Long History, Longer Memory: The Effects of Historical Memory on Modern Irish Identity
Flaherty Research Scholar, Erin Rowan writes:
In March, 2016 I travelled to Ireland to complete a six-week research visit. The purpose of this research trip was to gather data for my Master of Arts in Island Studies thesis. I began my visit at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, where I worked closely with Dr. Brendan O’Keeffe of the Department of Geography. Dr. O’Keeffe introduced me to other members of the faculty at the college, including Dr. Maura Cronin of the Department of History and Dr. Helene Bradley-Davies of the Department of Geography. Both Dr. Cronin and Dr. Bradley-Davies were very helpful in guiding me in my research in its early stages. Equally helpful were the library staff at Mary Immaculate College, especially Ms. Elizabeth Brosnahan, Ms. Kate O’Donnell, and Ms. Marian Fogarty, who guided me to several key primary sources for my research.
After spending a week in Limerick, I travelled south to Cahersiveen in County Kerry to begin my interviews. I conducted interviews with locals from Cahersiveen and the nearby Valentia Island about their understanding and memories of the Great Famine. The interviews lasted approximately one hour and were semi-structured. We talked about a variety of topics including local Famine history, Irish identity, how the Famine is being taught in schools, Anglo-Irish relations, and the current issue of outmigration from rural areas to urban ones.
Though I am in the preliminary stage of data analysis, I believe these interviews will be an invaluable source of information as I continue to develop this research project. I also had the opportunity to visit the Cahersiveen Workhouse, Sru Greana Cemetary, Cill Rialaig Famine Village, and the Valentia Island Heritage Centre. Each of these sites provided me with valuable insights into the Famine experience in both Cahersiveen and Valentia. I would like to thank Dr. Lisha O’Sullivan and Dr. Emer Ring of Mary Immaculate College and who are natives of Cahersiveen for their assistance and kindness during my stay there. While in Cahersiveen I also spent considerable time at the Cahersiveen Library where I was assisted by Ms. Noreen O’Connor.
Through my interviews and visits to local sites, I was able to gain a preliminary understanding of what life was like in Cahersiveen and Valentia during the Famine as well as get a sense of the lasting impacts that this period in history has had. I also experienced the great kindness and hospitality of the Irish people, something that I found to be universal as I travelled around the country. During my stay in Cahersiveen I travelled briefly to Tralee to the County Library. There, I was able to access primary sources such as newspaper archives for The Kerry Evening Post and The Kerry Examiner.
After leaving Cahersiveen, I returned to Limerick to continue work at the library at Mary Immaculate College. The Irish Folklore Commission has a vast collection of Famine folklore that was collected by school children in the 1930s. Mary Immaculate College has this collection on microfilm and thus I was able to study it closely. This is an important resource as due to the time that it was compiled, there were still survivors and close relatives of survivors of the Famine.
I then travelled to Dublin to visit the National Archives, which contain original Famine-related documents. Specifically, the archives contain correspondence and relief papers written by the landlords of Cahersiveen and Valentia, describing the conditions and asking for aid from the Famine Relief Committee in Dublin. These letters and papers help to provide a more complete picture of what life was like during the Famine in those areas.
Another important site that I visited while in Ireland was the National Famine Memorial in Murrisk, County Mayo. This monument, depicting a Famine “coffin ship”, provides another crucial aspect of Famine experience and folk memory: those who were forced to leave Ireland in search of a better life and the terrible, often deadly conditions of the perilous journey across the Atlantic.
This research trip has been one of the best and most valuable experiences of my academic career. Without the assistance of the Ireland Canada University Foundation, this trip would not have been possible. I was able to establish many contacts in Ireland, particularly with Mary Immaculate College. Dr. O’Keeffe, a member of my thesis committee, has been involved with the University of Prince Edward Island’s island studies program since 2015. His work in rural development and revitalization ties in closely with the values and goals of island studies. Ireland and Prince Edward Island have close ties as many Irish settled here during the Famine and afterwards. They also currently face similar challenges, particularly that of youth outmigration. It is my hope that this relationship between UPEI and Mary Immaculate College continues to grow and thrive.
The next stage of my thesis project will be to analyse, organize, and present my data. This month, I will present my preliminary findings at the annual ISISA Islands of the World Conference in Lesvos, Greece. This opportunity will allow me to receive feedback and guidance on my research from some of the top scholars in island studies from around the world. My participation at this conference would not have been possible without the assistance from the ICUF Flaherty Scholarship.
I am profoundly grateful for the support that I have received from the ICUF. Without the Flaherty Scholarship, my research trip to Ireland would not have been the same. The chance to meet face to face with locals, personally visit historic sites, and access primary sources has made a significant difference in the quality of my thesis project. Thank you to the ICUF for their support of emerging scholars and researchers.