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; 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 [].
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.



[1] Leigh Alexander, ‘The Persistence of Analogue’ [].

[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’ [].

[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’ [].

“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]

sons of ulster
“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: [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: [9 August 2018].

[ix] ibid.

[x] Extramural Activity, 2008. “The War of Northern Aggression”. Extramural Activity. [Online]. Available: [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: [9 August 2018].

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



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.




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.

WCHF largest logo - portrait without date


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.

WCHF view of venue
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.



WCHF small logo - landscape

Ghosts of the Great Northern

In this week’s blog Siobhan Osgood, a PhD researcher at Trinity College Dublin, asks what the remains of the Great Northern Railway can tell us about Ireland’s architectural and industrial history:

Tracks of former railway lines scar Ireland’s landscape, creating a forgotten web of public connectivity and human endeavour. My research looks at the physical remains of the Great Northern Railway in Ireland and how its built remains can provoke an understanding of Ireland’s often forgotten industrial past.

As this lonely researcher stands in silence on now-deserted platforms looking at often derelict stations, goods sheds and rusting tracks in the middle of the Irish countryside, one finds it difficult to imagine the hubbub of noise which must have accompanied these abandoned remains. The physical ghosts of the railways stoically stand as haunting reminders of Ireland’s age of industry.

The Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNRI) was formed in 1876 as an amalgamation of earlier railway companies. It inherited a myriad of architectural styles as each branch line was its own company, with differing attitudes to safety and maintenance, not to mention duplicate employee roles. Standardisation was needed, and the GNRI began an expansive programme of modernisation with its first chief engineer, William Hemingway Mills, at the helm.

Mills was responsible for the creation of the inimitable GNRI architectural style. His stations, engineering works, offices and employee housing featured polychromatic yellow, red and black brickwork, repetitive semi-architrave windows and doors, gabled roofs, brick-bonding, and a unification of the structural might of iron-engineering with the visual aesthetic of tactile materiality. It was to be the final realisation of the ‘idea of a railway station’[1] as a functional, identifiable space. Sitting at the half-way point on the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise line, the GNRI’s engineering works and, station and residential housing at Dundalk epitomises these traits, with Mills creating a new company identity through brick-branding.


Image 1 Dundalk station. Left Osgood S. Right IRRS Archives
Dundalk Station. Credit, left: Osgood, right: IRRS Archives.

Dundalk is the zenith of Mills and the GNRI’s architectural prowess, with earlier stations acting as experiments for key features. Belturbet station in County Cavan, for example, showcases the semi-architrave frames which signify a GNRI building, whilst the station itself is built using precisely cut hammered stone with a classically symmetrical frontage. It is the adjacent goods store and train shed which confirm the railway company’s authority, with the introduction of brick bonding hailing the forthcoming Millsian brick totalitarianism of future GNRI structures.

Image 2 Belturbet Station Museum Osgood S.
Belturbet Station Museum. Credit: Osgood.

But what do these buildings tell us of Ireland’s industrial past? Firstly, it is the direct company employment provided for engineers, architects, speculators, accountants, draughtsmen, typists, blacksmiths, upholsterers, carpenters and navigators, or ‘navvies’, not to mention those engaged with the service’s daily operations: station masters, ticket collectors, locomotive drivers, cleaners, coal smiths and caterers. “Irish labour was essential for the Industrial Revolution”[2], recognises E P Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, referring to the whole of the British Isles and its empire as the beneficiary. Broader implications on the Irish industrial economy include contractors and builders, the manufacturers of iron, brick, fabric, wood, brass, glass, and even ceramics for dining cars and the ever-essential, toilets. Finally, there is the creation of a newly-formed travelling public, telegraphic communications systems, and change in diet which demonstrate the far-reaching importance of Ireland’s former railway network. As Tom Ferris begins his Irish Railways: A New History: “’Railways are complex organic creatures, amounting to much more than the sum of their individual components”.[3]

Image 3 Belturbet Goods store Osgood S.
Belturbet Goods Store. Credit: Osgood.

Viewing railway history from an anthropological perspective is not a new phenomenon; Michael Portillo’s Bradshaw Guide-inspired TV series is a popular testament to this. But using railway architecture, especially in an Irish context, is. The term industrial archaeology is technically the method by which modern technologies from the Industrial Revolution and beyond are studied. Thankfully the industrial element largely does away with Time Team-esque trenches and Tony Robinson ponderings, with the archaeology of industry remaining above ground. However, as in the case of Irish railways, its built history is in a state of decline, with the trowels of future diggings not altogether obsolete.

Image 4 Irish Navvies Credit The Wild Geece
Irish Navvies. Credit: The Wild Geece.

