“We’re the Only Steel Town to Make it Out Alive”: Post-industrial ‘Success’ and Erasure in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Pete Hodson discusses social memory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and his internship at the National Museum of Industrial History:

It’s late November 1995. A steelworker whistles ‘Amazing Grace’ through the plant tannoy as Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnace is tapped for the final time. As the molten metal gushes into transportation cars, workers adopt solemn poses for commemorative photographs. The media turn up for interviews and film workers streaming out of the gates who will never return. After constant operation since 1863, Bethlehem’s steelworks falls silent. It’s a familiar story replicated across the United States. Economic void, cultural loss and social vacuum are terms to describe what usually comes next. Bethlehem, however, likes to market itself as the city that escaped shutdown unscathed: ‘we’re the only steel town to make it out alive’. If it has, what’s the magic formula? If it hasn’t, how has it avoided being written-off as a rust-belt failure?

Bethlehem’s ‘South Side’, with the five blast furnaces in the background.

I arrived in Bethlehem in July 2018 for a Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership internship, based at the Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH). I knew next to nothing about the city nor its inhabitants, but I was well versed in North American deindustrialisation literature. As such, I expected a Detroit, or a Youngstown – in essence, a place still convulsed by the economic aftershocks of industrial decline. This is where the literature takes you, to the towns and cities where the negative effects of deindustrialisation are writ large on bodies and landscapes. Outwardly, downtown South Bethlehem appears to be in relatively good shape, using the standard metrics of urban regeneration success: nice paving, the presence of high-end shops and trendy bars. But these measurements are useless without exploring local social memory. Landscape aesthetics are unimportant; it is how people feel, use and understand spaces that can unlock deeper meaning, and expose hidden power structures.

NMIH occupies Bethlehem Steel’s former Electrical Repair Shop. Built in 1913, this imposing brick structure is one of a handful of repurposed buildings in a vast brownfield site hugging the Lehigh River. Over the road, the thirteen-storey headquarters lies asbestos-riddled and vacant. Looming into view across the car park are the five, rusting, blast furnaces. Regeneration is work-in-progress. Sands Casino, opened in 2009, is the area’s new commercial ‘anchor’ and occupies the eastern end of the sprawling site. Intriguingly, Sands Casino owns all of the land – including the iconic blast furnaces – and controls access to (and use of) space. Local people are sceptical about the durability of the new casino economy. The community is only too aware of the risks of placing all the eggs in one basket. One South Bethlehem interviewee recalled, as a child, she saw: ‘Things puffing away and the lights were all on at these main offices. And you saw something that was so vibrant. Will it ever be that again? I don’t know that gambling will ever do that’.[1] Bethlehem has endured Marx’s dictum of ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – and is braced for a second wave.

Slot machines at Sands Casino, South Bethlehem.

NMIH opened in July 2016 after a somewhat turbulent genesis. Importantly, Bethlehem Steel is not the museum’s sole focus. NMIH dedicates substantial space to the Lehigh Valley’s textile and garment industry. The dominance of “The Steel”, physically and psychologically, served to obscure deindustrialisation in other sectors. The predominantly female-employing textile trade shed hundreds of workers after 1945, yet barely registered beyond immediately affected families. Hierarchy is apparent in popular memory: steel is ranked above garment manufacturing. NMIH is addressing this imbalance and has created a permanent textile gallery at the museum.

NMIH exterior. Twin building, to the right, lies abandoned like much of the brownfield site.

My primary role at NMIH is to collect the oral testimony of Bethlehem families who lived through the deindustrialisation process. Oral history’s ‘deep, dark secret’ is that orality is often lost.[2] Typed-up transcripts create an enormous ‘flattening of meaning’.[3] To help combat this, NMIH decided to capture oral history on video and make the interviews digitally accessible for the public to research their ethnic, industrial and social history. Local historical societies have already begun the task of collecting oral history, but their work is patchy and rarely in the public domain. There is also evidence of bias towards early twentieth-century European ethnic history at the expense of more recent Hispanic immigration. Today, South Bethlehem is a majority Hispanic neighbourhood. Terraced homes originally built for first-generation European migrants have, in turn, been colonised by new arrivals from Puerto Rico, Mexico and further afield. Early Hispanic migrants, like ninety year-old Ismael Garcia, were actively sought by Bethlehem Steel to toil in grimier trades (notably the coke works). “The Steel” provided Ismael with a dangerous but lucrative living and the opportunity ‘to better myself. I didn’t care about how hard I worked’.[4] More recent arrivals have struggled in the post-steel low wage economy: ‘Now they want to chase them [Hispanics] out of here’ remarked Ismael, with more than a hint of irony.[5] The voices of Latino Bethlehem are seldom heard in narratives of the city’s industrial heritage, or those concerning its cultural rebirth. As Jackie Clarke reminds us, power structures and agendas also exist at a local history level, as well as within larger public history institutions. Dominant perspectives can bury others.[6]

So to return to the original question: has Bethlehem weathered the storm, relative to other former steel towns? We need to find methods of describing deindustrialisation in ways that moves beyond the simple binary distinction of ‘success’ and ‘failure’. The reality is murkier and more complex. The often crass boosterism of local authorities and the popular tendency to talk-down deindustrialising communities can become hegemonic labels. On the surface, Bethlehem has indeed ‘made it out alive’. A combination of luck, foresight and close narrative control saved the city from a worse fate. A number of key factors are at play. Crucially, the plant died slowly. Closure was neither sudden nor brutal. Economic diversification occurred from the 1960s, so other local employment soaked up job losses. (North) Bethlehem was founded by German Moravians in 1741 lending the city other (pre-steel) cultural resources to fall back on. Perhaps most significantly, there was an early recognition of what must be done to thrive in a consumer economy: investment in place-based arts, culture and urban beautification. The deprivation afflicting sections of Bethlehem’s Hispanic population reminds us that this economic model does not work for everyone.

