Your Terms of Reference, Please?

Does it make sense for the casual musings, or blogs, of a historian to be about the follies of history? It seems to me that it does.

One reason why famed historians have (for the past few decades now) written self-defensive books like Richard Evans’ In defence of history is that the raw data which forms the basis of (scientific) research is comparatively lacking in historical studies. Neither a historical manuscript nor a well-written sentence within a historical study meets the generally accepted criteria of “interoperable data” that is necessary for qualifying as research according to all the world’s most important research-funding bodies. Scientific-research “proper” is pretty much as is (also) defined within this open access paper that one can access via the National Open Research Forum. Everything else is “silly season”.

While I was working as an archivist and studying digital humanities, the issue of “interoperable data” was to the fore, although (to date, at least) I do not feel that I developed any great proficiency, professionally speaking, in dealing with its applicability. Perhaps I will in the future…or perhaps I will continue to be drawn to writing more history books instead…but it is “within” this very uncertainty that I am inclined to interview myself, in terms of aptitudes, with the question: “your terms of reference, please?”

When my “history brain” is switched on, this question seems to relate purely to the question of vantage points (the subject of most of the improvised blogs on this site, “come to think of it”) and how they can change.

As a student, I remember meeting an English scholar who, having initially been attracted to studying Northern Ireland Troubles because of what he read in the news, instead grew interested in the very different subject of labour politics in 1880s Ireland after he started researching in Ireland’s national archives. He was “good at it too” but because there is no career in that subject, there was no future for him here in Ireland and he went home to England to a career that could be funded. Otherwise, like me, he would have been without a career or a salary or a job.

Another typical experience as a student is to meet an American scholar who has become passively interested in Ireland but, it soon becomes clear, he/she came to the subject in a rather roundabout way. It invariably goes as follows. Step One: World War Two was a major factor in American history. Step Two: Winston Churchill was an important ally of America in World War Two. Step Three: Churchill felt that he had a lifelong association with Irish circumstances. Step Four: Because as a US historian I have become interested in Churchill, he has become my vantage point in thinking about Ireland or pursuing studies on that particular theme.

These types of connections, or associations of ideas, are all pretty natural in terms of the way exposure to some initial references leads one to seek out associated references. But, for all scholars, there tends to be a starting point in terms of their vantage point. Whatever the starting point or initial “question” is will influence the answers that are either searched for or identified as being worthy of consideration.

A mismatch of sorts may exist between the historical “decade of centenaries” programme (1912-23) agreed between the British and Irish governments as a purely “domestic” matter that is worthy of joint university funding in the UK and Ireland and the broader question of how the birth of the Irish state was shaped by the impact of the world wars on international affairs and the resulting Irish republican proclamations of 1919 and 1948. Some scholars have called for an international relations perspective to be incorporated into the writing of Irish history, but if this is not the basis of any funded research in the universities, it is not a theme or subject that scholars are likely to adopt as their theme if they want to have any hope of a career as a historian. Will my book A history of Ireland in International Relations fit “the bill”? Well, perhaps it will fit “a bill”, in terms of fulfilling a research objective, but can it be the basis of further debate? Who knows…perhaps after “the decade of centenaries” has ended…or, it would be nice to see, even before then. But “I doubt it” because I am not a funded scholar and I have no professional association.

With Valentine’s Day having come and gone, it is easy to be reminded of the old saying of “how do you expect anyone to be interested in you if you do not express an interest in them?” Do history studies work a bit like that too? Consider the BBC World Service or even its radios “three and four”: how do you like that for expressing an interest in the “rest of the world”? In turn, it’d be no surprise if “the rest of the world” reciprocated that interest. But if Ireland’s “interest” in the rest of the world is expressed only through a perspective of what Norman Davies once referred to as “The Isles”, why should the rest of the world have the slightest interest in Ireland? Perhaps Ireland, as a “prisoner of history” (Joyce’s term, I think), is often rather too fond of crawling back into its own shell to spend much time gazing upon a wider world?

The expression “nothing human is alien to me” has been used a lot to express a wide-opened gaze at the whole world. The expression “anything not deemed to be a part of the British and Irish government’s official programme of a decade of centenaries (1912-1923) is of no interest to me” is one that could make any scholar cry, except perhaps those who are funded within that prism or who, for one reason or another, do not find it too confining to serve as a prison, but it is the basis of current research in Irish history, for better or for worse. So if anyone wants to study history in Ireland as a career and so is inclined to ask as an initial question of Irish historians “your terms of reference, please?”, it would appear that they should already know the answer before they can even begin to formulate their own questions.