Railway history is often enacted and perceived as the preservation of steam engines and carriages, with the built environment and its social implications given cursory generalised snippets, if included at all. Yet by using the built environment of the railways as the catalyst for understanding the society which created such technological advancements, the researcher can truly appreciate the magnitude and significance of an epoch of Irish public history. Unfortunately architectural historians also tend to content themselves with rather more grandiose built artefacts such as mansions, churches and monastic remains. Railway architecture is something of an anomaly in Irish architectural history. Its former utilitarian functionality deceptively undermining its design and material value, a reputation reinforced by that deity of architectural characterisation, Ruskin: “It [the railway station] is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it”.[4] As a twist of Ruskinian logic, when applied to the often sparsely decorated and formulaic Irish railway stations, this ‘escape’ is actually realised. Architectural purpose in its most functional form, perhaps?

To those who did travel on the GNRI, the network also provided a speedier access route to emigration, as this new technology enabled direct routes to the ports at Derry, Dublin, Cobh and Belfast, with ferry and railway tickets often combined. One horrific account describes the sight of wailing families at a platform edge, distraught at the departure of their children and young adults who may never be seen again, departing for foreign lands in the wake of the Great Famine and the subsequent extended period of poverty and economic starvation.[5]

And so it is the personal recollections and artefacts of human endeavour which enrich this architectural research and act as a reminder to avoid the more popular hyperbolic praise of engineering monuments and their masters, and to record the impact of the railways, positive and negative, emotive and physical, on Irish industrial and social history.

Siobhan Osgood is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin researching the architecture of the GNRI. She was awarded the Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) Dissertation Prize in 2017 for her master’s research into the GNRI architecture at Dundalk. Publications include AIA Journal, Architecture Ireland, Irish Railway Record Society Journal, Dundalk Democrat and National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. She has given talks, lectures and radio interviews, and is due to speak at the TAG conference in December 2018. She has also conducted research on St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin for the Office of Public Works for which she will be published in the forthcoming Medieval Dublin XVII alongside a presentation at the Medieval Dublin symposium in May 2019.

Irish Railway Architecture is Siobhan’s blog, Twitter and Instagram:

Email: or

[1] Meeks, Carroll, The Railroad Station: An Architectural History, Dover Publications Inc.: New York, USA, first edition 1956, this edition 1995.

[2] Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Group: London, 2013 (first ed. 1963), p. 473.

[3] Ferris, T., Irish Railways: A New History, Gill & Macmillan: Dublin, 2008.

[4] Ruskin, J., The Stones of Venice, Volume the First, The Foundations, Smith, Elder & Co.: London, 1851, pp. 110-111.

[5] Ferris, T.



Exploring Portland’s Past: Public History at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education

In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Jack Crangle discusses his internship at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education:

In recent years the Arts and Humanities Research Council has increasingly championed the benefits of professional internships for doctoral candidates. My AHRC funding body, Northern Bridge, offers students the opportunity to spend up to six months at a host institution, developing professional experience and applying skills in a new environment. With the spectre of submission otherwise looming, I decided to embark on such a placement, taking a break from my PhD research on the history of immigration to twentieth-century Northern Ireland to go and work at a museum.

When seeking a placement, my ideal workplace was a museum that bridged my research interests – oral history, immigration, and minority communities – with an aspiration to broaden public knowledge. Thankfully, I found just such an institution willing to take me on. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) is located in the heart of downtown Portland, USA. It is where I will spend six months working from July to December 2018. The museum contains three permanent exhibitions tackling ‘Discrimination and Resistance’, ‘Oregon Jewish Stories’, and ‘the Holocaust’. It also houses temporary exhibits, currently featuring paintings by the renowned Jewish artist R.B. Kitaj. Tours are regularly given to local schools, and a variety of educational resources are available on its website, all demonstrating an impressive commitment to public history.

OJMCHE permanent exhibitions (3)
OJMCHE permanent exhibitions.

But what excited me most about the museum was its oral history collection. The oral history archive boasts over 700 interviews about Jewish-Oregonians. New interviews are conducted continually, with a database of prospective interviewees meticulously compiled by museum staff. Far from sitting unused, a large number of interviews are available on the museum’s website. In a few clicks you can access sound recordings and transcripts, hearing testimony about the Holocaust, Jewish life in America, and the history of Portland. More unusually, the interviews are available in full. Whereas most museums upload oral testimony in small excerpts, OJMCHE leaves it to the reader to digest and interpret content, refusing the temptation to impose a narrative upon interviewees’ voices.