How do we really measure post-industrial transformation? By unemployment figures, or the number of hipster bars? Local community social, economic and cultural well-being must remain the most important consideration. Whilst it is clear that Bethlehem emerged comparatively unscathed, it still bears the hallmarks of a community adjusting to relative economic trauma. The froth and excitement surrounding cultural regeneration can further obscure the plight of the marginalised. NMIH’s oral history project is an important means of excavating the myriad lived experiences of the unfolding deindustrial process.

Pete Hodson is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. His thesis is titled Memory, conflict and class: the experience and legacy of deindustrialisation in Belfast and North East England since 1970′. It adopts a comparative approach to examine the consequences of ‘managed’ and ‘catastrophic’ deindustrialisation. He has recently published in Cultural and Social History and has a forthcoming article in History Workshop Journal.



[1] Michael Frisch, ‘Three dimensions and more: oral history beyond the paradoxes of method’ in Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy (eds), Handbook of emergent methods (London, 2008), p. 222.

[2] Interview with Kathie Klein, 5 September 2018.

[3] Michael Frisch, ‘Oral history and the digital revolution: toward a post-documentary sensibility’ in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (eds), The oral history reader (2nd edn., London, 2006), p. 102.

[4] Interview with Ismael Garcia, 5 October 2018.

[5] Interview with Ismael Garcia, 5 October 2018.

[6] Jackie Clarke, ‘Closing Moulinex: thoughts on the visibility and invisibility of industrial labour in contemporary France’ in Modern & Contemporary France, vol 19 (2011), p. 454.



Big Pit National Coal Museum: Commemoration, Oral Interviews and Public History


In this week’s blog, Rhianne Morgan examines how communities commemorate the loss of the South Wales mining industry:

The Valleys
Still from The Valleys, MTV.

When people hear my South Wales valleys accent four discussions usually follow.

Firstly, “You are from the valleys, I bet you love Tom Jones”

Secondly, “You Welsh love the rugby”

Thirdly, “Have you seen that TV Show called the Valleys? Is it actually like that?”

Finally, “I bet most of your family were miners”

For the focus of this blog, the last statement is the most important. This piece focuses on how local communities remembered and commemorated the loss of the mining industry in South Wales. The South Wales Valleys are renowned for their role in the coal mining industry and the bitter industrial dispute which took place from 1984-5. Since the end of the strike and subsequent pit closures the area has suffered both economic and social hardship. Communities, after all, were built around pits. Mining was the dominant industry, which employed thousands of men and supported local families.

NUM Strike Poster
South Wales NUM strike poster.

One mine which had a slightly different story to tell was the Big Pit in Blaenavon, Pontypool. Blaenavon was once a thriving industrial town; during its peak, Big Pit employed 1,500 people. The mine was shut down in 1980 as part of a national programme of pit closures. The pit was re-opened in 1983 as a heritage site and museum, a move that was backed by the Wales Tourist Board and the local council. This was controversial at the time as there were still working mines in the surrounding villages, and the loss of Big Pit as a working mine was still very raw. Thirty-five years on, Big Pit is  the flagship attraction in the Blaenavon area, drawing thousands of tourists annually. Visitors can see a range of exhibits and interpretive facilities, but the highlight for most is the underground tour of the pit led by an ex-miner. The main focus of the museum is on how the coal mining industry and surrounding communities changed from the Victorian period up until the pits closure.

Pwll Mawr
Pwll Mawr.

Miners responded to the late twentieth-century demise of Britain’s coal industry in various ways, one of which was a desire to commemorate the loss of industry that had shaped them. A “heritage boom” took place during the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom that led to an unprecedented development of the tourism and leisure sector. It has been argued by scholars such as Robert Hewison and the late David Lowenthal that this heritage boom was an expression of a strong cultural reaction to the decline of Britain both economically and globally. Despite this, there has been a lack of research into how ex-mining communities feel towards commemoration and museums such as Big Pit. I decided to examine ex-miners reactions to the museum as part of my MA dissertation: ‘Collective identities and memories of the 1984-5 strike in Aberdare’. I recorded oral history interviews with ten ex-miners from my local area. Oral history was a crucial methodology for my piece because it gave the ex-miners an opportunity to say how they felt they had been represented in public history museums, and whether they agreed that they could function as sites of commemoration.

All of the interviewees liked the concept of commemoration through Big Pit and supported it. Firstly, some backed the museum as they wanted their coal mining identity and community to be preserved. As ex-banksman of Penrhiwcieber colliery Bernard explained:

I reckon they should have a pit open in every valley, just for the people to realise what they [miners] went through during those years and all of their lives… Big Pit is excellent… I would recommend it to anybody.

It was not just the loss of identity that the interviewees were keen to commemorate. The majority of the miners also wished to emphasise the pre-1985 community spirit that existed in this mining community. As former weighbridge clerk at Tower colliery, Jeff explained:

To me it [the miners strike] changed the whole area. I mean the valleys have never been the same since…There was a sense of community but I’ve noticed in the last ten to thirteen years… It was a better place to live in then than now in my opinion.

Such a statement highlights not only the demise of the mining industry but of the community that surrounded it. Heritage, in this case, is seen as valuable for areas such as Aberdare in seeking to retain pride, identity and the means for regeneration in an increasingly mobile society.

