When you are dealing with matters of life and death, emotions tend to run high

February 1, 2002

A centre dedicated to the study of Ireland's belief systems, identities and traditions is an important step in finding some common ground among the region's estranged populations, argues Robert Welch, while below Anne McHardy examines the state of Irish studies in Britain.

Most politicians agree that Irish studies has a crucial role to play in Ireland's peace process, but finding funding for this field of academia is another matter.

The situation in Northern Ireland may top the news and political agenda, but Irish studies departments in British universities, viewed as vital to the peace process, are struggling for cash. The main difficulty is over funding chairs - there is still not one single chair in Irish studies at a British university, although there is one in Irish history at Oxford. Liverpool University's Irish Studies Centre, the largest in Britain, is seeking cash to establish the first one. In the meantime, the centre is directed by Marianne Elliott, a professor of history on secondment from the history department. The result is that postgraduates in Irish studies departments are forced to scrabble around for money to finance any research, even that considered politically essential.

PhD student Paul Maher, for example, is researching the identity of working-class Protestants in hardline Loyalist areas of Belfast. He has been turned down by every funding agency. Elliott describes him as "brilliant", his research as seeking vital knowledge, and says he is exactly the sort of student the government wants to attract. Bright, working-class and motivated, Maher funded himself though his undergraduate and masters studies. As a Catholic who grew up in Manchester, he says: "I want to understand what the Loyalists are about."

Elliott says there is a "shortage of core funding" for Irish studies because the British government has been reluctant to put its money where its mouth is and because expansion of the subject - most departments were set up after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement - has come at a bad time for higher education funding in general. Tony Murray, a lecturer at the University of North London - the biggest centre for Irish studies in London, says lack of core funding has led to a reliance on self-generated funds. "We have to be creative in our approaches," he says.

Apart from core funding, any private or business cash around, such as Tony O'Reilly's Ireland Fund, tends to stay in Ireland. Irish-American money goes there by preference, and even the wealthy English-born of Irish extraction are likely to have gone to Trinity College, Dublin, and make their endowments there.

The case for an undergraduate degree in Irish studies was made powerfully in the journal Irish Studies in Britain in 1985 by Mary FitzGerald, whose father Garret FitzGerald, then Ireland's Taoiseach, was negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The prime ministers agreed that there was a need for Irish studies and the Irish desk at the Foreign Office in London recruited academics - including Elliott and Roy Foster, a middle-class Protestant from Dublin and current holder of Oxford's Carroll chair - to report on what was on offer. There was already an Irish studies centre in Northern Ireland, at Queen's University, Belfast. Before 1985 Irish history was barely recognised within British universities. Irish literature was better represented, but taught only as part of an English-language tradition.

Academics had also been arguing the case. They included historians of Irish origin working in Britain, such as Foster and Elliott, as well as an older, now retired generation that included Elliott's predecessor at Liverpool, Patrick Buckland. This was done through a precursor of the British Association of Irish Studies, the Conference of Irish Historians in Britain, set up in 1977. But the FitzGerald plea is seen as a catalyst, and certainly the people involved subsequently were part of the intellectual scene in which the FitzGeralds moved. Garrett FitzGerald is influential in the History Society at Trinity College, Dublin, which has assiduously courted Northern Irish figures, including the now retired Unionist MP, Ken Maginess, a history teacher by profession, although better known as a colonel in the voluntary Ulster Defence Regiment.

Since 1985, Irish studies, including literature, history, sociology, anthropology and even geography, have been promoted by both governments. The Irish are more generous than the British with funding, but both are strong on moral support, providing high-powered speakers and offering access to the political inside track. The result is a growing number of institutions within both old and new universities and the further education sector, most notably in centres with large Irish populations, such as Liverpool, Manchester and north and south London. A number of further education colleges and schools, including Leicester, also retain significant Irish studies traditions.

The Irish Studies Centre at Liverpool offers a comprehensive range of degrees and research facilities and has the most obvious natural constituency. Liverpool has a huge population of Irish extraction plus a large immigrant population with strong links with Ireland and with Irish America. Its masters students do field studies at Drumcree, during the seasonal summer Orange protests, and on the Falls Road with Sinn Fein.

Apart from the funding problems, there are great benefits to doing Irish studies in Britain. Unlike modern history colleagues with a passion for Bismarck, academics tend to be invited by the British and Irish governments to sit on the committees that advise the statesmen who sign the treaties that, in turn, form the core of their historical source material. But there is also a downside. Scholarly rows, fuelled by the strong emotions roused by dealing with matters of current life - and the odd death threat - are exacerbated by the fact that these academics are all identifiably born into one or other side of the internecine struggle. Leading figures in the field include descendants of Ireland's heroes of 1921 - when Ireland won home rule - and relatives of current political participants. Most are of Irish origin, even if English born. Accusations that an academic's activities harm the peace process by reinforcing sectarian attitudes are common, as are those of being too close to one or other faction. Academics who cross the natural divide, sometimes with the zeal of the convert, attract even more suspicion than those who stay with their tribe, while those who seek the middle ground of academic impartiality are dismissed as revisionists.

Marianne Elliott personifies the middle-ground approach. A working-class Catholic, born in Belfast, she did her first degree at Queen's, before moving to Birkbeck College, London, where she met and began a working career with Foster. The two have published books that have made their way onto the popular shelves of bookshops. The rows between Irish studies academics are given wider political currency because, as part of the peace process, prime minister Tony Blair has tried to heal old wounds by publicly apologising for the wrongs of the potato famine, while both governments are involved with research at the Public Record Office at Kew and in Dublin and Belfast into the validity or otherwise of the infamous Black diaries, either revealed or forged by the British to discredit the gay British diplomat turned Irish Republican Roger Casement. Two books are pending on this, one written by Belfast gay-rights activist Jeff Dudgeon; the other a facsimile edition of the diaries, published with the help of Bill McCormack, of Goldsmiths College, London, a southern Protestant who was based in Derry on Bloody Sunday.

But such academics inhabit an inevitably small, trans-Irish-Sea world that can easily be torn apart - as demonstrated by an Irish lawsuit last year involving Dublin-born London-based writer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Irish journalist-turned-historian, Tim Pat Coogan. Dudley Edwards, author of The Faithful Tribe , which celebrates the Orange Order in Northern Ireland, successfully sued Coogan, best known for books on the IRA and Michael Collins, for his account in his latest book, Wherever Green is Worn , of a row within the BAIS, one of the founding bodies behind the development of Irish studies in the United Kingdom. Many Irish studies academics fell out with Dudley Edwards during the row and resigned from the BAIS, despite the fact that they generally supported her case against Coogan, who implied that her motivations were political and described her as a "West Brit" and a "Unionist apologist" given to "colonial cringe" attitudes to the British.

Irish studies centres and history departments are not the only areas within British universities that are intent on using the situation in Northern Ireland as resource material. Politics and war studies departments - notably at King's College London, London School of Economics and the universities of Bradford and Aberdeen - have their Irish stars and links. The parts may be lively, but the whole is not necessarily united. But all agree on one issue: the need for better funding for this essential area of research and education.

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