Irish History? New to Me!

Before coming to Trinity for a semester abroad, Irish history was mostly a mystery to me.
Attending public school in the Midwestern United States, Irish history was only touched on in a minor way, classes such as AP European History, where a subtle mention of British battles to expand their occupation of Ireland were entwined with Scottish rebellions and other British-colonial expeditions. Meanwhile, the Irish community in my town was virtually non-existent, or at least as blind to their history as I am of my genealogical predecessors. Thus, events liked “The Troubles” and people like Michael Collins were treated more as answers to Jeopardy questions than consequential historical figures.

This mindset of mine began to change just before my trip, as I started to study Irish history casually, on my own, interested in the new country in which I’d soon be living. I began in detail with the colonial period with England, reading up on figures such as Oliver Cromwell. As someone educated and interested heavily in the Caribbean colonial period, the treatment of the Irish under British rule began to sound eerily similar to the treatment of British colonies in North America. Of course, events such as the Easter Rising and Troubles soon followed in my reading, but as the trip approached, I had less and less free time to educate myself on the rest of Ireland’s history. Once I arrived in Dublin, however, the history I had only read began to come to life around me. Statues and monuments dotted the city, physical embodiment of the struggles, heroes, and tragedies that had hitherto for me only existed in books and pictures. My first visit to a historical site was a tour of Kilmainham Gaol, a prison. It played a fascinating and horrifying role during the Great Famine, where people were intentionally getting caught
committing crimes, as the prison was one of the few places that could guarantee a meal or two per day.

Furthermore, its history follows a narrative put forth by Michel Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish, making the tour’s recounting of the transformation from public hanging to cellular incarceration particularly fascinating for me.

Kilmainham Gaol interior

This site was also where many major IRA figures were held in the early 20th century. Cells occupied by figures such as Charles Stewart Parnell, who signed the Kilmainham Treaty with William Gladstone. Other more radical figures, such as Constance Markievicz, the first female elected to British Parliament were also held there. The prison’s short tour was like a crash course in independence history and taught me a great deal about just how real, righteous, violent, and difficult the struggle for independence was for Ireland – a history which, for some, is still ongoing.

The value of the knowledge of Ireland’s past goes beyond its value in the classroom. It also serves to help outsiders like me understand and contextualize contemporary events, and how the Irish think about their future. Events such as the issue of the Irish backstop in the Brexit debate now make much more sense than they did to me before.

Furthermore, my understanding of the recent IRA bombing in Derry also makes more sense now that I am better aware of the history of this country and its struggles.

Overall, though I am only enrolled in 30 ECTS here at Trinity, simply living in and touring the city makes me feel as though I have an additional 10 unit course, one that I attend when I wish and gives no assignments. And this course, though not mandatory and without a professor, is the one which I am most enjoying.

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