Another reason for commemorating the mining industry was to ensure that younger generations were aware of their family or local heritage. The thought of children growing up within Aberdare not knowing what a miner was, or how the mining industry impacted upon the area, was a reoccurring fear. As ex-fire officer of Tower colliery Leslie explained:

I thought Big Pit and places like that should definitely be kept open and it shouldn’t be that it dies away [the mining industry]… our children should never forget it. Even in the valleys today I was quite shocked, I heard a story that… this young boy said to his dad… “Dad I have to dress up for Easter” and the father said “what do you want to be, a rugby player or a miner?” and the boy turned round and said “what’s a miner?” How quickly they forget see, it’s sad. So it’s nice that museums and that are kept for children to see.

Big Pit
Big Pit on a beatiful day.

Surprisingly some of the interviewees, while supporting Big Pit in general, had never actually visited the new museum. In this case study all of the ex-miners wished to remember and celebrate their heritage as they all supported local museums. Yet, in some cases, they did not feel the need to visit. David, a former development worker at Penrhiwcieber colliery, explained:

I’ve never been to any of them…I finished underground and thought ‘leave it there’.

Pit closures are still raw and painful memories which some miners do not wish to relive through a museum. As Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda argues, ‘The impact of major emotional events does not diminish with the course of time. Time does not heal wounds; it only softens scars.’[1] Other miners, however, were more open to a trip down memory lane. Bernard, for example, took two friends from Birmingham to Big Pit and described a very different feeling:

You can be there close your eyes and be a part of it again you know? It’s a wonderful thing.

Bernard took solace in visiting the museum, as the underground tour gave him the opportunity to reminisce about pit life. Although every ex-miner believed commemoration is important, some interviewees were still not ready to visit mining museums. Nevertheless, from the overall response of the interviewees towards commemoration, it is clear how captivated, passionate and proud these men still are of the mining industry to which they had dedicated most of their life.

underground tour
Underground tour.

Oral history interviews can shed light on the tensions that exist between heritage projects and the communities they represent. It is clear from these testimonies how important heritage museums such as Big Pit are to areas that are struggling with the affects of de-industrialisation, as the museum is viewed by the ex-miners as a symbol of civil pride. Big Pit can be viewed as a successful heritage project as it elated the community it attempts to represent. This is due to ex-miners having a crucial role and say within the museum space. Ex-miners work at the museum as tour guides, bringing with them their life stories and passion. Communication between the different groups involved in the museum and the prominent role of the ex-miners makes the Big Pit experience. Successful community heritage projects such as this one are crucial not only for attracting tourism into the area but most importantly for retaining the local community’s culture, pride and sense of belonging.

Me and my mother following in my grandfather's footsteps down the pit
Me and my mother following in my grandfather’s footsteps down the pit!

Rhianne Morgan is a social, public and urban historian of the 20th century, working mainly on Britain. Her interests include: working class family and community; masculinity and work; collective memory and identity; commemoration; industrial heritage; civic pride and the regeneration of post-industrial urban areas.

She is currently undertaking a PhD with the working title ‘Belfast Baths: Exploring and interpreting the historic spaces of the Victorian industrial city’ in partnership with Belfast City Council.


[1] Nico H. Frijda, ‘Commemorating’ in J.W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, and B. Rime, (eds), Collective memory of political events: social psychological perspective, (New Jersey, 1997), p. 105.

Opening Doors, Exploring Stories, Inspiring the future.

In this week’s blog, Christopher Warleigh-Lack discusses the refurbishment of Hillsborough Castle and the challenges of presenting public history in Northern Ireland:

In April 2014, heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces took over the running of Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. This became the sixth historic site managed by HRP, which include the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and the Banqueting House at Whitehall. Our ambition is to transform the site from a closed, secretive and unknown one, to an open, welcoming site, where we can follow our charitable aim to help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest places ever built.

This has, so far, taken four years, and when we open in April 2019, will have cost about £21m. This is includes £5m Heritage Lottery Funding, and nearly £2m in grants from other organisations, and will require us to attract 200,000 visitors annually in order for the site to become self-funded. As a charity, we receive no financial support from crown or government. Our remit covers not only the castle, but 100 acres of grounds, as well as the nearby Court House and Fort, both of which are still owned by the Downshire family.

A Public History project of this nature is not without its challenges! At its heart an Irish Big House created by the Hill family, Earls of Hillsborough and later Marquesses of Downshire, bought by the British Government in 1925 to house the newly created Governor of Northern Ireland, it became – and still is – the official residence of the monarch in Northern Ireland. After the role of Governor ended in 1972 and direct rule was imposed from London, it became the residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a role which it also continues to this day.

Thus, how do we share a complex, tangled, and contested history, and welcome communities who may not traditionally feel welcome? We need to be fair and honest in telling our stories, and balanced without being provocative.

William III stayed at Hillsborough on his way to the Battle of The Boyne and should be neither eulogised nor airbrushed; traditionally seen in armour on a white horse, we searched the collections of art available to us for a less provocative image, and found one. This is displayed in the State Entrance, along with other royal portraits from that period: his uncle Charles II, who gave Hillsborough borough status in 1662; Queen Anne, on whose Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland formed the basis of that in 1800 with Ireland; James II for whom the Hill family acted as Privy Councillors and courtiers (and like many, swapped sides when they saw how the wind was blowing). This sets the scene for the Hillsborough visit, establishing a royal space, and one with royal links back to 1662. However, there is more to it than that.

