‘Sure they only work six hours a week’: Defending Irish academia

By Patrick Walsh

Irish universities and the academic blogosphere are currently full of academics reflecting upon their position, as they attempt to generate responses to increasingly restrictive, and frequently ill-thought out new policy directives. Reflection of course comes naturally to the academic –some would even argue it’s what we do best. But the time for reflection is over, now is the time for action. However, by action, I don’t mean the type of direct action witnessed by our striking colleagues in Britain, at least not yet. Instead we need to engage fully within the public debate on the purpose and future of our universities, to try and change, and pardon the cliché, the hearts and minds of our critics, within government and within wider society. read more

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What’s the point of universities?

I know this blog has been very quiet for a while – unfortunately I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had much time for writing blog pieces in the last few weeks, although, annoyingly, I’ve had loads of ideas!

However, the Little Review is back now and over the next few weeks in particular, the blog is going to address the ongoing crisis within Irish academia through a series of articles. What are universities for; what is it that researchers and academics do and why doesn’t the wider public seem to understand or appreciate it? In an economic climate where we are increasingly concerned with the bottom line and with employment prospects, why should students study the humanities? Why indeed should the government fund what is often termed ‘blue skies’ research?

These are some of the questions we hope to address. Although the Little Review has been interested in these issues from the beginning – as seen in posts such as ‘What’s the point of humanities research’ and ‘Knowledge economy or the economising of knowledge‘ – the current situation in Irish academia demands a more sustained approach. We hope that these pieces will provoke a debate below the line, so please do comment!


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

By Niamh Cullen

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. read more

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

By Niamh Cullen

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. read more

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Tales of the Unexpected: The Secret Life of Roald Dahl

By Patrick Walsh

Like many children of my generation I grew up hooked on the writings and stories of Roald Dahl. My parents purchased a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for me just after I was born. Today, over 30 years later, I still have it, even if it is very battered from multiple readings. The BFG was one of the first books I read myself, marking another point on my development as an obsessive reader. In my mind’s eye the author of these works was a cross between the chocolate-making genius, Willy Wonka, and the dream blowing BFG, an older man full of mischief but still retaining a reassuringly grandfatherly air in the manner of Charlie Bucket’s tale-spinning Grandpa Joe. As I grew older my image of Dahl changed, but not because I realised the often grotesque and sinister element evident in his writings, an element which would cause teachers, parents and librarians, especially librarians, to rail against the popular author. Instead the appearance of his rightly celebrated volumes of memoir Boy and Going Solo which captivated me and so many other readers across the globe introduced me to a more real-life Dahl. These volumes with their brilliant, and often poignant, descriptions of his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood culminating in his turbulent career as an RAF fighter pilot in World War II introduced a whole new Dahl to me, and I assume most of my fellow readers. read more

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Public intellectuals, trains and automobiles: Tony Judt’s post-war world

By Niamh Cullen

It soon becomes clear from reading any number of Tony Judt’s history books that he has a deep fascination with trains. Postwar, his highly acclaimed history of contemporary Europe, opens in a train station in Vienna. The Austrian capital was traditionally the gateway between eastern and western Europe, with its central position and imperial concerns further east. In post-war Europe, the city’s two separate train stations – one with routes heading east, and the other with trains travelling west, but never between the two worlds – became, in Judt’s mind – the ultimate symbol of the tragic and artificial divisions of the Cold War world. A history of railways was also planned until Judt became terminally ill with motor neuron disease. It is one of the many topics that he returns to in his posthumous new book, The Memory Chalet. He was a strange child, so fascinated by trains that he spent whole school holidays riding them alone across London and the south of England. Later, as he tells us, he discovered Europe from the window of a train carriage. Trains seem to mean two things to Judt; they represent the possibility of boundless travel across the European continent, while remaining connected to the landscape in a way that simply isn’t possibly with air travel. However the great European railways and the grandiose nineteenth-century station buildings are also physical reminders of the great undertaking of public service that Europe’s rail system represents. read more

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Fiddling while Rome burns: Berlusconi and the crisis of the Italian Left







By Niamh Cullen

Life seemed very normal in Rome when I was there the weekend before last. There were posters everywhere for a march against the Berlusconi government to take place that Saturday, December 11, but protests and popular demonstrations by those at all ends of the political spectrum are a fairly everyday occurence in Italy, and usually cause little remark. When I lived in Rome a few years ago, the brief life of the last Prodi government was nearing its end and I had to share my way home one Saturday with a right-wing protest march heading for the Colosseum, where marchers sported t-shirts with the delightfully Italian slogan of ‘No communists in the family… thank god’. Such marches usually pass without incident, as did the one on December 11. However political tensions were mounting in the lead-up to the parliamentary vote on the no-confidence motion in the Berlusconi government, to take place that Tuesday. Ever since Gianfranco Fini, former leader of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale party had withdrawn his support for Berlusconi’s government last August in a surprising show of statesmanship, it had seemed as if his days as prime minister were numbered. read more

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