digging with which foot again…?


so after the last couple days — not counting fridays — which have been pretty horror-heavy, this wednesday i need to put on the historian hat again and talk about marianne elliott’s recent (-ish; i’m a bit behind the curve, really) tome, the catholics of ulster.

first: it’s giant. seriously: don’t plan on lugging this book around a lot if you have a bad back or stiff shoulders.

second: there are holes. i started to write that they were “significant” — but i’m not quite sure they are really.

elliott’s whole point here is to debunk a very catholic-centric, nationalist-centric, increasingly-over-the-course-of-the-20th-century-republican-centric style of irish history, and so i’m sure she knows perfectly well what she’s left out and has left it out (or minimized it) for a reason.

the thumbnail “plot summary” might run something like: a history of catholics in ulster from prehistory to the good friday agreement.

there’s a lot of time spent on the early years — the prehistory through, say, the late eighteenth century bit — and then, to my mind, ever-less time as the book ratchets on towards the end of the twentieth century. which is a shame from my point of view, because that’s the bit i’m interested in. still, there is enough provocative material here to make me leave my pencil in the book as a bookmark because i was making that many marginal notes. who knows if i’ll never use them for anything, but they made me feel better.

my chief argument with the book might be that as time goes by and elliott gets closer and closer to the present day and — in all fairness — as the republican nationalist movement gets more and more catholic and nastier and nastier with it (not that i’m implying these two things are vitally linked or inextricable or anything because that would obviously be very foolish), she gets closer and closer to being dismissive of things which i think are very important.

of course, this could just be me thinking, “but i think it’s interesting! talk more about what i think is interesting!” and there are plenty of books out there that talk about nothing but the things i think are interesting — still, i think elliott comes close to sounding rather patronizing as she tries to describe the effects that something that happened over 200 years ago can have on the present day. the historical narrative started to become a bit clogged with elliott’s own personal memories of growing up in northern ireland and, while i understand that she’s doing this in order to make her own potential biases and point-of-view absolutely clear, it also starts to feel that maybe what she wanted to do was write a history up to about 1950 and then write a memoir.

in fact, the more i think about it, the more i wish she had done just that: written the history through…oh, say, partition, ended that, and then written a memoir. as it was, in the final chapters, i kept wanting to say, “but, wait — if the people in question think that’s really important — aren’t you being a bit dismissive by saying it isn’t? shouldn’t you take into account the fact that they — being your subject under discussion here! — think it is?”

i apologise for not having a more coherent argument to make about the text right now; due to bad weather and a long day at work, i’m more than a little out of it. but the summing up of all this would probably read: marianne elliott. new-ish book. go forth and read it if you are interested in a) things catholic; b) things irish; c) things irish catholic.

if nothing else, her bibliography is absolutely eye-wateringly wonderful.

~ ~ ~

and since this post is (marginally) concerned with things academic and scholastic, here’s something else, too.

as you may or may not know, i live in boston. as you also may or may not know, the boston public library system is facing some “economic hardship.” the latest iteration of this hardship is what seems like a serious threat to close the main branch’s microtext department.

when my boss told me this last friday, i squawked at her for two minutes straight about how awful this was and how “they” couldn’t do this before realising: a) she isn’t my old boss and wouldn’t either think i was funny or sympathise; and b) “they” might very well do just that.

it is fair to say that, without the microtext room at the bpl, i could not have written the history thesis i did. without the access to the historical irish newspapers collection they house, i would have had to cut my topic in half, redirect it radically, or give up on it entirely. i’m sure there are other people out there with similar stories.

i have spent a lot of time in the microtext room and i was never the only one there even when i was there at 9 a.m. on a saturday morning or 5 p.m. on a tuesday night. patrons ranged from professional genealogists to amateur family historians; college undergraduates; other graduate students like myself; and the average run of people looking for someplace to burn a few hours because they had nowhere else to be. the room needs a new carpet; the microfilm machines need repairing; the printers need upgrading; the librarians need some new reference materials. what they do not need is to be shut down or have a huge, incredibly valuable collection doled out piecemeal among the other branches of the library.

so, as this is the biggest public soapbox i have, i’m putting it out there: please. if you have half an hour of free time and you give a damn about this amazing, marvellous, free resource in boston, send a letter; send an email; make a phone call.

SUGGESTED ACTION: We are asking all concerned individuals to write to the following contacts and let them know that the resources and staff of the Microtext Department and the Newspaper Room should not be eliminated or dispersed. If you are a Massachusetts resident or Boston Public Library patron, please indicate that in your email/letter. The Boston Public Library Annual Meeting will be held Tuesday, May 11, 2010, 8:30am, at the Copley Square Library. Let’s let our voices be heard and make an impact now before that important meeting.

Contacts:

Amy Ryan, President of the Boston Public Library 

aeryan@bpl.org

700 Boylston St., Boston MA 02116

617-536-5400

Mr. Jamie McGlone, Clerk to the Board of Trustees

jmcglone@bpl.org

700 Boylston St., Boston MA 02116

617-536-5400

Mayor Thomas Menino

mayor@cityofboston.gov

1 City Hall Square, Suite 500

Boston, MA 02201-2013

617.635.4500

Photograph by Gretchichi
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