State Entrance, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

The Red Room, scene of the first ever meeting in 2005 of HM The Queen and Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, was the venue of many intimate discussions during the Peace Process. Following the tradition of the cabinet, or intimate private space for politicking and display of precious items, a dense hang of amazing art from several collections is displayed here. Subtly, as a counterpoint to this, are domestic photographs on side-tables. Look closer however, and they show politicians from all groups, sides and parties, at Hillsborough Castle.

A Throne Room should look like a Throne Room. No question. It is still a space for investitures, ceremony, and, citizenship and looks the part.

Throne Room, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

As far as the art in the State Drawing Room goes, things are different, and the feel of the space is more intimate. The art, as a counterpoint to all those royal portraits, is contemporary and by world famous Ulster artists, all inspired by the taste of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who collected Irish art. A challenge we face is that the open fire in this room is lit when a certain visitor stays. Institutional lenders will not allow their art or objects to be displayed in the same room as an open fire for reasons of conservation. So, we approached private lenders and artists themselves, all of whom do not have the same restrictions and were delighted to be involved.

Visitors touring the house are encouraged to sit on the sofas, beside the fireplace in this room: who knows who else may have sat there before? Instead of ‘Do Not Sit’, how about ‘Do please sit here’. We recognise that with 200,000 wiggling backsides, these sofas won’t last very long. But, as they were purchased for this room in the 1990s, we accept that eventually they will wear out and need replacing.

State Drawing Room, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

We do not want to shy away from the political stories, but, reflecting on the challenges other organisations have faced, and remembering that this is still a living, working space, we hope we have found a way of doing this. Country houses traditionally displayed amusing prints or cartoons in stair halls and other less stately areas. So what we did was choose images that relate directly to the history of Ireland, and Hillsborough’s place in it. With prints and cartoons from collections all over the world, we hope we have presented a balanced view, starting with the 18th century and the American War of Independence (the man who built the house was Secretary of State for the American Colonies under George III); the French Revolution, the Act of Union, the Home Rule debate, the Famine, Land Acts, and ending with the Act of Partition in 1921. Our intention is to open the former Secretary of State’s Bedroom at the top of the stairs to continue this story; but, there are many challenges around this both logistical and esoteric.

Stair Hall, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

As a usable space, we do not to use barriers or display cases to protect people and objects from each other, and nor do want to. No ropes, druggets or pine cones on chairs here. We have to be more creative: today’s newspaper roughly folded and placed on an 18th century hall chair can act as a deterrent; an artist’s box on a fragile armchair; knitting and wool or a writing set on a drawing room chair.

Refurbishment and representation of the castle itself was completed in July 2018, and the rest of the project, including car parks, visitor centres, education space, cafes and shops, will be completed by April 2019, and through opening doors and exploring stories of public history, we can inspire the future.



Dr Christopher Warleigh-Lack is the Curator for Historic Royal Palaces at Hillsborough Castle, and has worked with HRP for nearly ten years, with experience of National Trust in both England and Northern Ireland, Shannon Heritage and the Limerick Civic Trust.

Board Games and Public History

In this week’s blog, Tim Somers discusses how historians can use their research to develop custom-built board games:

For the last few months I’ve been exploring the potential use of custom-built board games as a way to undertake a public history project. The project would involve collaborating with a board game designer. To prepare, I have been attempting to create a game based on my research into print culture during the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, 1678 to 1685. This is, I hope, the first in a series of posts on the topic.

Why Board Games?

Crumpled boxes of Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble waiting to be ceremoniously dusted off during the holidays. This was once the common image of board games. Not so anymore. Over the last decade games have developed in new, creative directions and experienced a resurgence in popularity. ‘We are entering a golden age of board game design’, according to the designer of the hugely successful title, Pandemic. Board gaming in the UK and Ireland is firmly in “growth industry” territory. UK sales of games have been climbing year-on-year (up 24% from 2016 to 2017). Attendance at the UK Games Expo rose to 39,106 this year, compared to 1,200 in 2007. And people are not just discovering exciting games to play with friends and family, they’re also visiting newly-opened board game cafes, such as ‘Jack Straws’ in Belfast. Digital culture has played a factor in the industry’s growth. Gamers can schedule events and find people on Meetup.com; independent designers can use the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to publish new games; and millions watch tastemakers on Youtube to navigate the ever-expanding marketplace. Like vinyl, printed books or the ‘material turn’ in academia, board games are another example of analogue technology persisting in the digital age.[1]

jack straws
Jack Straws Board Game Cafe, Belfast [http://niexplorer.com/blog/jackstraws-games-cafe-belfast].
Board Games in Higher Education

Games are not just a growing in popularity among the public, as educational tools they’re also attracting academic attention. Most empirical studies of educational games have come from fields such as computer science and economics.[2] However Benjamin Hoy, a historian ahead of the curve, has recently created a custom game to teach students about North-West Pacific smugglers in the nineteenth century. Based on the gameplay for Sherriff of Nottingham, the game requires players to make ‘difficult moral decisions’ that reflect the challenges of North-West Pacific life. This resulted in increased student participation and an appreciation for the structural factors that shaped ‘normal behaviour’ in the past (‘historical empathy’).[3] Educational history games are an exciting avenue to pursue. But is it also possible, in terms of public history, to create research-led games that are both educational and engaging to the public?

Historians – what are they good for? 

The best kind of public engagement uses models of collaboration and exchange rather than ‘top-down’ dissemination.[4] Historians cannot expect the ‘public’ to be automatically interested in their highly specialised research. By the same token, why should indie game designers – most of whom have “real” jobs to support themselves – invest time and money in your public history enterprise? The world doesn’t need another frivolous passion project, thanks! It’s important to create a clear idea of the practicalities around collaboration and its benefits to the partner organisation before embarking on such projects.

