Today’s The Family of Things guest with Helen Shaw is writer, feminist, digital humanities leader and researcher, Professor Gerardine Meaney of University College Dublin.
Helen and Gerardine were both students in UCD studying English and History in the early 80s but while Helen moved on to journalism, Gerardine, a self-confessed book addict, stayed in research and began hunting for the loss voices of women writers, written out or censored in Ireland. Her quest to give voice to the women who were always there but erased led to her work in books like ‘Reading the Irish Woman’ (2013) and her seminal study ‘Gender, Ireland and Cultural Change’ (2010).
Gerardine embraced digital technologies as a means of opening access to learning and has been a pioneer in digital humanities using tools like audio podcasting to share knowledge.
In this wide ranging conversation Gerardine, who is now Professor of Cultural Theory in the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD, explores what made her focus her attention on women, and how her new research work, around Victorian cultural values and migrant stereotypes, resonates with issues, like Brexit, today. She also talks about her own experience of surviving breast cancer, and how it has, in some ways, made her think bigger, and with more focus, around her work, and her life.
That’s the one that drives me this idea that we are capable of imagining other realities and because we are capable of imagining those other realities, we are capable of changing the world we live in.
Hello and welcome to The Family of Things, a podcast about life and how we choose to live it. I’m Helen Shaw. And in this episode I’m with a woman who became a hunter of lost voices, female writing voices written out or silenced, it’s Gerardine Meaney, a Kilkenny woman who once shared a classroom with me back in UCD in the 1980s when we took History and English Lit together. While I went off and followed journalism and brought history and culture together in broadcasting, Gerardine went on to unite them in her research and studies.
Today, she’s professor of cultural theory at the School of English, Drama and Film at our old alma mater, UCD. And she’s an international leader on showing how digital can break down the ivory towers of learning. And while all our worlds were pausing and falling apart last year, she was being awarded a European Research Council fund of over 2.5 million euro for her research work on migration and culture and ways of knowing where we come from and who we are.
Welcome, Geraldine, it’s lovely to have you in The Family of Things. I mean, you’ve come a long way from grappling with me in the arts block with old English and Beowulf. But where did it all start for you? Were you the avid reader as a child, always lost in books?
Absolutely. My sister still tells embarrassing stories about me classifying my books in our shared bedroom as kids and that I had to have them lined up in a particular way. So I was not just an avid reader. I was slightly obsessive as a child. I worked my way through the Kilkenny County Library. We lived in Kilkenny and then later Waterford and I worked my way through second time book sales in the town and things like that. My mother and myself used to go in at Christmas and and basically, you know, just go mad. So, yes, I’m that kind of a reader.
And was it a home of books? I mean, I didn’t grow up in a house of books. There was a little library both in primary school in Corpus Christi Drumcondra and in the Holy Faith Glasnevin and I have to confess that I hid any time they were playing sport, particularly basketball, because girls’ schools then they were obsessed with basketball and hockey. Now I was terrified about getting hit with the hockey stick. And basketball I just felt I was too small to ever get anywhere near success there.
So I would hide and actually just be absent for all sports and find some nook in the library. And I remember me just reading everything, but I do remember falling passionately in love with Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I mean, what was your world at that stage and who were the writers and the books that triggered and inspired you?
Yeah, interesting. My mother was an avid reader of detective fiction.
I loved Agatha Christie as a child too.
Yes all those golden age kind of authors, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, that I’m still hugely fond of. And I have my mother’s old penguin classic editions of a lot of them. But I was mad keen on historical fiction. And like yourself, I did a degree in history as well as English. But I think my historical interest was being fed by novels to an large extent.
I wasn’t a big Jane Austen, I loved adventure stories. It was Robert Louis Stevenson, that kind of thing. And I remember the adult section of the public library opened up at 13, and I think I read almost all of Dickens and just went on Dostoevsky because it was the next thing on the shelf and
You were doing the library alphabetically.
Well, there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do in Kilkenny in the 1970s, and it was a small enough library that eventually I think I’d worked my way through an awful lot of it.
And, you know, as I say, we go back to that stage in UCD doing English and History. And when we came out of school, there really wasn’t a lot of choice, as there is now in the creative arts or in humanities. And I know I went in because I loved history and loved English Lit, but probably driven by history more than anything else. And the experience was often quite daunting because UCD was such a big, overwhelming campus.
And in some ways when I left it and went to what is now DCU to do journalism, it was like going back to a school because DCU was just emerging and was tiny and we were back to a classroom of maybe twenty people. But for you, when you did your degree, what made you stay in academia and what made you follow that path, that long, long path to a PhD?
