This week’s blog is written by final year history student Brendan Hannon who worked on two different projects in the Royal Irish Academy: getting experience of working with personal papers, and contributing to Irish History Online, a large bibliographical database project.
I began my SPUR internship on 11th July in the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson Street in Dublin. On my arrival there I met Karen de Lacey who is the curator of the papers of the late Professor Kevin B. Nowlan from UCD. I was to cover two tasks one covering the cataloguing of the papers themselves which were divided into different topics and headings. The other task which initially shocked me was to shred a portion of the documents. It went against all of my instincts that this could happen to what I assumed were important historical documents. It transpired that these documents were duplicates, photocopies or had no relevance to the collection, also that there is limited space within any archive. I was informed that this was to be the most tedious or boring part of the work, however; this could not have been further from my experience, even on reading what was considered the detritus I was beginning to get a picture of Professor Nowlan himself. There was some physicality to this task but it was all but completed in the first week leaving more time to concentrate on the papers themselves.
Professor Nowlan had many interests in his life outside his academic position in UCD, he was involved with the movement to preserve Georgian Dublin, particularly in Mountjoy Square. He acted as historical advisor to RTE in the making of historic programmes around the fiftieth anniversary of the rising in 1966. This was something which really grabbed my interest as in the second semester in first year one of the subjects covered was ‘History Through Film’. I was privileged to witness the battle between a noted historian attempting to maintain his academic principles against the film makers who were prepared to amend historic fact for artistic licence. It was definitely something that could have been brought to the examination essay at the time. The outcome was an overall win for Professor Nowlan in that there were two disputed points one of which was amended in his favour, the other was too far gone in production to be changed, RTE also recognised an earlier error in a programme covering Daniel O’Connell thereby keeping his reputation intact.
After a break of one week I resumed my work in the RIA. This time I was working with Dr. Bernadette Cunningham on Irish History On Line. This work covered cataloguing various journals held by the academy along with some that are held in Trinity College library. The basis of the work involved a lot of data entry which on the face of it may not appear to be very exciting this however would be far from the reality. The most difficult part of this was to achieve a balance between reading the articles and actually entering the information. Once I had mastered the basics I was allowed to enter search fields for the articles which were confined to an agreed series of key words agreed between Irish and UK libraries. This was a very interesting task as I had to put myself into the position of a researcher who would need to find this information, it also required an understanding of the article content. Some of the journals began in the late nineteenth century continuing to the early twentieth century. There was a great divergence of writing style, the early work was generally very prosaic and difficult sometimes to find the point of discussion whereas the later writing even as far back as the 1920s became more focused and closer to modern day presentation.
The experience of working on the SPUR internship has been a joy. The atmosphere in the RIA is open and welcoming and complements any work of study. I met wonderful people who were friendly and generous with both their time and knowledge. The RIA has been in existence since 1785 when its aims were to promote the study of science, polite literature and antiquities, today it promotes the study of the sciences, humanities and social science. The academy received its royal charter from King George III in 1786 and which it still retains. It is the independent academic body for all of Ireland, publishes academic journals and maintains on of the country’s finest research libraries.