Module Profile: Irish Writing and Material Culture

By: Clodagh Schofield (Visiting Student – Departments at Trinity: Economics, English, Sociology – Home University: University of Sydney, Political Economy and Cultural Studies

My favourite part of studying at Trinity this semester has been taking a course called Irish Writing and Material Culture, and getting to learn from my lecturer Dr Julie Bates. It’s a sophister level English course, with about 12 students, roughly half of whom are visiting or international students.

The course content deliberately includes both canonical and lesser-known texts, and women’s writing, and the exploration of broader Irish culture alongside literature make it an excellent choice for exchange students. Julie also stresses that having international and visiting students in the class enhances the learning experience of the whole cohort.

‘Having worked in other universities, I was struck again when returning to Trinity by the odd dynamic where people are so acutely aware of making a mistake that at times it can be quite difficult to get people to volunteer contributions. As a lecturer to realise that you have students from other countries in your group you breathe a sigh of relief because it shakes it up a bit. The Irish are very passive, very courteous, but also aware that they are in a very small country and their stumbles are very visible.’


Above: Dr Julie Bates

She particularly values having visiting students from the Irish diaspora, such as myself and a number of others in the class. ‘It’s been fascinating where there are students with connections to Ireland, but also where there are students who don’t have any connections. When we look at how the Irish understand themselves, you cannot speak about Irish identity without factoring in the diaspora. So while my instinct would be to speak about how Irish politics is inherently conservative, parochial, inward looking, that’s not accurate because I need to take account of all of the many many people around the world who identify as Irish and all of the different ways that they conduct themselves and think politically.’

Material culture has played an interesting and distinct role in Irish literature that I hadn’t previously noticed. ‘Irish writers, their attitude to material culture is bizarre, just bizarre.’ Julie posits. ‘The obvious reasons for this are, you know, a Catholic refusal to engage with this material plane, and a postcolonial sense of a lack of a coherent or confident cultural identity, and then of course the brute fact of poverty in Irish life. And isolation from the whole consumerist wave of capitalism which has been very late washing up on these shores.’

When I first entered her classroom, I was very much struck by the thought that Julie was young to be running a course she put together herself.

When I asked her about this, she said that it’s standard practice in Trinity’s Department of English.

‘The sophister options will be taught by members of staff in areas they are studying so that they can work through their ideas while they are still fresh. There’s a strong connection between teaching and research. Students are there while it’s happening and you don’t have these fuddy duddy lectures that are 35 years old and with lecturers just trotting through the thing.’

The course is structured to allow us to engage as writers of fiction and non-fiction rather than as students in a classroom serving as a virtual academic & literary space, insulated from the outside world. Assessment is made up of a creative component and a 4500 essay, which we had the opportunity to self assign. The creative component is inspired by an object from the collections of the National Museum, which we’ll be presenting in a show on the 19th of April. The essays are all on topics that have had very little previous work done on them, and Julie has suggested they could be published in journals of review should they reach that standard.

Long room

Did she have meet any resistance when proposing this alternative method of assessment? ‘I was worried that I’d get someone [from the Department of English] nodding at me in an avuncular sort of way saying ‘Now now, that’s a great idea, but what if some of the students struggle? You don’t want to create an opportunity for them to fail.’ [The project is] not quite a high wire but it’s a lot more exposed, more self determined than a lot of other assignments you could get.’

The fact that our assessments are exposed, are public, and are more than just long word documents squeezed out for a deadline has definitely changed how I approached them. Rather than writing to meet a set of criteria, I’m writing to create something I would be comfortable attached to my name in public. I feel a commitment to artistic and intellectual integrity.

‘This issue of pride is so important. And everybody has raised their game. When you’re teaching you must get to know the group and the dynamic, the capacity, the talent, the interest. Then set a task that is just above that.’

Whilst material culture as an interdisciplinary project tends to focus on something called ‘thing theory’ which I’ll be honest, I don’t really have a grip on at this stage, Julie’s course is a part of her research into creating a theory of material culture specifically for Irish writing. As a student in my fifth year of a three year arts degree, a fair amount of which I’ve spent studying Cultural Studies, I’ve developed a level of sce

towards highly specific nuanced areas of study. Often it seems to me, an academic has fabricated significance of a particular new angle on something due to being in need of renewed tenure or a grant. I expressed this cynicism to Julie and to my surprise she agreed.

‘Material culture can sometimes be a helpful lens.  But it’s certainly not providing any unique new perspective on everything. I feel if you try and concentrate on the bare materials that they [writers] use, it doesn’t have to be material culture, it can be any detail or pattern of their signature as creative people, and how their expression changes, how their creative practice involves… Basically I’m saying something incredibly old fashioned – you start with a close reading.’

A theory of an Irish material culture is presented in the course as a way to map the web connections the Irish literary tradition is tangled in internally. This is fascinating to study as someone who didn’t grow up in Ireland.

‘If an Irish writer is describing a boot, they’re describing a boot as it has been represented in earlier Irish writing most of the time. There are certain objects that have been described in a way that becomes canonical, that becomes fixed, and their literary meaning becomes more important than whatever social, cultural, political resonance that they might have outside of literature,’ Julie tells me. ‘We turn to literature so often in this country to give us a sense of who we are. If the writers are just engaged in this deranged imaginary conversation spiralling constantly inwards, then that’s something that’s important to look at.’

Come to our show to see the creative responses the class has put together at 6.30pm on the 19th of April in the Long Room Hub. There’ll be free wine (!!), performances, photography, readings and film. I may or may not be reading my creative piece out loud.



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