Well, interestingly, initially I wanted to go into journalism when I came out. It never occurred to me that I could have an academic career. And then I was a year, six months or so out, still an avid reader and now onto Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and I realised that the kind of journalistic media was not for me. And also there was something I was missing. I felt that I had a lot of unfinished work to do in terms of reading and criticism.
So I went back out to UCD and started enquiring about doing a Masters and bumped into Seamus Dean and started talking to him about Muriel Spark. I think he was interested in her as well. And I had been reading a lot of French feminist theory, mostly in translation at that stage. Ailbhe Smyth was a huge figure in UCD at the time, and I think a really important role model.
In gender studies, which was just emerging at that point.
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think Ailbhe would have been teaching one of the very first courses that dealt with feminism and gender. And I kind of thought this was so interesting and there was ideas here that were really setting me on fire.
Because what’s interesting about you mentioning Muriel Spark and French feminism is that in thinking about what happened in English lit in our time, it was dominated by the great and the good male writers. And in a sense, no more than the posters of Irish writers. It was Beckett, Joyce, Casey, and Synge, but there wasn’t a lot of women writers who were taught. And in some ways, when you talk about going back and talking about Muriel Spark, such an interesting and unusual writer, that in many ways what your work has also been about is bringing out and giving voice to writers who were always there but often weren’t seen and heard.
No. And our curriculum at the time had a nine percent maximum of women writers. When I went back for the MA I got involved
Nine, nine percent?
It was nine percent of the writers on the course were women, which is extraordinary because the English novel is dominated by women. And I think the statistics were actually slightly skewed by the fact that Jane Austen was on twice.
And they loved Jane Austen. I do remember I read all of Austen, but not an awful lot of Irish women writers. And when you started to bring forth the voices that you then bring forth in your work, many of them were new to me as a big grown up older adult having to discover women writers from my own place of origin.
Yeah, I had a fight on my hands, but when I got my first lecturing position, I started to introduce the kind of work that I was researching on into the curriculum. And I think the first course on, called Reading Women was the first course in women’s writing.
And just to give us a little bit of context, what year was that? Because if you’re talking about, we’re talking about our time period. We graduated with a B.A. around ’82 and we’re saying nine percent of the curriculum in English lit then in UCD was women. So when you, you start your first course in reading women, when’s that?
That’s about ’92. I’m just thinking back.
So about 10 years later?
About 10 years later. Yeah.
And what was your PhD on?
Well, I did my PhD on Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Doris Lessing.
Women writers and French feminist theory, thanks Ailbhe. But I remember having a conversation at the photocopier with a very, very distinguished Irish critic saying to me what a pity it was that there weren’t Irish women to work on. And I really knew that wasn’t right. I’d already encountered Kate O’Brien accidentally again rambling around the library shelves in UCD. And I really started digging and I got a fellowship in Queens, where an awful lot of really interesting work was being done at the time, to work on Kate O’Brien.
But it also gave me an opportunity to work on a much broader range of Irish women writers. And I think that was the origins of it.
So who were you discovering? Because, again, I only read Kate O’Brien, you know, in my 30s. And I was very aware of Mary Lavin as a short story writer. But who were you bringing forth into students’ ears and eyes?
Well, Emily Lawless was one of the first ones, and it was getting Emily Lawless into the picture with the Irish revival. She was a really important writer, a wonderful writer of landscape and nature. She was from a unionist background so that made her very unpopular. But she was also an influence on singing. And that’s really starting to be recognised now by critics like John Brannigan and Nicholas Allen. But there were such exciting writers like Katherine Cecil Thurston, who’s still relatively little known, but she’s a novel about a woman living as a man in order to train as an artist and having to make a decision about whether she should revert to being a woman when she falls in love.
This is 1910, right. So and the way she handles the switches in gender is so contemporary, so 21st century. And these really amazing writers that literally were invisible, I mean, nobody seemed to talk about Thurston for 70 years after her death, and she died very young. Not long after writing that novel. So you have these writers from before the formation of the state, but then you’ve really interesting and exciting writers like Rosamond Jacob and Dorothy Macardle.
Who you’re still working on.
Always. Rosamond’s diary, which she wrote most days of her life is, there’s so much in there that I think she’s always going to be with me. But she’s a very underrated novelist. In her historical fiction, things like The Troubled House. She had a historical novel about Matilda Tone, which is a really interesting perspective on that period. These are women who were working through quite a dark and difficult period. Women writers between ’22 and into the 60s were really invisible.
I mean, I remember Eavan Boland writing about the fact that she didn’t have four mothers. She couldn’t see them. And she talked about Emily Lawless, about, After Aughrim because Lawless was a poet as well as a novelist. But all of these women who were challenging the norms of Ireland, Maura Laverty would be another, Molly Keane and Una Troy, who also wrote as as Elizabeth Connor. They were very much censored by the state because they were stepping outside the bounds of what you were allowed to write about.