In terms of the creative process, however, historians do have something to offer: ‘theme’. The best board games are a seamless blend of theme and gameplay ‘mechanics’. Usually mechanics are the substance that provides an intellectual puzzle, whereas the theme draws people in and creates a memorable experience. However as more games are published year-on-year, theme is becoming an increasingly important way for designers to stand out from the crowd. In the words of one: ‘It’s time to step up our themes. How many more zombie, Cthulhu, pirate, space empire, wizard games can we make? There are more worlds to be discovered than just these typical themes’.[5]

If game designers need themes, then historians could be of some use. Of course, history has always been a common thematic alternative to zombies and wizards. Usually, though, historical games deal in warfare rather than social, cultural or political history. This is not to ignore the variety of historical games with intriguingly demilitarized themes: Biblio (medieval abbots collecting libraries), Guilds of London (early modern civic culture), Archipelago (Renaissance colonialism), Brass: Lancashire (the industrial revolution), or Mexica (Aztec city-building). However even these games, with their expertly crafted gameplay, usually engage with the past on a skin-deep level. For example, in Guilds of London players are trying to control tiles (guilds) with their pawns (liverymen). On a special tile, players can choose to ship their liveryman to the Ulster Plantation to win extra points. But because the theme is incidental to the mechanic (‘area control’), there is no indication that this might be a problematic decision.[6]

Guilds of London’s plantation tile. Image from Instagram @never.bored.gaming.

Contrast this with Brenda Romero’s ‘The Mechanic is the Message’, a highly personal series of games (including one themed on the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland) that uses gameplay to create thought-provoking experiences through active participation.[7] In Train, the objective of the game is to move as many passengers as possible to the final destination. At the end, players are told that this destination is a Nazi concentration camp and the passengers are Jews. Often players simply ‘follow the rules’, some refuse to play once they guess the real objective, others attempt to improvise a different outcome. The game therefore asks difficult questions about complicity during the Holocaust. How would you have behaved at the time? This is an extreme example of theme and mechanic working together, turning games into art-installations, but it has provoked me to think more deeply about how we can translate our research into ‘play’. How do we make historically-themed games that engage with the complexities of their topics, impart ‘historical empathy’, and use theme-led mechanics that are intuitive and interesting for gamers? What kind of ‘experience’ do we want this to be?

Brenda Romero, Train (2009).

In the next post, I will discuss the practical steps I took to try and address these issues, as well as the successes and (mostly) failures I have experienced along the way.

Tim Somers received his PhD from Queen’s University Belfast in 2018. His thesis was titled ‘John Bagford and the Collection of Cheap Print in Later Stuart Britain’. He has published on the concept of impartiality in print culture during the 1680s with the Historical Journal. This month another article on the contributions of tradesmen to later seventeenth-century scientific culture will be published in the Huntington Library Quarterly. His current interests include the humour of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century jestbooks and ballads, and print consumers’ reception of humour and satire.

Email: tsomers01@qub.ac.uk


[1] Leigh Alexander, ‘The Persistence of Analogue’ [https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bgmxgc].

[2] Nancy B. Sardone & Roberta Devlin-Scherer, ‘Let the (Board) Games Begin: Creative Ways to Enhance Teaching and Learning’, The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, vol. 89, issue 7 (2016), pp. 215-222.

[3] Benjamin Hoy, ‘Teaching History With Custom-Built Board Games’, Simulation & Gaming, vol 49, issue 2, 2018, pp. 115-133.

[4] Karen Harvey, ‘Envisioning the Past: Art, Historiography and Public History’, Cultural and Social History, vol. 12, issue 4 (2015), pp. 527-43; Laura King and Gary Rivett, ‘Engaging People in Making History: Impact, Public Engagement and the World Beyond the Campus’, History Workshop Journal, vol. 80, issue 1 (2015), pp. 218-33.

[5] Christian Strain, ‘Stepping Up Your Game’s Theme’ [http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/stepping-up-your-games-theme/].

[6] This is perhaps an unfair criticism of Tony Boydell’s Guilds of London, which is excellent. Generally speaking, ‘euro-games’ of this kind do not engage with their themes as deeply as story-telling or narrative-driven games such as Dead of Winter. It is also not the designer’s fault that only three out of forty guilds gave permission to use their names and shields in the game!

[7] Brenda Romero, ‘The Mechanic is the Message’ [http://brenda.games/work-1/].

“Heritage not Hate”: The Monumental History of the Ulster Scots

In this week’s blog Abigail Wise, an MSc Nationalism Studies student at the University of Edinburgh, discusses how public memorials connect Ulster Scots to the Scots Irish diaspora:

There is something to be said for the fact that so many aspects of American culture can be linked to Ulster Scots immigration. In fact, 2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the first migration of Ulster Scots to New England.[i] With names like Londonderry, Belfast, Antrim, and Dungannon gracing towns up and down the East Coast’s I-95 corridor, it’s easy to acknowledge that Ulster Scots (or Scots Irish as they’re known in America) have been here. But it may be more difficult for Americans to pinpoint what they’ve done. For this, the Scots Irish home community – modern Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland – can fill the gap.

Leading Scots Irish figure and former Senator Jim Webb wrote that around the War of 1812, Scots Irish immigrants in America began to claim an American identity over any “Old World” one, leading many to claim the reason we may not easily see all the contributions of the Ulster Scots/Scots Irish is because they were so good at integrating into American society.[ii] It is understandable though that people in the home nation want to commemorate their countrymen and women for what they brought to the New World, and therefore may have a stronger understanding of their diaspora. What does it mean, however, to commemorate a group whose “accomplishments” include fighting to defend slavery?

