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