But there was a double censorship in that literary criticism refused to take them seriously. So they weren’t being recorded in the literary histories with the consequence that they weren’t visible to the next generation of women writers. I mean, Margaret Kelleher has done wonderful work on this, on the way in which there’s a feminist recovery project in the late 19th century. There’s another one at the beginning of the 20th century and so on. And we keep having to reinvent the wheel.
I mean, it’s one of the interesting things about digital is that that work now is all visible again. We can see the anthologies from the 19th century. We can share them with our students. So it’s a very different kind of perspective than one that’s curated by publishing houses and editors.
What’s curious about what you were doing, in some ways it reflects what was happening in the country in general, no more than Ailbhe Smyth setting up gender studies. It was often dismissed, the whole field of gender studies from that mid 80s point to where we are now. But your work in bringing forth voices who had been invisible has now become so mainstreamed, and I’ve mentioned somebody like Sinéad Gleeson in the work she’s done. And in some ways that’s happened now in music, in visual arts, where there’s almost a going back and saying, but women were there.
They may have struggled to tell their stories and be printed, but they were there. And in some ways, what’s interesting about what you were doing at that time is that you parallel with almost a national conversation about the position of women coming in from the cold and being more visible. What made you so focused on that as the story that you wanted to tell in terms of women and feminism and those invisible and often censored voices? What had prompted you to see that and make it your work?
That’s an interesting one. Partly I think the world of Irish literature did not reflect my reality. I think that gave me a great curiosity. Not just my reality, but I couldn’t see my mother’s generation or well I couldn’t see my mother. I couldn’t see my grandmother, who was a very strong woman, and they were feisty and they had a lot to say about absolutely everything. So this idea of Irish women as this kind of silent suffering figure onto which the nation was projected was so much at odds with that reality.
And because of the interest in history as well, from the late 1980s, I had much higher awareness of the extent to which Irish history was made by women. You know, they weren’t just the victims of history, they were agents of history as well. And so this sense that the literature which we were presented with as a canon of Irish literature was completely out of sync with both the reality of women’s lives, but also the reality of that political and social and cultural history that we were, that was starting to appear again.
I don’t think we’re finished this work, by the way. I think, you know, mentioning music, if you look at the controversy recently about women’s music not being played on the mainstream stations, I mean, I think there’s still an awful long way to go.
Absolutely. And you mentioned Avan Bowland, and I had the pleasure of working with her several times in her life. Once before I moved back to Northern Ireland with the BBC, I did a documentary then when she was moving to the States and then much, much later. In some ways, it’s so compelling when you hear Eavan Boland talk about the resistance to her stories being told, her poems, the stories of her poems being heard and told in the public. The reaction she got from fellow male poets, from critics, just the idea that poetry shouldn’t be about the kitchen, the mother nursing it was seen as lowering.
She was actually repeatedly told she was lowering this beautiful art of poetry by bringing it into the dirt of the domestic. And in some ways, the last piece I did with her, as I say, was more around 2008 or so for a series we did on women and words, and she was still really angry about this as an older woman. And I remember someone saying to me, why is she still so angry? And I was actually kind of reflecting that back, like in some ways there is still that inability for many people to understand how stultifying that is, to be told what you can and can’t write.
And it’s what you’re referencing in censorship. But that idea that the domestic or the sexual or the viewpoint, as you say, seeing your mother and your grandmother in the work was absent. The viewpoint of women was not being allowed to be reflected. It was still seen even in that short period ago with Eavan Boland’s work as being degrading.
Yeah. And she got, the level and I suppose that the base level of the criticism, you’d people who were defending their intellectual turf, but it was really personal and snide. I mean, the quality of the reviewing was extremely poor. And I think that I can see why she was still angry, why she was angry always about it, because they shouldn’t, in a way, be allowed to forget that. This idea that, oh, you’re fine now, you’re the great international poet.
What are you complaining about? But think of all the people who did not have her strength of character, who did not survive it. I mean, one of the things which was fascinating when I worked on the Field Day volumes of women’s writing, which have just gone online, which is wonderful, were people like Katherine Arnold Price, who is getting some very belated recognition as a fiction writer. But she was a wonderful poet, absolutely wonderful poet. But you still have to go rummaging through journals that are long out of print to find her poetry.
She never had a collection published. And there is lots of women like that. And she again, she persevered and she switched genre and she has success quite late in life. But again, this idea that there was this kind of gatekeeping going on.
And one of the most hurtful things, I think was the way, and that continues, is the way that women’s writing is corralled as women’s writing, whereas men are just writers. And I think that was the huge threat from people like Boland and Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, especially working in Irish, was that suddenly the bard, this great elevated position of the post was somebody with a life, with a body,
With a womb.
