January 2017 Scholar Spotlight

Caoimhín De Barra, Drew University

Posted by Stephanie on January 9, 2017


What is your area of research?
My main area of research is the construction and development of national and supranational identities within Britain and Ireland. I am just putting the finishing touches to my first book manuscript, which examines Irish and Welsh nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The basic argument is that between about 1860 and 1925, Welsh and Irish nationalists took an interest in one another’s affairs in a way that they never had before or have since. Cultural nationalists in Ireland and political nationalists in Wales pointed across the Irish Sea to what they believed was a Celtic paradise that their own countrymen should try to emulate. The book also explores the development of a modern Celtic identity and how writers and commentators in both countries wrestled with the desire to accentuate their shared sense of kinship with one another while simultaneously insisting on the superiority of their own nations.

Tell us why you decided to pursue your chosen field of study.
As a graduate student, I was very interested in studying some aspect of the relationship between the Irish language and national identity. Separately, I had also dabbled with learning new languages as a hobby. I had decided that I wanted to try and learn Welsh, but I figured I couldn’t justify spending time learning that language when I was at the stage that I needed to knuckle down, craft a good dissertation proposal, and start researching and writing my dissertation. Then I realized that if I could come up with a research topic that involved both Ireland and Wales, learning Welsh would be an asset to, rather than a distraction from, my research project. So in short, it was my desire to learn some Welsh that led me in this direction, but I have been surprised that I have been able to engage in such fruitful and interesting research for an idea that began as something of a whim.

What have been the most rewarding experiences during your studies?
In general, I have found the whole thing rewarding, but there was a specific moment that stands out. I was in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, reading through the personal papers of Eoin MacNeill, when I came across a letter to MacNeill from a priest named Richard Henebry written in 1898. Speaking about what he perceived to be the lack of national spirit among the Irish, Henebry wrote: “The distinction like ‘Welsh Wales and English Wales’ has never been heard amongst us. I think it has done a vast deal of good for Welsh. Why not try to introduce it?”

Apart from the relevance of this letter to my own research on the connections between Ireland and Wales, I realized that this letter had given birth to the concept of “Irish Ireland.” As anyone who has examined Irish nationalist publications in the early twentieth century knows, the term “Irish Ireland” was ubiquitous. A search of digitized newspaper archives reveals that “Irish Ireland” had almost never been printed before 1898, but it exploded shortly thereafter. Clearly MacNeill, a key figure within the Gaelic League, had taken Henebry’s suggestion and promoted it within nationalist circles. Although it will only ever be a minor footnote in Irish history, it still felt very satisfying to be able to trace a strand of public discourse to a specific starting point.

What have been the most challenging experiences during your studies?
Reading old letters handwritten in Welsh! I spent a few months doing research at the National Library of Wales last year, and I really struggled at times trying to decipher Welsh letters that had been written in cursive—or perhaps more specifically, Welsh letters that had been badly written in cursive! Of course, this can also be a problem reading letters written in English, but if English is your first language and you spent most of your formative years writing in cursive, you can usually figure out what has been written. I have found that the same problem didn’t arise with trying to read old letters written in Irish from around the turn of the twentieth century because (1) most of the letters were written in print style (as opposed to cursive) in An Cló Gaelach, and (2) the vast majority of those writing in Irish at the time learned the language as adults, and therefore they seem to have taken their time to ensure what they wrote was accurate and would be easily legible for their correspondent. But Welsh was written using the cursive Latin alphabet and correspondence mostly took place between native speakers, so it can be almost impenetrable for someone like me. It also makes me wonder, with the move away from teaching cursive writing in the United States at least, whether some historians of the future will even be able to read source material like this even if it is in their native language.

What are you currently working on?
Actually I am working on a book about the Irish language in contemporary Ireland. By referencing the history of the Irish language over the last couple of centuries, as well as discussing the positions of other minority languages, I hope to challenge some of the commonly held assumptions about the linguistic environment in Ireland, such as the idea that compulsory Irish is responsible for negative attitudes towards the language or that the switch from Irish to English has been an unmitigated blessing for the people of Ireland. The book will offer insights into why most Irish people do not speak Irish fluently despite extensive schooling in the subject and how the language can be revived generally.

What are you currently reading?
In preparation for teaching a graduate seminar on nationalism in the spring, I am rereading Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism. Given the current political climate in the Western world, it is particularly interesting reading. Billig, however, would probably deny that we are seeing some kind of new rise in nationalist sentiment, arguing instead that society was in denial about how omnipresent nationalism was for decades.

How do you hope your work will impact Irish Studies?
Well, for a junior scholar like me, for now I just hope someone reads my work!

What are your future plans?
Like a lot of scholars, I have many ideas for what I would like to do and despair in knowing that I will never get around to even half of them. But one research project that interests me is trying to write a transnational history of the Gaels, one that seeks to move away from viewing them as Irish, Scottish, or Manx, and instead seeks to understand the historical commonalities shared between them.