Lessons in MA Research: Obstacles, Nailing Down a Topic and the Benefits of Untilled Ground

The foremost difficulty in determining one’s MA research topic does not present itself when trying to come up with any idea at all for a thesis. Rather, the difficulty emerges when attempting to narrow down the wealth of ideas that likely already occupy one’s mind. I quickly encountered this difficulty myself, as did many of my classmates. My own research interests revolve around the rise, role, and impact of fascism in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. An extremely broad topic, with literally thousands of published works relating to it, this obstacle forced me to contemplate a set of crucial factors any MA student will undoubtedly encounter.

            The time to complete an MA is rather limited, especially when modules, coursework and perhaps tutoring are considered. The geographical and linguistic accessibility of archive primary sources, and whether one has the time or funding to go abroad, must also be considered. Collectively these factors led me to seek out a research topic that was rooted at home in Ireland, where archive sources are a bus journey away from where I live, but still related to my core interests. My attention was drawn to the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938, during which Nazi Germany pressured, with increasing aggression, Czechoslovakia for the cession of the Sudetenland region. The latter was inhabited predominantly by ethnic Germans, and it had become part of Czechoslovakia following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

            This series of events was followed closely by European nations with territorial grievances of their own, including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and even Ireland. Each had seen their borders begrudgingly redrawn by one treaty or another. Many in Ireland drew supposed parallels between the Sudeten Question and the partition situation in Ulster, despite the former issue being one of a population’s ethnicity and the latter one of religion. Regardless, for this reason, and for the real danger of war that increasingly presented itself, the Sudeten Crisis was followed closely in both public and government circles in Ireland. A research topic was quickly manifesting for me, one that revolved around the various reactions to the Sudeten Crisis in Ireland and the extent to which they paralleled other nations with a peripheral involvement in the matter. When I began consulting secondary literature on Irish politics in the period, it quickly became clear that the very aforementioned question had not received adequate academic attention. With a fresh and level playing field, all the factors thus far described led me to pursue this topic in my thesis for the MA in European History.

The Sudeten Crisis produced several differing and somewhat contradictory responses in Ireland. First and foremost was an overwhelming desire to avoid European conflict. Eamon de Valera would use his position as President of the League of Nations Assembly that year to urge for peace, and privately encouraged British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to do his utmost to preserve European peace at the infamous Munich Conference. The same sentiment was found throughout the Irish public and organisations campaigning for peace were common in Ireland at the time. Simultaneously however, preparations were being made with both British and French liaisons on how to defend Ireland in the event of war. While these reactions were of a rather pragmatic nature, Irish foreign policy during and after the Sudeten Crisis also has an opportunistic flip side.

(From left) Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Count Galeazzo Ciano meeting in Munich, September 1938. The resolution of this conference spurred the opportunistic elements of Irish foreign policy into action. (Downloaded from Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Munich-Agreement, 30 Nov. 2022).

Having drawn parallels between the Ulster Question and various continental territorial issues since the 1921 Treaty negotiations, the Irish government once again sought to use the newfound attention on such issues that was provoked during the Sudeten Crisis to make progress on regaining the partitioned six counties. Nationalist elements in both the north and south of Ireland sought the same course of action. In private correspondence to Chamberlain, de Valera urged that if any territory was granted to Germany than the Ulster situation should likewise be immediately re-evaluated. Irish diplomats in Europe were encouraged to broach the subject with their relevant counterparts, particularly in France and Italy, in a rather opportunistic fashion in the Munich Conference’s immediate aftermath.

Concurrently, branches of the Irish Anti-Partition League were established across Britain and Ireland, which campaigned for a united Ireland on the same logic as that by which the Sudeten Crisis was resolved. With territorial revisionism seemingly becoming commonplace, such opportunism was also seen in the foreign policies of Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Indeed, even this summary of Irish interest and foreign policy during the Sudeten Crisis recontextualises Ireland’s relation to continental events at the time in a way previous research has given strangely little attention to. Given the grave importance of territorial issues in Europe today, examining the roles of, and reactions to, previous crises can help illuminate the way forward.

This research was made possible by the supervision of Dr. John Paul Newman and by the gracious award of a History Department Postgraduate Scholarship, for both of which I am immensely grateful.

Erik Stewart is a former MA student and graduate of the History Department at Maynooth University, and an extended discussion of his research is due to be published in an upcoming issue of History Ireland