And with a womb. Above all, this was the woman as a writer is a challenge to the idea of creativity as being masculine preserved. And there’s been a lot of work by Moynagh Sullivan, Pat Coughlan, who was an extraordinarily brave feminist critic who started with the essay Bog Queens, where she looked at the way in which women’s bodies are constructed as the earth out of which the poet creates. And caused great offence. I mean, even the most amiable poets like Seamus Heaney were highly offended at their work being analysed from this feminist perspective in that way. And I think there’s, there’s still a bit of that lingering, you know, I think
Definitely. And you referenced when I asked you what allowed you to see this gap and to have, in a sense, the confidence to make that your academic work.7 because often, you know, women were belittled for creating space around gender in gender studies or feminist writing. It was seen as less than the more serious stuff like Beckett or Joyce, as much as we love you lads, we do.
But when you mentioned it, you said the trigger was you didn’t see your mother and your grandmother in it. And I’m curious about that, because particularly for me, I would say that’s a big influence in my own life, is combining both history and creativity and seeing my life unfolding from my grandmother through my mother to me. Your mother, as you say, a reader but I also know you’ve mentioned that she worked in a cinema.
And it’s interesting now that you’re in a, in a department not just of English lit, but of Drama and Film. And there’s a sense that film is really important to you. So tell me a little bit more about that legacy, that female legacy you have and your mother, because in some ways it does sound like she’s equally an extraordinary character.
She was. She went out in the middle of the really awful recession and difficulties in the 1970s, got herself a job, rented herself a house. Her marriage had broken down. She flew in the face of all of the constraints, I suppose, that you had on women at the time in this very quiet, determined way. Now, when I say quiet, my mother never stopped talking. I think she talked from the time she woke up in the morning until and possibly after her eyes closed. She would talk to anybody.
She could get blood out of a stone in conversation. And part of that was this patter. She was, she worked in the shop in the cinema, and she was constantly doing complicated mental arithmetic with ice creams and cigarettes and crisps. And she was always disappointed by the fact that none of us inherited that. And in another age, I think, somebody who had that, you know, the figures and the and the patter at the same time, all sorts of opportunities would have been there for her.
But she was very determined the opportunities would be there for her daughters. Education was really important to her.
So you saw a lot of movies then because of her? Because like
Films, we never call them movies then Helen.
But like you would have seen a film a week?
We had free access to the cinema. I do remember seeing a film version of La Traviata. I think the only other person who was in the cinema in Kilkenny at the time went on to be a manager of the Cork Opera House. So you saw that and the following day I picked Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday. It wasn’t great for teenage romance, having your mother there as kind of a gatekeeper on the cinema, but it was wonderful for my cinematic education. Yeah.
And it gave me a lifelong love of film. I can still kind of feel the sticky floor you know.
Yeah, because, I mean, I grew up in Whitehall and The Grand cinema was across the road, later became a bingo hall and the mother frequented it during her life and loved it. But when we were kids we were all sent over to the cinema on a Saturday morning and we would just spend the day there and watch everything repeatedly that went through and there was no sense of age control. I do, I do know I saw highly inappropriate movies, far too young.
I remember seeing Taxi Driver and I was obviously way, way too young and it traumatised me. Like I think it took me like two decades to even think about that movie again. But I do have that sense that it was such a creative freedom and that it was so accessible then because most people had a cinema and it was cheap.
You know, that kids could go in and they could literally just hang for the day. But what kind of ways do you think it has triggered your approach?
Because in some ways no more than your department and it happens within the Leaving Cert now in school, books, drama, film, they’re all considered together. But for you, what’s been the impact of I supposed that immersion in cinema?
I think the idea that you have to look at culture as a whole is one that it really has its origins in sociology and Raymond Williams work, which was challenging this kind of elitist idea that it’s not culture unless it’s on the curriculum in his case in Oxford or Cambridge. And I think we’ve gone a long way from that. I mean, we work on everything from Twitter to Sophocles adaptations. You know, it’s quite overwhelming in a way that the sense that
It’s so broad.
Yeah. You have to work on, keep an eye on, so many different media. And I also think to understand cultural change, which is what I am primarily interested in, and that’s very strongly linked to my interest in Irish women because we’ve lived through, you and I, this period of extraordinary rapid social and cultural change. And I think in the Irish case, you can really see very clearly that the culture moves ahead of the society. Like the culture is kind of the scout out there looking at what the next horizon is.
And I think there is a real necessity if you’re going to understand cultural change, to look not just at one form, not just at poetry, not just at fiction, TV series, but to be able to see the connections across many, many forms.
