In praise of QUB history

I have three degrees from Queen’s University, Belfast: BA (2003), MA (2004) and PhD (2008). I worked as a Teaching Assistant in the School of English during and after writing my thesis, and I had a Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship hosted by the Institute of Irish Studies. As a small child, when we visited the Ulster Museum or Botanic Gardens, my Mum recalls that I would point to the Lanyon building and declare ‘That’s where I’m going to go to school when I grow up’. I wanted to stay close to my family, and was very lucky to have a world class University on the doorstep where I could study every kind of literature imaginable. I took a course on Irish literature every semester but studied across the curriculum, including writing a long essay on non-traditional sexuality in Medieval Literature. As a member, and later President, of the English Society, I met some of the finest writers alive today and just thought that every department in the land was as collegial and vibrant as Queen’s. On University Square, the physical and intellectual proximity of English to Politics, History and the Creative Arts added such an excitement as we regularly heard magnificent internal and external speakers.

The standards I was raised with academically were high, and filled with rigorous debate grounded in the fact of being in Northern Ireland. This is why the recent news from Belfast has left me so aghast. Not just for the friends who have had their lives made extremely difficult, but also for the remarkable scholarship that so many of us have employed in our work.

The latest round of understandable outrage came with comments made yesterday in this interview:

The responses were swift:

The Arts and Humanities at Queen’s, and History in particular, are remarkable both in Northern Ireland and the wider academic community. The REF return in several departments would be the envy of most other institutions. As a scholar of contemporary Northern Ireland, I rely on the interpretive frameworks and meticulous analysis of historians, and the wealth of insight from this department is truly remarkable. When I was a post-doc, they were some of the most encouraging and generous scholars I encountered, and it is galling to see their work denigrated in this way. QUB draws students from around the world to study literature, history, sociology and politics due to the fine reputation of these scholars.

But, we also all know that Queen’s and UU  (which is facing similar challenges in the current funding situation in Northern Ireland) should be about much more than the metrics of academic reputation. During the worst of the conflict, these institutions offered invaluable interpretive frameworks and cultural responses to political events. They allowed emerging working class academics to intervene in debates on Northern Irish history, society and culture. I was trained to believe that old narratives could and should be contested through rigorous research and debate.

Whether it involves the study of sixth-century history or present-day political life, Northern Ireland is not so ‘post’-conflict that it doesn’t need critical thinkers who understand the interpretation and legacy of the past. When we let elites write our history, we give them power to interpret our present.