“To the majority of Irish historians, the working class is seen as a people to be helped – always asking of government but receiving less. The reason for this is that Irish historians meet the working class, almost exclusively, through the records of relief agencies and those who ‘do good.’ In this way, the working class does not have a history, only problems which need to be addressed.”
At the recent Conference of Irish Geographers, the very first paper I attended was Mark Hennessy’s account of the taxation and geography of late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Ireland. Mark brought us through the records he had found and researched in London with a rigour that was startling. The taxation records show a reflection of the social and economic relations in Ireland at the time, most particularly the uneven distribution of the taxes being collected by the emergent colonial power. I asked a relatively tame question but should instead have asked him the question that was jumping up and down inside of me: what parallels could we draw between the current campaign against the household tax and your work on these thirteenth century records? My academic, and not political, brain took over. Mark’s paper was very good but reminded me that historical geography is not for me. What I have heard over the last few years tends to evacuate the basis upon which societies reproduce themselves through their labour.
As the dereliction project that Stephen and I have devised develops over the coming months, spawning podcasts and dereliction spin offs, it has become increasingly important to realise that the accretion of historical facts and analysis is not interesting in and of itself. As critical geographers, we have tried to steer clear of the ‘show-and-tell’ geographies (Stephen’s phrase) that characterises much academic research in Ireland. In the historical geography frame in particular, the temptation is to stick to interpretation, not change. The launch of the Down Survey maps in Trinity College showed this ably: the maps were presented to us as wonderful illustrations, not the work of colonial force. In my work on the statues of Mary dotted around Dublin city, I have never wanted to make them quaint objects of religious ‘heritage’. They are, and always have been, parts of the city landscape that direct us to the contradictions in the re-production of the city as a place. I have tried to portray the statues as the material outcome of a population struggling with the creation of suburbs and of slum clearance. How is memory, of both higher and ordinary time, materialised in new places? Decisions about fundraising, construction and maintenance were central to this form of place making. The Marian statues of Dublin have been erased from Dublin’s ‘official history’ because they don’t fit a particular way of creating Dublin. The City Council has a database of statues and monuments. Not a single Marian statue appears in it.
Academic sociology and geography (those I am most familiar with) for the most part conceive of other erasures. The core of my argument is that these academic disciplines reproduce working class cultures on their behalf. (Now erase that cloth cap from your mind’s eye.) The erasures of everyday experience are plain to see when you ask yourself when was the last time you heard Terry (or Rita) Fagan on Newstalk’s Talking History? In a conversation with Conor McCabe, he stated that many academics fail “to look at working class communities without the prism of heroin and joyriding.” I would go further and say that Communities (capital C) are also the objects of investigation and participatory research methods, not sites of cultural reproduction. Conor reiterates this point:
“If all that is analysed is Ballymun and Fatima Mansions, that affects the macro. It’s not an either/or situation but in the absence of one, the other becomes the defining narrative.”
What is this defining narrative? Part of it is that working class Dublin (and elsewhere) is not taken seriously as a place where politics comes from, with the odd (quaint) exception. The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope, goes this narrative, is a wonderful art project but it should probably steer clear of politics. Public housing regeneration is something that is granted from above. The now defunct Combat Poverty Agency was a government-funded body that carried out valuable research on working class communities and everyday life but it was hidebound by a civil service attitude of provision. A quick jaunt through their back catalogue shows the prevalence of the Communities approach: poverty, disadvantage, participation are conceived of as things that must be tackled by policy. They are not the outcomes of the ways in which neighbourhoods continually reproduce themselves in the manner that middle and upper classes find so ‘effortless’. It is effortless because the defining narrative facilitates it. Am I off track a bit here?