If I ask you what is culture, how would you respond?
Every product of the human imagination. I think that’s the crucial bit. It’s the creative impulse in it. And, you know, I think that’s quite still a naïve definition, there are complex. But at the end of the day, that’s the one that drives me this idea that we are capable of imagining other realities and because we are capable of imagining those are the realities, we are capable of changing the world we live in. It’s absolutely fundamental.
And I know literature is solace and escapism too. Cinema certainly is. When we were going to the pictures as kids, it wasn’t to reimagine the world, but at the same time it was, it was a window into other worlds.
It shaped our world.
Yeah. But of course, this is an ongoing process. We are in this ongoing dialogue across the generations and we leave our trace. But we’ll also bear the traces of everything that’s been said and imagined and thought before us.
So I want to talk about your work and your research, but you really from I think 2008 or so you were looking and exploring how digital, how digital technologies and the Internet would enable and expand the work of researchers and academics like you. And you started to play with it in your work. And in some ways, what’s now the norm in quote-unquote digital humanities was being invented in that period. Showing how libraries could become open portals, showing how research could become manifest in podcasts or videos.
I mean, we worked together on Joyce’s Dublin, which was launched in December 2009 so a very, very long time ago as a podcast series and still live today. But there’s a sense in which I always think that you were not just looking for the hidden and the absent voices, but you were seeing the potential of the environment we were in this digital transformation we’re in to enable those voices to be heard, as well as to change the way in which we can learn.
And I’m curious about that. What made you see that opportunity to move into and also to become somebody who took risks in it?
I actually have to give credit to Moynagh Sullivan in Maynooth. Moynagh was at UCD as I was finishing up my research for the Field Day anthologies. And my office was full of these bright yellow folders of all the material we didn’t get to put in. And I said, What am I going to do with this Moynagh? And her answer was, put it on the internet. Now, that would have been about 2004, thereabouts, when really nobody in Ireland was talking about digital humanities at all. So we started this.
Yeah there wasn’t even a lot of broadband.
I think I was in the States around that period. And I do remember like a six month of sheer hell on earth with Eircom trying to get any connection in my house. It was a different world.
Yes, it was. I remember nearly losing a very long article because there was an electrical storm and the server went down in UCD. I was waiting for it to come back on to see if it was still there, you know. So I think with some of the stuff we just had to wait for the tools to become available. I remember with the Joyce’s Dublin that I’d come across you and Podcasting Ireland and thought, hmm, that’s a way out of my box.
I remember her from UCD, vaguely.
Yeah, yeah, exactly that. And I really I suppose have always wanted to get outside of the ivory tower. Though as you know, UCD is more sort of the toiling tower blocks rather than the ivory towers, but it’s still a world apart or it could be. And and I think it’s so important that we don’t just talk to students or fellow academics that we’re part of a national conversation and an international conversation.
And as we’ve moved over this last decade, we’ve seen all of those ideas being mainstreamed. But some of the projects you’ve been working on are so exciting beyond the one that you got that massive bit of funding for last year. But Contagion, I mean, we’re in this pandemic and you’ve been working since, I think, 2017 on this project called Contagion. And it seems to tap into many of the conversations that we’re having in the public space now.
That was looking at discourses around contagion and the way that contagion was associated with population movement, with migration in the 19th century. This is kind of the roots of the big European project, which is looking at European migrants and the British imagination. And Contagion we’d a lot of help from the digital lab in the British Library initially, they gave us an awful lot of data. This massive terabyte I was, I brought it home because this was before cloud computing was available to me. The British Library, literally gave me a terabyte to bring home. And at that stage I’d been building relationships with computer science and I was working with Derek Greene there on social network analysis.
So he opened up this dataset that we had and we started looking at ideas around contagion. And one of the things which is very striking is that people’s fears there much more about identity than they are about what they should really be afraid of, particularly in the 19th century. They were much more afraid of religious contagion and political contagion than cholera and smallpox until cholera and smallpox arrived at the end of the road.
That’s so interesting Gerardine though, because if you think about it, we have both of those aspects at play today in terms of ideas and contagion. What we’re talking about in misinformation and conspiracy theories and this way in which the beloved internet and the digital technologies that we’re talking about as been this liberating force has also allowed us to have different forms of viral content and information flowing.
So we have now this very real public health global pandemic in year two. But we’re also in parallel looking at the ways in which information and opinion, this battle of the contagion of ideas and how they spread in, you know, a post Trumpian world you might say as well. So you’re paralleling it with where they where in terms of the fear about new ideas coming in, which would be political and religious, destabilising the status quo almost more powerful and more worrisome than the actual public health ones.
