Through the Fanlight Glass: Space and the Dublin Townhouse

By Patrick Walsh


Recently I have begun to think anew about space. No not what lies above in the starry heavens, but instead the spaces we inhabit and how we use them. Some of these spatial thoughts have been influenced by the practicalities of an impending move abroad, and the realisation I won’t have space for my whole library! Most of these thoughts have been inspired by my rather eclectic reading and watching experiences over the last few weeks, not to mention ongoing discussions about a proposal for a TV documentary on cooking and eating in the Irish country house (More of that in the future perhaps). read more

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Striped shirts and hoodies: dressing for urban disorder

By Niamh Cullen

As the media discussion of the London riots unfolded last week – with its talk of hoodies, ‘cardigans’ and the art of looting the right trainers – I was reading about Italian protest movements in the 1960s. Not the better known ‘68ers with their Che Guevara beards and hippy inspired look, but the  series of working class protests that took place across the northern Italian cities in 1960 and 1961. They were less ideologically driven and less structured than those of ’68, but no less reflective of the turmoil and inequality of Italian society at the time.  They aren’t directly comparable with the London riots but hearing about both did make me think about urban unrest, collective protest and the politics of dress, since it does seem to have a real importance both for those involved and for the press who need to describe and discuss them afterwards. read more

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One eye on posterity and one eye on the neighbours: watching oneself in the 1950s

By Niamh Cullen

History tends to focus on important, pivotal moments; times of war, calamity, accelerated social change, revolution or unrest. But what happens when life gets back to ‘normal’ so to speak? When things began to calm down after those first few weeks of 1789 – even though the revolution continued – some people at least had to get back to work. And in May 1945, what happened after the first few days of relief and celebration? Soldiers returned home and everyone had to adjust to life as normal. But what is normal, in historical terms? And does it ever feel normal to those living through it?

These are some of the questions that the Mass Observation project, set up in Britain in the 1930s, sought to address. So-called ordinary people all over Britain were asked to keep diaries recording the details of their day-to-day lives. The aim, in the words of the organisers, was to bring about a ‘science of ourselves’. Nella Last was one such person; a housewife from the north of England, her wartime diaries were made into a television series, ‘Housewife, 49’. Unlike many of the other participants, she kept writing steadily almost to the end of her life, her diaries continuing right into the 1960s. Her lively and perceptive account of her own life is now published in three volumes, the last of which, Nella Last in the 1950s, was finally published in 2010. read more

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The Politics of Art: Writing the Arab Spring

By Niamh Cullen

Ever since I read the excellent Pereira Maintains in January, I’ve been meaning to write about it properly, but never quite got around to it. A novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi set in 1930s Lisbon, it is told from the point of view of a middle-aged literary newspaper editor who becomes a reluctant witness to the violence and repression of Salazar’s brand of fascism and dictatorship. The story is sparse and simply told; stripped down to basics so much it reads almost like a fable, which Tabucchi uses to pose some powerful questions. What is the point of the printed word in a dictatorship, when newspapers aren’t allowed to inform people as to what is going on? And what is the role of literature, of art in a society such as this? When I went to the Artists in the World panel discussion as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the stark narrative of Pereira Maintains. read more

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Political and Social Density in the age of Bubbles: Making Sense of the Present and the Past

By Patrick Walsh

There is an old Chinese curse that says ‘May you live in interesting times’. Few of us would dispute that we are living in ‘interesting times’ today. In Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the last few years have seen time speed up, bringing with it rapid social economic and political changes. Understanding and making sense of these changes has become a national pastime, not to mention a major focus of academic research – witness the vast outpourings on the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. Just yesterday I spotted that UCD library has begun to build up a special Celtic Tiger collection, something that will be of immense value to researchers, both now and in the future. My hope would be that they are inclusive as possible in gathering material. The Ross O’Carroll-Kelly novels are for instance at least as important in understanding the boom and bust years as dry economic reports. As satires of the boom they compare, if not in literary merit, with the eighteenth century plays and novels of Fielding, Gay, Swift and Pope, and offer important insights into where it went wrong, and how. Literature and other material culture sources can after all tell us much about human behaviour, and economic activities, even if for some social scientists the jury remains out on this. For suggestions for how to use such material, we need to turn to historians who have long been fascinated with the puzzle of why certain periods see dramatic changes that can be witnessed across the layers of a society or economy. read more

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Escaping the ivory tower: academics and the city

By Niamh Cullen

Last Wednesday I attended the inaugural event of a new group of Dublin based humanities scholars, Dublintellectual. The idea behind Dublintellectual – bringing the research of Irish based scholars and researchers to a wider public – is a laudable and necessary one at a time when both policy makers and the public continually voice their doubts about the value of what we do. While there is some debate about how much we should engage with policy makers who have a reductive idea of what we do, and should be doing, I’m convinced of the need to showcase our research to a wider public and attempt to explain what exactly it is that we do and how it is of benefit to society. Continue reading

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‘Arts degrees. Please take one’… Is a humanities degree worth the paper it’s written on?

By Niamh Cullen

I think most humanities students are asked at least once – and realistically, probably a lot more than that – why they chose to do an ‘arts’ degree. After all, what does history, English, Spanish or film studies actually qualify you for? I’d say most students probably wonder it themselves at some point. I know I certainly have. Now more than ever though, the value of the humanities is being called into question. In our current recessionary climate – to repeat the stock phrase – we are being encouraged to examine the value of everything that public money is being spent on, and because the value of humanities scholarship isn’t tangible, easy to quantify or to translate into a direct economic return, we are having a hard time justifying what we do. read more

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