The museum does more than simply stockpile interviews. Oral history forms a key part of its public programme. A case in point is the museum’s walking tour of Portland’s old Jewish neighbourhood. Having attended the tour earlier this month, I was struck by its utilisation of powerful oral testimony. These words brought to life an area that was once a hub of Jewish-American life. Since their arrival in the city in the nineteenth century, the majority of Oregon’s Jews settled in South Portland. In its heyday the area featured six synagogues, a drugstore, a kosher market, and dozens of shops, bakeries and delicatessens. The neighbourhood was not exclusively Jewish; it became home to other immigrants, including a sizeable Italian community along with Greek, Chinese and Japanese residents.

Caption - Example of housing in S. Portland c. 1962 City of Portland Archives (1)
Example of housing in South Portland c.1962, City of Portland Archives.

However, little of the original neighbourhood remains. In the 1950s, Portland embarked on an ambitious scheme of ‘urban renewal’. Similarly to UK ‘slum clearances’, American civic authorities were determined to modernise the nation’s cities, removing areas plagued by so-called ‘urban blight’. South Portland was the first neighbourhood in the city slated for redevelopment. During the 1950s and 1960s, virtually the entire area was razed.

Caption - S. Portland prior to urban renewal c. 1935 City of Portland Archives
South Portland prior to urban renewal c.1935, City of Portland Archives.

In its walking tour, the museum is careful to avoid painting a rosy or idealised picture of the area. Despite the neighbourhood’s rich history, South Portland suffered from dilapidated housing, a high crime rate, and significant deprivation. By the mid-twentieth century it had lost much of its vibrancy, with social mobility prompting the majority of former residents to relocate to the suburbs. At the time of its demolition, the area was home to only 2,300 hundred people. The double-edged nature of redevelopment is reflected in the mixed responses of oral history interviewees when discussing redevelopment. Whilst some interviewees were resentful about the area’s destruction, others were more pragmatic, acknowledging the area’s problems. Others believed that renewal had been good for the city. Former resident Leon Feldstein, interviewed in 1973, believed that renewal ‘cleaned up the area, widened the streets, there are beautiful trees having been planted, new buildings, and I think one of the happiest things that has been done to Portland, Oregon is the renewal of that area’.

Caption - S. Portland after renewal1966 City of Portland Archives
South Portland after renewal c.1966, City of Portland Archives.

The walking tour encompasses these varied perspectives. In one poignant reflection, the tour’s leader – museum director, Judy Margles – acknowledged the municipal progress that urban redevelopment had brought, but also asked ‘what do we really mean by progress?’ She provided no answer, leaving attendees to reflect upon this question themselves. As well as providing critical insight, the walking tour preserves the memories of a once-thriving area. Shirley Tanzer, a local oral historian, collected most of these memories. In the 1970s, shortly after redevelopment, Tanzer began recording interviews with the area’s former residents. These conversations – conducted when oral history was still in its infancy – comprise a core feature of OJMCHE’s wider collection, preserving the voices of those who have long since died.

One of my key roles at the museum is to help expand the walking tour of South Portland. To date, the tour has focused exclusively on the Jewish history of the area. But this was more than simply a Jewish enclave. In 2014, the Oregon Jewish Museum merged with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center to form OJMCHE. Along with its new name, the organisation developed a new mission: challenging visitors to ‘resist indifference and discrimination and envision a just and inclusive world’. The expanded walking tour will reflect these additional goals, encompassing untold stories of Portland’s broader social justice movements (e.g., women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, religious freedom, anti-racism, etc.). I am currently conducting research to identify sites of interest, incorporating them into the existing tour.

The most striking aspect of the placement so far is the smoothness with which the museum combines research with public work. As academics, we are encouraged to engage with partners from other sectors, ensuring that our research is beneficial and impactful. However, this is usually presented as a secondary outcome, subordinate to a successful thesis, article, or monograph. At museums such as OJMCHE, research and impact go hand in hand, widening our collective access to knowledge.

Facing these exciting challenges, I am looking forward to spending the rest of 2018 at OJMCHE. Also, Portland is an amazing city with brilliant food and beer. Come visit!

Further reading

Abbott, Carl, Portland: planning, politics and growth in a twentieth-century city (Lincoln & London, 1983)

Eisenberg, Ellen, The Jewish Oregon story: 1950-2010 (Corvallis, 2016)

Toll, William, Making of an ethnic middle class: Portland Jewry over four generations (New York, 1982)

Jack Crangle’s PhD research examines immigrant communities in twentieth-century Belfast. In addition to archival sources, I am interested in using oral history to research the historical experience of ethnic minorities. I am particularly interested in how ‘other’ communities fitted into Northern Ireland, a society which was primarily defined by two oppositional identities.