And a huge resistance to the kind of new medical information that was available. I’m involved in another project at the moment, which was originated by Colin Murphy, the playwright called The Miasmatists, which is looking at the resistance to John Snow’s discovery of the origins of a cholera outbreak in London in the 19th century. And Snow is very much at the origins of data science as well as epidemiology, because he mapped the outbreaks and found the source and it was in the water and everybody at the time was convinced that cholera was spread by the air.
And it’s really interesting to look at these past occurrences where people really don’t want to know. I mean, it was so relevant last year when you could see people didn’t want to acknowledge that this thing was coming and that it would have the impact that it did. And the hesitancy in acknowledging the new scientific information actually creates a gap where the disease can come in. And there is a connection back to the kind of feminist work that I have always worked on, because, again, it’s about this unwillingness to think in and through the body is a crucial part of this and identity being seen as something that you have to defend.
And it’s very much about who you are in society, in your position, in hierarchies and losing sight of the fact that ultimately we are our bodies and ultimately the relationship between those bodies is more powerful. I think that’s the great fear, the idea that some little virus you can’t see is more powerful than you, particularly for people who are accustomed to having power. I think you see that in the post Trumpian sense in the United States, still with people refusing to wear a mask because that’s to say they need to defend themselves, there is something more powerful than them.
So in some ways, what you’re saying is that one of the biggest factors in this is people who hold power, being reluctant to allow information that would destabilise that power. That can be a new idea, including feminism, but it can also be scientific research, which will create an environment of destabilising the hierarchy that exists. And then in this current work, where you’ve got this huge whack of European money is looking at Victorian values and the impact on them migration, Irish, Italian, Eastern Europeans in Britain.
It’s a fascinating project. It’s obviously a big long term project. And I suppose what’s interesting is to think about why is that important? Why is it important for social scientists like you to spend a chunk of time studying attitudes and Victorian Britain and migration flows to understand ourselves more? Why do you think it’s important?
I think if we don’t understand the past, we don’t understand the present. And that’s banal, but it’s fundamental. And I think I was particularly fascinated by the way in which, again, the past was being constructed in ways that are not true, even to the literature. If you read Dickens there’s this mobility of population, you have Italian characters, you have French characters. Read 19th century Gothic, they might be villains, but there is this mix of nationalities. And the world of the 19th century this is a very static representation which we are familiar with from costume dramas is very far from the experience that’s being written about at the time.
They’re experiencing their world as one where things are changing drastically. There’s a high level of urbanisation going on. Many people who were born in the country end up living in cities over the course of the 19th century, there’s a massive shift. And this idea of a stable imperial past, which was being really propagated in the run up to Brexit, was so much at odds with the experience of that, of the Empire.
The Empire was a hugely destabilising impact, as well as an aggrandising impact on England in the 19th century. But I was also really interested in the way in which stereotypes about the Irish, about Eastern European Jewish migrants, primarily refugees coming into Britain and these Italian craft workers, the same stories are being circulated in the 21st century. And this applies to vaccines as well, a lot of the stories that are told now are not radically different from those that were told 100 years ago.
So you’re unpacking the roots of stereotypes, in a sense. I listened to a conversation yesterday and I think it actually went around Twitter with David Lammy, the black British politician, taking a phone in call. And this older white woman just kept having a conversation where she just kept telling him, but you can never be English. And he was very calm and he kept walking her through, she says no, but you’re African Caribbean, that’s all you can ever be.
And eventually she conceded he might be called British because of the Empire, but he could never be English because she could trace her roots back to some mythical past where she’d always been, as she said herself, Anglo Saxon. There was such a myth of storytelling wrapped into it. This idea that who can’t be English, we have it in Ireland now about who can be Irish. And yet history has shown us this ever, ever flowing of DNA in people in Britain and Ireland that we are this mix of cultures of DNA over a very long period.
So it’s interesting when you talk about unpacking the stereotypes. Share with us a sense about how this work is going to happen because again, it taps into your connection with the British Library and digital.
I think one of the things which is so striking is that migration is normal. If human beings didn’t migrate, we’d have died out in one ice age or another. We move. And one of the things which the project is tracing is the impact of that in producing culture. So this idea of an English culture or an Irish culture is so untrue to the way in which culture progresses, revolves, interacts with other cultures, works in these interstates between different places and peoples.
And remember, these are two islands on the edge of the North Atlantic, just a very busy sea. People move, ideas move, songs move, stories move. But from the 19th century onwards, a lot of that movement is happening in print. Even when people aren’t moving, the ideas and the stories are moving between them. Now, one of the things which we’re doing with the British Library Corpus, which is vast, we reckon we’ll be working about 37,000 books ultimately.
From the British Library.
