The Humanities and Me:
Lindsey Earner-Byrne

I have always loved stories. I plagued my grandmother to tell me time and time again about her father’s brother who fell foul of the IRA during the Irish Civil War and fled to Texas, never to return. I wanted to know what the revolutionary period felt like, what it looked like, what it was like to be in the eye of an historical storm. However, there was only so many times she could dramatize that story and it was as an adult that I came to understand her important stories were those she told about herself. Her gift lay in the simple stories of her life and how I learned to decode what they revealed about the Ireland of the early twentieth century.

Her stories of waking as a child in a room so cold the ice was on the inside of the windows, of babies dying because babies died, of how little she knew about the handsome man she married before she committed her life to him. How her mother had to stand behind her husband in negotiations with the local bank manager to raise money for a cinema. Although it was she that believed in and understood the investment, as a woman her position was simply not recognised. How that same woman dug out the site for that cinema with her own bare hands. Her stories contextualised for me the power of local whispers and social exclusion in rural communities, the grip of deference in Ireland and the terror of ‘what the neighbours might think’. These observations were crumbs she dropped along the route of her deeper story of surviving as an intelligent woman in a restrictive society, who found great joy in golf and her four daughters.

My grandmother was a great story teller and her words set me on a trail of discovery, my quest - to understand ‘who we are’ through history. Of course, when I turned to the history books of the 1980s and 90s, my grandmother’s version of Ireland was not there. There was very little sense of the many, many lives lived outside the political affray. It was with this in mind that I did an Arts degree in UCD followed by a PhD in History. I am still surprised at how lucky I am to make a living based on my own curiosity! I continue to think of what I do in terms of stories of understanding. Teaching and researching history is for me about conversations with the past and with ourselves about what it means to be ‘us’ at any given moment of time. Each year I see students learning about themselves through an analysis of times and lives long gone. I am convinced that they leave UCD with a degree in much more than history. I do fear that the ‘reforms’ in the secondary system will weaken the Humanities, particularly history. I worry about a future Ireland alienated from its own stories.


Published: 22 May 2015

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Lindsey Earner-Byrne is a Lecturer in Modern Irish History in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin. She is also the author of Mother and Child: Maternity and Child Welfare in Dublin, 1922-60.