Each year a selection of students compete to get a place working with an academic in our department on a research project. This gives them paid experience of professional research and the chance to visit and work in different archival repositories. This reflection was written by Andrea Byrne after her experience of SPUR in the summer of 2018.
I have come to the end of six weeks working on the Maynooth University SPUR programme for undergraduates, and while it was daunting to begin with, it has also been the most fulfilling experience. SPUR offers a wonderful opportunity not only to get involved with academic research, but also to get to know people with the same academic interests. The first week of the project was a steep learning curve, followed by an immensely quick five weeks, with so many new things to learn.
The project I participated in was called Spectacles and Shows, Exhibitions and Entertainment in Ireland 1750-1870, and it was run by Dr Alison FitzGerald of the History Department. Working with Dr FitzGerald and benefitting from her expertise has been a one of a kind experience; getting to see at first hand the work and dedication that goes into a project has been eye-opening. I found the project, which focuses on the history of leisure and specifically popular entertainment in Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, immensely interesting. We considered not only how people were entertained in Irish towns and cities during this period, but how they viewed particular types of commercial entertainment and how it was represented in material culture of the period.
I found tracing the careers of some of the entrepreneurs fascinating. One of the individuals who particularly caught my attention was the American animal trainer Isaac A. Van Amburgh, who toured a very popular wild animal act through Britain and Ireland during the nineteenth century , specialising in big cats. Having started out as a young cage cleaner in New York, Van Amburgh became a celebrity, praised for his daring feats, and including Queen Victoria among his numerous avid fans. While we may not have exactly the same ideas of entertainment now, people’s fascination with the weird, wonderful and dangerous continues and grows to this day.
While the project itself was great to participate in, a huge part of getting started in research is learning where to go to get your information, and how to go about accessing it. This was something I had little experience in, having spent most of first year as an undergraduate just trying to figure out where to locate relevant books and journals for my assignments! On starting this project my eyes were opened to the wealth of sources available for those embarking on research, whether for academic research or simply for enjoyment. We had the opportunity to look at a wide range of primary sources in the National Library of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy and I found studying eighteenth and nineteenth century sources at first hand enjoyable and rewarding. Places like the NLI and the RIA are full of information just waiting to be utilised and while it can seem overwhelming at first, I soon found my feet, with plenty of help from my mentor Dr FitzGerald and Head of Department Dr Prunty. Simply learning how to sign up to use the services available has been extremely useful, it can seem daunting to do this alone. I found the staff in the RIA, NLI and the National Gallery of Ireland so accommodating and helpful it will certainly make me more confident to reach out to them for any future research I may do. Additionally, the online primary source databases, available through Maynooth University’s library are far more extensive than I imagined; a resource like the Irish Newspaper Archive is most certainly something I will take with me and use long after I finish the SPUR project.
After completing the project, I am more confident in my ability to source and evaluate information and to store it in an organised manner. I have also gained invaluable experience in terms of time management and the importance not just of working methodically but also of taking breaks and using time effectively. It is an experience I would encourage for everyone, especially those who are considering PhD work, as it gives an honest and in-depth look into research. I would like to thank the History Department at Maynooth University for giving me the opportunity to work on the SPUR programme this year.