By Sophie Cooper |

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, you have to have some idea of where you want to go to research, and when you want to go before you start writing funding applications. As I had already been to Melbourne, I knew what time of the year I wanted to go. Obviously not everyone has the option to be this flexible – funding deadlines have to be taken into account, and I had to forego teaching this past year because I’d be away for a month during term time (I objected to going to Australia in British summer time, such as it is). However, I knew that I wanted to go in October 2014 – it was at the start of my second year so I would be able to work on what I’d found throughout the rest of the year, and still have time to go to Chicago. 

Essential to researching abroad is research at home. While I knew that a lot of the material would only show its true relevance once I had gone through it, getting in touch with archivists and librarians before you head out is essential. Not only will it help with funding applications, but it will also mean that you’ve checked that your repositories are actually open when you’re there.

Another thing to do before you go is to spread the word about your trip. Once word got out that I was going to Melbourne, I got emails from friends introducing friends and fellow researchers. I also got email introductions to Melbourne academics and archivists, which definitely smoothed the way for me when trying to access certain records. It also works the other way: while I was in Sydney I was able to take some photos of archival material for someone at Edinburgh who wasn’t able to get out there.

Staying in an AirBnB flat meant that I had a housemate (always nice to say hello someone in the evening), a kitchen (kept the eating costs down), and a base where I could do laundry and have free WiFi – which was ridiculously useful. It also meant that I had a beautiful terrace to sit on, eat my dinner, watch Homeland, and Skype my family of an evening. I highly recommend booking early!

The view from my terrace one evening.

The view from my terrace one evening.

When I was there:

I arrived on a Saturday, so spent the weekend getting over my jet-lag. Without realising I had booked accommodation just off Smith Street in Collingwood – one of the most historic areas of Melbourne. Last time I was there I hadn’t done much research on the history of the city, so this time I wandered around giggling and gleefully taking photos of buildings from the 1880s which I had been reading about.


There was a lot of muttering about the beauty of old and new coming together.

There was a lot of muttering about the beauty of old and new coming together.


Sophie's Melbourne 2


My first ‘working day’ was spent getting my reader’s card at the State Library of Victoria and meeting the archivist who specialised in the Irish communities of Melbourne. After that it was more or less plain sailing, I was able to get hold of a lot of the material that I wanted – however the feeling of calm regarding the rate that I was getting through the material in the first week or two, quickly dissipated into a slightly frenzied attempt to look through every newspaper or manuscript ever published/written and not yet digitised. Eventually I came to the conclusion (that academics have been telling me since I started my PhD) that I wasn’t going to get through absolutely everything…the time that I had meant that I physically couldn’t do that. However, I read, noted, or photographed everything that I could – material needs to be prioritised, and on returning to UK I realised that I had got a lot more useful stuff than I originally thought. Furthermore, I now have a few ideas for (in that distant time) future post-docs.

As I worked, I also met academics and experts on Melbourne and Irish history – these meetings were invaluable, and I am so grateful to people like Dr Dianne Hall and Dr Val Noone. Dianne spent a few hours chatting about our research – giving me plenty of tips and suggestions for where to find things – and later invited me to an Irish history seminar at the University of Melbourne, where I met more interested (and interesting) people. Val and his wife Mary invited me for breakfast, and spent the whole morning (literally from 8.30 until midday) chatting about my research and taking me exploring graveyards.

The grave of Sir John O'Shanassy, the first Irish Catholic (and second Premier) of Victoria.

The grave of Sir John O’Shanassy, the first Irish Catholic (and second) Premier of Victoria .

The archivist at the Melbourne Diocesan Archives, Rachel, also recommended a visit to Abbottsford Convent – which now has a lovely farmers’ market, but was a key institution for Irish women religious in Melbourne. All of these suggestions helped me ‘place’ my research, and understand further how the Irish fitted into Melbourne life. These trips also helped me to take some time out of the archives (always nice when the weather is sunny and it’s hitting 35°C outside) while still feeling like I was getting to know the history of the city.

Researching abroad on your own can be rather isolating. I know that research is inherently something that you do alone, but usually I have my group of friends from within academia, who although we research completely different things, I can rant at after a day of finding nothing. Luckily a friend had put me in touch with another PhD student who would be in Melbourne for a couple of days, so I had someone to meet for a 3pm cup of tea. This is something that I have always taken for granted, so if you can find a link to someone who’s also researching (Twitter is also a useful link to the research community)…I highly recommend it, for your sanity and for your motivation!


Sophie Cooper is a second year PhD student and William McFarlane Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying Irish communities in Melbourne and Chicago between 1850 and 1890, specifically in relation to situational influences on identity formation and nationalist thought. Sophie tweets using the handle @SophcoCooper and more information can be found on her academia page.

(Image 1:; Images 2-5: © Sophie Cooper)