The modern Ulster Scots community is unique in that the diaspora in America holds so much importance. The Scots Irish are the “central motif” for Ulster Scots, and much can be gleaned about Ulster Scots themselves from this prioritization.[iii] As the home nation of such an influential migrant community, the homage to their brethren in America is hard to miss.

As the Ulster Scots community gained greater legal legitimacy through the Good Friday Agreement,  it set to work making the Ulster Scots presence known through a medium many in Northern Ireland are very familiar with – the mural.[iv] As part of cross-community reconciliation efforts, groups like the Ulster Scots Heritage Council began commissioning cultural murals that they hoped would replace the threatening yet commonplace murals of UVF or UDA gunmen that dotted many a housing estate across Northern Ireland after The Troubles finally ended. These cultural murals intended to highlight the connections between Scotland and Ulster, and the Scots Irish diaspora.

A series of murals about the Scots Irish diaspora known as “Pioneers to Presidents” sprang up across the province in the years after the Good Friday Agreement. In the Glebeside Estate, Ballymoney, the Heritage Council commissioned a mural to famous American pioneer Davy Crockett.[v] In Belfast, there was a mural of 15th President James Buchanan off the Shankill Road, with similar ones of George Washington in the Waterside area of Derry/Londonderry, and of Theodore Roosevelt in the Fountain.[vi] The hope was that these murals might encourage people to think of themselves as something other than exclusively British or Irish – a conundrum at the heart of The Troubles.[vii]

Another “Pioneers to Presidents” mural had appeared by 2005 in the Glenbryn area of North Belfast.[viii] This one linked Confederate Generals of Ulster Scots heritage to those who authored the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in 1912.[ix] Painted on a long brick wall outside a home not far from a peace line, the mural depicted famous Scots Irish Confederates J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis under the heading “The Sons of Ulster Who Led the Confederate Army During the War of Northern Aggression 1861-1865” on one side, and signatories of the 1912 Ulster Solemn League and Covenant rejecting Home Rule under the title “The Sons of Ulster Who Wrote And Signed The Ulster Covenant During the Home Rule Crisis of 1912” on the other. [x]

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“Sons of Ulster Mural” Glenbryn Park, Belfast (credit to Extramural Activity).

On the Confederate side, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is depicted at his 1862 inauguration stating, “the government at Washington denying our right to self-government, refused even to listen to any proposals for peaceful separation”.[xi] The two events are depicted together in this mural to show how they are both examples of the Ulster Scots struggle for personal freedom, through a variety of means. But is that really the whole story?

Ulster covenant
Ulster Covenant side of “Sons of Ulster”, Glenbryn Park, Belfast. A peaceline can be seen in the background at left (credit to Extramural Activity).

Nothing about the Glenbryn mural acknowledges why Jefferson Davis was speaking about “peaceful separation” at his 1862 inauguration. The Civil War is referenced by the historically Southern moniker, “The War of Northern Aggression”, which clearly implies a specific narrative of the conflict. Similarly, a pamphlet published by the Ulster Scots Community Network about Confederate generals only references slavery once – in a quote from Scots Irish President Woodrow Wilson where he “[paid] loving tribute to the virtues of the leaders of secession”.[xii] What are the consequences of commemorating such a selective narrative of such a divisive history?

Scots Irish Confederate Generals (left to right)  J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson depicted on “The War of Northern Aggression” side of “Sons of Ulster”. The quote on the white background at left was from Scots Irish President James Buchanan.  Glebryn Park, Belfast (credit to Extramural Activity).

Confederate commemoration has been headline news in America since the Charleston AME Church shooting in 2015 and the Charlottesville riots in 2017. Americans have finally begun to recognize the repercussions of continuing to preserve monuments to those who fought to defend slavery, and people have died in this process. America will never erase the Civil War from its collective memory. Today, it is still the country’s bloodiest conflict – over 600,000 people died in just 4 years.[xiii]  The narrative may change with the removal of Confederate monuments, but the history will not go away.

Many societies employ selective memory to create a national understanding, and many scholars of nationalism studies have written about this as a major facet of nation-building. This analysis of the Ulster Scots community is not meant to imply that Ulster Scots are racist or have any sort of ulterior agenda. Famed pioneer of nationalism Ernest Renan wrote in 1882 that forgetting was crucial to the development of a nation.[xiv] However in the Ulster Scots community, it is not the Confederate generals who will be forgotten. Instead, what they fought for might be. That’s because their selective narrative doesn’t require a defense of slavery – their identity is not defined by it the way it was for Confederate soldiers and citizens.

Murals in Northern Ireland come and go much more quickly than American monuments to Confederate generals. Today, it does not appear that the Sons of Ulster mural still exists. Ulster Scots have not forgotten this history though, even without such blatantly public reminders. Perhaps America should take note.

[i] Ulster Scots Agency, 2016. “The 1718 Migration from Ulster to New England”.

[ii] Webb, James, 2004. Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. New York: Broadway Books.

[iii] Gardner, Peter Robert, 2017. “Diaspora, defeatism and dignity: Ulster Protestant reimaginations of the self     through Ulster-Scots Americanism”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 41 (11).

[iv] Radford, Katie 2001. “Creating an Ulster Scots Revival”. Peace Review. Vol. 13 (1).