From the British Library. And that’s, what we’re trying to do there, using text mining and machine learning techniques at the cutting edge, is to track ideas around migrants across vast amounts of literature that aren’t read anymore that nobody could possibly in one lifetime read.
To use data analysis, artificial intelligence, A.I., to start actually looking for trends and words and key subjects and concepts across a huge range of literature, which might actually be very little accessed.
And is very little accessed. But the key thing is to have the A.I. and text mining in dialogue with the human intelligence and the human reader.
So it’s reading at a vast, extraordinarily vast level but also you bring the microscope down with the human eye in places in the text as well. And to track that over the Victorian the Neo-Victorian so from the middle of the 19th century into the 21st century, you need the text mining, you need the machine learning, but you also need constantly to have this critical human reader in play. Now it’ll be a team, it’ll be a team of readers, it definitely needs a team of readers.
So there will be seven or eight of us ultimately over five years doing this. But it’s an extraordinary opportunity. And it’s a new one.
It’s hugely exciting.
Oh, tremendously exciting. Yes.
And, you know, you’re quite modest about this because this award, you’re one of only two women who’ve ever in Ireland who ever had that level of an advanced ERC European Research Council funding. It’s an enormous validation of your life work. I mean, was there a moment, did you allow yourself that moment of sort of saying, like, great, because that is a sense in which all of that ploughing away for many years and what you’re doing, that you actually get the big vitrine, the big window that you can show your work in and the funding to bring a huge range of researchers together. You must have a sense of validation of your own work as an as an academic, as a researcher, as a creative thinker.
You wouldn’t survive as a feminist critic in Ireland if you needed external validation. Certainly not when I started out. But it was a great sense of achievement. And also at this stage I’m in my late 50s,
Similar, we even have a similar birthday party. We’re not that far apart.
But it is great at this stage to think, oh, I am setting out on this extraordinary voyage. I don’t want to keep doing what I’m always doing. I want to be able to explore new worlds, Star Trek child,
This is Ulysses, Tennyson’s Ulysses I’m hearing now in my head.
I do think there is a sense that the new methodologies have allowed me to do things at a scale. And I got that appetite from the kind of feminist recovery work looking for the Irish women writers. And that’s where all of this started. And now something which I think a lot of people thought didn’t have much future in it, was bringing me down a sidetrack, yet now that has been the way in which I’ve gotten to this exciting new world. The way in which I’ve gotten to that kind of European level.
And it’s rooted in the very particular issue of hunting for those Irish women writers that I was told early on didn’t exist.
So you’re on this big voyage, your collaborating and working transnationally with academics, research teams right across Europe. But I say this podcast is about life and how we choose to live it. And that also means that sometimes we have to live with the stuff that happens to us. And I’m also aware that you’ve gone through what is sadly not that uncommon for a lot of women, that you’ve gone through cancer, thankfully survived and looking brilliant. I mean, cancer and that whole period of the diagnosis, I think there’s always that sense in which there’s life before and life after, and in some ways where you are now and heading out on this great voyage it’s such a wonderful sense of fulfilment.
But it must have been such a blow when that happened, because you do have your two lovely children, both grown up now in their 20s.
Both in their 20s now.
But, you know, when did it happen? And I suppose what was that like for you? Because often we’re not even sure when that happens whether we will be able to survive and go back.
2014. And I am a great ad for screening programmes. It’s worth saying that because we hear all about when the screening programmes go wrong. But I went for my first breast check examination, nearly didn’t go because it was a busy week and accepted that, you know, expected that it was going to be a minor incident in my week. And it turned out to be this massive fracture in my life. I was told that, no, there is something and I was on the call-back appointment before I actually realised, oh, this is me I’ve actually got breast cancer.
And the bottom does fall out of your world. It took a long time. I actually think a lot of people are kind of in denial, more or less up to surgery. And it is horrible. I mean, people talk about losing their hair, but actually you end up at least I ended up going down and getting the hairdresser to cut it off because you can’t bear it anymore coming out in clumps. So it’s and I think there is something very fundamental about your femininity there.
I was very lucky. I didn’t need a mastectomy, so I didn’t have that to deal with. But I think I was caught early and I was and I’m going to say lucky again. And I realise when I talk about it, I do talk in those kinds of terms because I know it’s a lottery. And I was not well at all for I would say two years. The first year is really hard and the second year is mostly just kind of retuning.
You get really tired. Well, it was this for me, it could be much longer for other people. And I had a great appetite to get my life back. And I think I really wanted to come back to my work. But I kind of came back braver in some ways because I felt I don’t have the patience for stuff that I’m not interested in.
And the time.
Yeah, if I’m going to do this, I want to do the exciting stuff. I want to do something new. So I did and it worked out very well for me. But I think, you know, it is really hard. And you, you know, you talk about it and we talk about people being survivors. Surviving is tough and it takes a lot out of you. It does you do end up with it with a relish for the life that you get back and a gratitude for it. But I think, you know, people also need to be compassionate with themselves.
