Category Archives: History

Through the Fanlight Glass: Space and the Dublin Townhouse

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). Watching TV3’s fantastic documentary on Dublin’s Tenements has encouraged me to consider more fully the changing functions and arrangements of Dublin’s townhouses. The programme together with a relatively recent visit to New York’s brilliant Tenement Museum (why don’t we have one?) has given me a new insight into the appalling reality that lay behind so many beautiful if faded Georgian facades. Continue reading

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Striped shirts and hoodies: dressing for urban disorder

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. Continue reading

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

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.
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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 … 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 … Continue reading

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‘When the press is gagged, the reader has to read between the lines’… Piero Gobetti and antifascist Italy

In a time of political crisis, when real power eludes us or there is huge uncertainty about what we want or how to solve our problems, words may be the best weapon we have. It is journalism and editorial comment that so often articulate the mood, and the concerns of a society, and through words – whether printed or increasingly online – that we manage to reflect meaningfully on what is going on, and even to sketch out, discuss and debate ideas and possible solutions. The value of good editorial commentary – whether in national newspapers or blogs; Fintan O’Toole or Ireland after Nama – has become increasingly clear during Ireland’s recent years of political crisis. The more immediate Egyptian crisis is another, urgent indication of courageous, independent voices, even if their medium is more likely to be twitter than print newspapers. One of the books I read over Christmas – a brilliant, slim volume by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi called Pereira Maintains and set in Salazar’s Portugal – is another powerful testimony to the editor’s unique potential, and indeed his or her responsibility, to use the printing press to spread necessary ideas and truths, even in great danger. Continue reading

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A ‘ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork’? Cities and progressive politics

Fintan O’Toole’s intriguingly entitled article in Saturday’s Irish Times, ‘The decision that I made on contesting this general election’, got me thinking about a few things. I was enthusiastic about his idea of seeking out people who were active in civil society – whether the arts, business, education or community work – at a local level, but were emphatically not politicians, to contest the election. But at the same time, I could see why such an idea was probably doomed to failure – or at least not to live up to the expectations placed in it – especially given the very short time frame. But it was O’Toole’s citing of Mary O’Rourke’s dismissive comment that all it would amount to would be a ”a few gurus in posh areas” that really made me wonder about why people vote the way they do. Continue reading

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