[v] Rolston, Bill, 2003. “Writing on wall for old-style of loyalist murals”. The Irish Times. 28 July. [Online] Available: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/writing-on-wall-for-the-old-style-of-loyalist-murals-1.367713 [9 August 2018].

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Rolston, Bill, 2004. “The War of the Walls: political murals in Northern Ireland”. Museum International. Vol. 56 (3).

[viii]McCormick, Jonathan, 2005. “Album 68, Mural 2386”. CAIN Mural Directory. [Online]. Available: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/mccormick/album68.htm [9 August 2018].

[ix] ibid.

[x] Extramural Activity, 2008. “The War of Northern Aggression”. Extramural Activity. [Online]. Available: https://extramuralactivity.com/2008/06/04/the-war-of-northern-aggression/ [9 August 2018].

[xi] ibid.

[xii] Ulster-Scots Community Network, Confederate Generals.

[xiii] American Battlefield Trust, 2018. “Civil War Casualties”. American Battlefield Trust. [Online]. Available: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-casualties [9 August 2018].

[xiv] Renan, Ernest, 1882. “What is a Nation?” La Sorbonne, Paris. 11 March.

Email: s1363023@sms.ed.ac.uk


Historian in Residence – Dublin City Library and Archives

In this week’s blog, Bernard Kelly and Mary Muldowney explain their roles as Dublin City Council Historians in Residence:

Bernard Kelly

To commemorate the centenary of the Rising in 2016, Dublin City Council asked Dubliners the simple question ‘How will you remember 1916?’. The scale of the response prompted the Council to set up the Historians in Residence (HIR) programme as a legacy project beyond 2016. Now, in 2018, the Historians in Residence scheme consists of five historians based in the administrative areas within the remit of Dublin City Council, with a sixth based in Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street, Dublin 2. The central objective of the program is to make history accessible to the general public. Historians in Residence talk to people about history, connect local areas with their history, uncover hidden stories within communities and, crucially, by being physically based and available in their areas in the city, people can readily contact them. Generally reachable through the local library, your HIR offers a wide range of services: walking tours (real and virtual), lectures, book clubs, local research and workshops. The HIRs also have a significant online and social media presence, as well as regular slots on local and national radio shows.

Having said that, my own role is slightly different. Unlike my colleagues, my base of operations is Dublin City Library and Archives and my primary job is to assist the archivists and librarians to research and write exhibitions, to mine the collections for documents, photographs and artefacts to display, give talks and lectures, and to contribute to the historical conversation by writing monthly blogs based on material in the collections.

Dublin City Library and Archive Photographic Collection Excavation of Viking site at Wood Quay VL003-Wood-Quay-1975-76 1
Excavation site at Wood Quay, 1975-6. Courtesy of Dublin City Library and Archive.

The role of the HIR is a fascinating and deeply satisfying one, largely due to the opportunity to find narratives that have not been told before. Writing the exhibition Doing their Bit: Irish women and the First World War gave us the chance to highlight the story of Kate Middleton Curtis, who was one of the most active and forward-thinking members of St John Ambulance in Dublin during the early years of the twentieth century. She pioneered the running of public first aid courses, was a regular contributor to the Irish Times on health matters and was matron of the Temple Hill Convalescent Home for Wounded Soldiers in Blackrock, County Dublin, between October 1914 and April 1915. Her diary, which is preserved in Dublin City Library and Archives, reveal her to be an efficient administrator, a formidable personality and the self-described ‘oldest ambulance lady in Ireland.’ The exhibition is now on display at Charleville Mall Library.

Kate Middleton Curtis in uniform
Kate Middleton Curtis in uniform. Courtesy of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Archive at Dublin City Library and Archive.

Another memorable achievement was to contribute to the Archive’s holdings by obtaining the photograph collection of Dubliner Albert Sutton, who served with the RAF during the Second World War and whose photographs of his progress through France, Belgium and Germany in 1944-45 had not been catalogued before.

Public interest in history is continually growing, fuelled by online access to archives made possible by digitising records, as well as the ongoing fascination with both oral history and genealogy. The HIR project is well placed to take advantage of this and to maintain its position in local communities after the decade of commemoration ends in 2022.

Mary Muldowney

There are five HIRs whose work is based primarily in the administrative areas of Dublin City Council. As Bernard outlined, we help local communities to connect to their histories, using a variety of approaches and projects that are linked by their emphasis on the the participants, rather than the historian. We give lectures and talks and lead walking tours, as a means of promoting an interest in history, which can then be followed up by local initiatives.

My area is Dublin Central, which covers some of the oldest parts of the city and consequently has seen significant change, in demographic and topographic terms, over at least 1,200 years. In the last century particularly, the population of the city has been augmented by inward migration from other parts of Ireland and immigration from around the globe. The buildings in which people live, the occupations that keep them employed and the languages in which they communicate have all changed, both contracting and expanding, providing a myriad of opportunities for collecting and disseminating the histories of many communities.

Dublin City Library and Archive Photographic Collection AAO8 Moore Street 1971
Moore Street, 1971. Courtesy of Dublin City Library and Archive

As HIRs, we work closely with the local libraries, of which there are three in Dublin Central. The librarians have facilitated us in setting up history book clubs, which are an excellent way of promoting discussion of history and its relevance to people’s daily lives. Out of such discussions emerges an interest in a range of local projects, such as oral history collection, creating virtual archives (photographs and other artefacts) and activities linked to primary and secondary school curricula. One of the requirements of the HIR is to be police vetted so that we are cleared to work with children in libraries, schools and other settings.

