This guest article comes from Catherine Bateson who is a final year AHRC SGSAH PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching the culture and sentiments of Irish American Civil War songs and music. She is also the current social media secretary for the Scottish Association for the Study of America and one of the co-founders of the War Through Other Stuff Society. You can follow her on Twitter @catbateson.
Back in mid-August, University College Dublin played host to the inaugural meeting of the largest number of scholars, academics and independent researchers focusing on the history, politics, social and cultural experience of the Irish diaspora, ie. those originally and descended from Ireland who migrated across the globe over the last three centuries. The Irish constitute one of the largest diasporas in the world, so UCD held a ‘Congress’ focusing on the stories of these ‘global Irish’.
As an Irish American diaspora historian, this was the perfect opportunity to present some of my conclusions at the end of the doctoral process. My research focuses on the role of Irish-born and descended soldiers in the American Civil War, specifically analysing songs written by and about them and what songs reveal about Irish American diasporic identity. Despite being to conferences on more specific aspects of Irish, American and Civil War histories, UCD’s Global Irish Diaspora (GID) Congress offered more than just another case of going to give a twenty minute paper. Over four days of papers and plenty of conversations over coffee, there was a reassuring theme that other scholars had ideas, theories, interesting primary examples, conclusions etc. that chimed with my own. This has implications for potential collaborative projects, wider research impact and understanding of Irish transnational research going forward.
My own panel session, designed as a collaborative roundtable with fellow Irish American scholars from both Ireland and America, brought together our findings about the Irish American Civil War era experience. The roundtable raised new scholarship, challenged current views, and in an intensive and productive question and answer session, highlighted areas for future work. It also opened up new avenues to think about now that the PhD is coming to an end. This made the congressional-style conference a valuable experience, and raised areas for interdisciplinary collaborative projects. Not only that, over the four main days of the conference there were also workshops and creative sessions that explored aspects of Irish diaspora culture, heritage and knowledge dissemination which helped to build on previous research training.
However, the real highlight of my week in Dublin was that I visited the city. One occasional eyebrow-raising aspect of my doctorate to date is that I had never actually been to Ireland. Although a little shocking, as an historian of Irish transnationalism that is not strange. My focus is on the Irish in America during the 1860s, not the Irish in Ireland. I have visited the main centres of the Irish American diaspora for archival research – New York, Boston and Philadelphia – alongside visiting the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the Civil War battlefields of Virginia, where many of the songs I study were penned and sung. As the vast majority of the ballads I’ve amassed come from America, I have not needed to go to Ireland for archival research.
I should clarify that. I’ve not physically needed to go to Ireland for archival research. One benefit of being an American transnational historian is that archives are accessible outside the country. The issue of transnational research and digitized collections is something I’ve written about before. It means I can sit at my desk in Edinburgh and look at the digitized ballad collections held at the National Library of Ireland (NLI), without the pressure of finding funds for lengthy research trips. The NLI holds a good collection of contemporary ballads that were copies of versions printed in America about the Irish during the Civil War. While I’ve looked at many them remotely, going to Dublin did offer me a chance for a couple of library visits to see the physical copies and get new primary sources that will help flesh out a couple of points before the thesis is done. The old adage about never having too many sources, even if they don’t make it into the thesis, is true.
Some of what I picked up is now sitting in yet another file of photographs. These will form the foundation of future projects. Also seeing the actual broadsides I’m familiar with in digital form reignited questions over material culture of sources, how ephemera is used, preserved and studied, and what that means for historical scholarship. These issues were touched on during Can You Handle It? and Stuff of Research, both supported by SGSAH. Ideas around material culture, source dissemination and collection are very much in my mind as I conclude the thesis. It was good to have a quiet moment in the library thinking about what it means that the paper in front of me had not only managed to survive 155 years but can also be accessed and interpreted in multiple ways. I also saw museum archive collections connected to my research and the wider themes that my research fits into, such as telling cultural military history through song and memory, and disseminating to public audiences. I did not expect to find so much and have so many new questions this late on in my research, but I am excited to explore some of the ideas I came across.
Going to GID, visiting Dublin and managing to get some useful archival sources made the whole trip extremely successful. It helped me develop, strengthen and reinforce many of the things I have learnt through the last three years of research and at workshop training events. In many ways, the whole experience felt like everything was coming together right when it should. My many thanks to SGSAH for providing Student Development Funding to make the trip possible.
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