Sometimes you just need to sit with the life that you’ve lost because, you know, depending on what stage of your life you’re at, you lose out on more or less. And I think you also have this taste of mortality. And for me, I was going through breast cancer. My mother was in late stage of Alzheimer’s. So you there was no denying mortality. I was living with death in a way for a couple of years.
And I don’t think anybody ever makes their peace with that. But you do learn how to live with it as well.
And it does change you.
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
And I mean, it’s like you say, you came back braver and I suppose that’s what I mean, like the choices we make you can’t choose what happened to you. But the fact that you came back with that bravery to engage with a huge voyage with these giant projects that you’re doing shows courage in the proper use of the word, that sense of I will go on, maybe we will quote Beckett after all. But that sense in which
He does get everywhere.
That’s the that’s the real admirable thing, is not just to come back, but to come back braver with the energy to do something new.
Yes. And for some people, that’s something new, is to move completely away from a career and spend more time looking out to sea or planting trees or whatever it is. I think that encounter with mortality makes you realise it is your choice.
It’s a limited time. That’s it. But there was one thing I just wanted to touch on is that what’s fascinating about what you’ve done recently is that your interest in culture and cultural change and tracking that, that you were brought into the mother and baby home commission to actually contribute to the whole rooting of stigma and social attitudes to single mothers in Ireland. It’s a fascinating idea that they did that. I think, as everybody knows, I wasn’t a huge fan of the final written report and the tone of it.
But I think it’s an incredibly impressive idea that they brought you in as a social scientist to contribute to that discussion.
Yeah, I think it’s impressive, but it’s really disappointing that that didn’t apply also to trauma specialists, to people who could have advised them about dealing much more respectfully with the victims. And the work that I did was looking at the way in which single mothers and their children were represented in Irish culture. There was an assumption that they weren’t represented.
And they were absent.
Yes, exactly. And indeed, they were censored. All references to single women having children with a couple of notable exceptions were basically censored. The books weren’t allowed to be circulated, films weren’t allowed to be shown or they were cut. And in that context, some very brave women writers, the 1940s seemed to be the the worst of it in terms of mortality of children in those homes but it was also a period when there was resistance to it. You did have pushback from women, social workers, for example, and inspectors in relation to the homes. But you also had a movement, you had Maura Laverty, you had Una Troy, you had Mary Beckett writing about the lives of single mothers and really trying to change attitudes.
Or at least to document what was really happening within society rather than to ignore it.
Interestingly, Mary Lavin is the documenter and maybe to some extent, Mary Beckett. So in the short story, what Laverty and Troy tried to do, and they remind me in some way of contemporary artists like Marian Keyes was to use the popular novel to change attitudes. And the tragedy was, of course, that they weren’t these novels were then not available to other Irish women. They were successful outside of Ireland. And and Troy’s work, particularly We Are Seven, was translated into German, there was a film adaptation which the Irish government tried to suppress. They they really tried to stop film festivals showing it, for example.
And say, if I wanted to buy that today, Una Troy’s, We Are Seven. Is that published?
Still not in print. Though I have a scheme in hand to try to introduce them and to work with publishers to to actually bring them back in and, and, and to use inevitably multimedia to make them accessible.
To liberate them again for modern minds and modern audiences. We could talk all day and there’s so many topics that we could bring in. It’s fascinating. I’m excited to see where your current project will go, and I’m excited to see what you will do next.
But it’s been a pleasure to talk to you today and to catch up after all this time. So good luck to you and thanks for sharing some of your story, those titbits of your story and your work with us here on The Family of Things.
Thank you, Helen.
And that’s all from this episode of The Family of Things, and if you’d like to find out more about the series, do go to the website, TheFamilyofThings.com. And please, if you enjoy what you’ve been hearing, do support our patreon there for as little as a euro a month. We have another podcast out that you might like, The Panti Personals hosted by the Queen of Ireland herself, Panti Bliss. So do have a listen to that in your favourite podcast place.
We have a new episode out at the moment with the amazing filmmaker and musician Myles O’Reilly. Thanks for listening.
You can find out more about her work here people.ucd.ie/gerardine.meaney You can visit and explore Joyce’s Dublin, the pioneering digital humanities project that Gerardine and Helen collaborated on in 2009 on www.joycesdublin.ie
The Family of Things is an independent podcast production by Athena Media. The presenter and producer is Helen Shaw. The digital editor is John Howard and the theme music is by Michael Gallen – ‘The Old Haunt’ – an instrumental version of a song released by Michael’s band Ana Gog.