Dublin City Council’s Community Development Officers are another important link for the HIRs, particularly in some of the more deprived areas of the city. The CDOs are aware of the social needs of the residents, which can often be met by further education initiatives, and the HIRs can assist with achieving the aims of such programmes, which can be multi-generational and multi-national.

Walking tours (both real and virtual) are a valuable tool for the HIR and they are extremely popular in all the areas. They combine the sharing of the HIRs’ expertise with contributions from walk participants about their knowledge and remembrance of the communities being explored. The virtual walking tours are a useful (if less healthy) means of coping with Dublin’s uncertain weather and are usually based on photographs of the buildings and streets being explored. Participants can follow up in the real world with visits to the sites.

As the most recent addition to the HIR team, I am delighted with the enthusiasm for exploring history that I have met throughout my area. Since I became involved in May 2018, I have seen the huge range of work undertaken by my colleagues and hope that the ideals underpinning the HIR programme in Dublin will be emulated elsewhere.



Email: commemorations@dublincity.ie

The West Cork History Festival

In this blog Victoria Kingston, co-founder of the West Cork History Festival, looks forward to this year’s event:

The first West Cork History Festival took place last year, conceived and organised by myself and my husband. The second one will take place over the weekend of 16-19 August.

The first question people usually ask is “why a history festival?”, followed shortly afterwards by “… and why in West Cork?” And the simple answer is “because there wasn’t one in West Cork already”. But the story is, of course, much more complicated than that. It involves a collision of people, place and idea and some interesting insights into the presentation and consumption of public history.

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I am a historian and curator working in museums and historic sites across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. After studying history at Cambridge, I worked on
exhibition projects for the Imperial War Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Epic Ireland, as well as curating all the content for Titanic Belfast. Making history accessible is at the core of what I do.

Simon, my husband and co-founder, was an academic historian for the early years of his working life, gaining his BA from Trinity College Dublin and his doctorate, which was on medieval Irish-Scottish history, from Oxford. Although he no longer works as a historian, he is still passionate about history and particularly Irish history.

So when a friend suggested we set up a history festival it seemed, in principle, like a good idea.

WCHF 2017 founder Simon Kingston and speaker Prof Roy Foster
West Cork History Festival, 2017.  Founder Simon Kingston and speaker Professor Roy Foster


But why West Cork ? Well for a start Simon’s family is from West Cork and we live part of the year here. The physical landscape of West Cork, once seen as remote and inaccessible, has become a major part of its attraction. It is now well known for its literature, art, music and food. The area has always been remarkably heterogeneous: politically, religiously, and socially. It has produced writers and thinkers of many traditions and this depth and diversity is something on which the History Festival draws. And whilst there are literary festivals, music festivals, food festivals and arts festivals there was, until last year, no history festival.

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West Cork History Festival Venue

It is a place that is in some ways remote: on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe and a long way from the nearest capital city. Precisely the same geography makes it outward-looking and connected. It was and is part of an Atlantic world, with long-established links to continental Europe, North Africa, and the Americas. One of our neighbours describes the personification of this in meeting men on the lobster pots off Cape Clear in the 1950s wearing P&O sweaters. Half the year they were part of an Irish-speaking small fishing community in the ‘wilds’ of Cork, the other half they were on liners that might have been sailing to Montevideo, New York or Calcutta. Remote then, but not cut-off.

West Cork’s religious, political, and cultural make-up shows the same diversity. The Rebel County was also the home of Somerville and Ross. Not all the ‘rebels’ the county has produced were Catholics, or indeed nationalists. The plurality of the place means it defies easy stereotyping the closer one gets to it.

The natural beauty of West Cork, its character, and more recently its food have attracted people from all over Europe. It now has a permanent international population which has, by and large, complemented and enhanced the communities into which it has come.  All of this is interesting in itself, but it also (it seems to us) makes it a fascinating place to talk about hidden, contested, or unexamined histories of other places too.


And a history festival ? While visiting museums and historic sites, reading history books and watching history shows on TV remain at the forefront of engaging the public with history, history festivals are another way of tapping into the growing public interest in the subject in all its forms. We are most definitely not an academic conference, but we aim to attract leading historians in their field to speak to a non-academic, intelligent lay audience and allow debate between them. Although we aim to cover the rich local history of West Cork we also feature, regional, national and international history, and explore the inter-connections between them all. We have avoided one overall theme, but instead focused on a series of sub-themes – for example the First World War, or the revolutionary period in Ireland – while also including talks on a wide variety of other themes and periods including medieval and early modern history.

WCHF 2017 speaker Prof Marianne Elliot
West Cork History Festival, 2017. Professor Marianne Elliott.

It is a fruitful time for public history, particularly with a period of centenaries providing new ways to engage the public. While in the UK, the First World War centenary has been largely commemorative, memorialising, and only occasionally controversial, the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland proves that history is still very raw. Some of the most heated debates at last year’s Festival revolved around events in West Cork during the War of Independence.

There were of course logistical challenges – car parking, toilet facilities, the weather – all entirely unconnected to the history under discussion but crucial to the success of such an event. We would like to engage with more younger audiences if we can, and are working on forging links with local schools and colleges. We received some hostility from a small number of attendees and others, particularly people who are threatened by discussions about, and challenges to, orthodoxy.

However, more than 400 people attended our inaugural Festival last year and we anticipate more at this year’s Festival. There was enthusiastic feedback from the vast majority of attendees and a high level of positive press coverage. We believe it was a success, and will be even more so this year. And if there isn’t heated discussion, and passionate exchanges, then in my view we aren’t doing our job.

Further information on this year’s festival can be found here.



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