My Education Week: ‘I try and approach any subject objectively’

The life of a researcher: from witchcraft to the Holocaust to trad music


I work part-time in the library in Trinity College Dublin for a couple of hours each morning. I clock off at 10, check out a few books and do some reading at my desk. At 12 I head for the National Library on Kildare Street where I need to consult some newspaper microfilms of the Irish-American nationalist propaganda organ the Gaelic American. I am researching for my PhD thesis at Trinity on Irish nationalist radical connections with other separatist and subversive movements in the pre-Independence period. The National Library provides a fantastic service and its proximity to Trinity is a great advantage to me as a researcher. It is not just used by academics, and anybody can become a member. I spend a few hours identifying material I can use in my research. I like to describe doing a PhD as similar to running a marathon rather than a sprint, and the objective is to get some work done every day.

I grab something to eat before I go to a postgraduate research seminar. They’re held every fortnight and allow PhD students to present a paper based on their chosen topic to an audience of like-minded history buffs. The seminar was initiated by some of my colleagues last year and has flourished. Since last term the convenors have invited researchers to present from UK universities and elsewhere. Afterwards we usually head for a few drinks in the Duke for continued lively discussion and debate. Later I head back to my desk to correct some work packs due for my classes later on in the week.

On Monday nights my friends and I play some five-a-side on the astro-turf out in Ringsend, a much-needed healthy break from bookish pursuits.


On Tuesday I'm back in the National Library consulting the manuscript collection of Irish-American nationalist leader John Devoy. Later in the day I go along to the postgraduate forum, an opportunity for all postgrad history students in the school of history and humanities to meet the student representative for the school and the director of postgraduate teaching and learning to raise issues of concern and make suggestions on how to improve the postgrad environment, such as the availability of work spaces, library services and teaching allocations on undergraduate modules.


After this I have something to eat before going to a memorial holocaust lecture in the Burke theatre in Trinity. The paper is presented by Prof David Cesarani from the Royal Holloway, University of London, on Britain and the Jews of Europe 1933-1945. I find the paper fascinating: a myth-busting account which dispels any notions the Allied powers as well as ordinary Germans did not know anything about the concentration camps and mass murder of Jews during the Nazi regime. This is followed by questions and answers.


The Centre for Contemporary Irish History seminar is every Wednesday in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute during term time. It consists of a paper given by an historian/ academic on some aspect of contemporary Irish history and is chaired by my supervisor Prof Eunan O’Halpin. This week’s seminar is by Dr Úna Newell from the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD, and her paper focuses on the impact of the foundation of the Free State on peripheral regions, using Co Galway as a case study, under the Cumann na nGaedheal administration until 1932. Her paper provides an interesting insight into how unfavourable and unimaginative socio-economic policies had negative long-term effects on the development of rural areas, which led to continuing social deprivation and poverty during the new state’s early existence.

By 7pm I am out in UCD where every fortnight I tutor on a course introducing study abroad students to Irish history, from the arrival of Christianity up until the modern period. My class has students from the US, Australia, Germany, Croatia, Panama and Spain, which I find very enjoyable. This week the students are doing presentations on assigned topics. Traditional music features and we are treated to some jigs and reels by one of our enthusiastic students from the US. Since I’m a contemporary historian I find the module a great opportunity to improve my knowledge of or re-familiarise myself with parts of Irish history. Classes finish at 9pm and I’m home by 10.


After my morning shift in the library it’s off to class. This semester in Trinity I am a teaching assistant on a survey module on Europe between 1500 and 1700, ‘Power and Belief’, which is open to Freshman, Erasmus and broad curriculum (students who are not enrolled for the History BA but who can take classes outside their own discipline and get credits for it). The interdisciplinary dimension I think is a fantastic initiative and makes for a new and enjoyable atmosphere in the seminar.

Although as a historian of contemporary Ireland this period lies outside my immediate comfort zone, it is geared towards motivating my practice as an historian; I try and approach any subject objectively and identify the pertinent questions which need to be asked.

I think the challenge in a classroom of this type is to try and recognise the different wavelengths various students may be operating on and regulate the general level of discussion.

Today’s topic is witch-hunting in early modern Europe. Historians estimate 40,000-60,000 people were executed for practising witchcraft in this period (approximately 80 per cent of them were women, so I mention this at the beginning to rouse any potential feminists in our midst). This is an interesting discussion.

My role as a moderator is essentially to prompt debate, gently navigate the discussion and not to intervene unless necessary. I have two more classes today so in between I correct assignments submitted the previous week and compose some individual feedback to identify where students may improve their writing and research skills. In the evening I do some more reading at my desk before I go swimming in the campus leisure centre.

Afterwards I join some friends for a pub quiz; we fail miserably in the history round, of course. I convince myself the questions didn’t suit me because . . . it’s not my area.


On Friday morning after I’m done in the library I meet my supervisor to get some feedback on a recent chapter I submitted. Feedback can range widely from the need to consult other archival sources and integrate them into the research narrative, to contextual analysis, as well as more general advice such as proofreading and structural comments.

On Fridays I have no classes so I can get a clear run at the day. I try and get as much work done as possible. I go back over some of the corrections from my feedback and write up some of the material I have found during the week in the archives. I’m in my third year now so I’m in the process of writing up chapters. I write up a short abstract for a paper I will present at the 65th Annual Irish History Students’ Association conference hosted by the University of Limerick next month, which will be a good chance to network with other young, up-and-coming historians.

Afterwards I go for dinner and a few beverages with some friends to round off a busy week.

This week I was ...

Watching A Most Violent Year starring Oscar Isaacs and Jessica Chastain. Really enjoyable movie set in New York city during the winter of 1981, the most dangerous and crime-frequent year in the city's history. Contrary to what its title suggests, it's not actually a particularly violent movie, so don't let that put you off.

Reading the Collected Ghost Stories of MR James

Googling how to tie a tie

Listening to the album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel