish history of course, take Ian Kershaw famous for his work on the rise of Hitler, yet definitely not German; in fact he would be another working on that industrial history of Oldham (how could I have competed?).
I understand that having grown up outside of Ireland, I may not be able to draw on personal experience of some of the events I describe or appreciate how specific historical narratives shape the experiences of the individual. When discussing childhood memories with friends from Northern Ireland for example, I find it hard to comprehend growing up in an environment where the school run involved negotiating British Army checkpoints. For me the biggest danger on my commute were rogue sheep. I would argue however, that I am qualified to write Irish history, in particular the Troubles, precisely because I am not Irish. As a result of growing up in England without any religious affiliations, I have been able to approach my subject area without many of the preconceptions or biases that I may have been susceptible to had I grown up in Northern Ireland.
Although I realise this is not a criticism directed solely at historians of Ireland, I can’t help but wonder if students of certain national narratives are more susceptible than others. Do the vast number of western historians who examine Chinese or Middle Eastern history for example, experience the same prejudices (maybe you can enlighten me)? Nonetheless, histories written by those with some distance from the national narratives they study – like those listed above – are often excellent and add valuable perspectives. So when I have to explain once again that I study Irish history because it is interesting and there is no ulterior/ethnic motive I will remember I am in good company!
Roseanna Doughty is a contribution’s editor follow her on twitter @RoseannaJane or check out her profile on Pubs and Publication’s by clicking here!