Colette Colfer and I are planning a conference paper on the adaptation of spaces for religious worship in Dublin and Waterford. Colette did some really good work under the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund in the recent past. I’m interested in knowing a bit more about warehouse churches in general. As part of the preparation for this work, a friend told me about a chapter in a book called Surveying Ireland’s Past. This is a ten year old collection of essays in honour of Anngret Simms . Because it is ten years old, it is full of people who had established academic jobs in geography and elsewhere long before I got to it. Aside from being a fine collection of multidisciplinary essays published by Geography Publications, it contains one of the best examples of the kind of geography that may never be written again. One of these is the chapter that Colette and I are interested in building on. It is written by Arnold Horner and is about the changing uses for churches and other religious sites in Dublin since the 1930s. I have had the pleasure of being in Arnold’s company and being in his home on summer days. He shows immense interest in the work that others do and is gracious about the contributions that he has made to the study of Ireland over the last four decades and more. He retains a genuine curiosity about the world that is slowly being administered out of geographical thought and academic research more generally. I never worked or studied under Arnold but I recently shared a lunch queue with him. We discovered that we had a mutual interest in available parish boundary maps. We email each other very occasionally.
The chapter that Colette and I are hoping to advance in our own paper is perhaps the best example of public geography that anyone could hope to read. You may have no interest in church buildings in Dublin. You may not even have read any geography since third year. But Arnold brings you along in a story about the changing religious landscape of Dublin and its people in a way that only the finest writers can communicate. In a single map or table he makes a complex idea simple. In his hands, a changing religious landscape becomes something real. I would be delighted if I could help advance his story into the early years of the twenty first century. Good research doesn’t rock ur world 4eva, it encourages you to proceed with more.
Here’s the thing though: the chances are, I will not get the opportunity to. Arnold’s geography is of a kind that expresses keen interest, not KPIs. It is a chance to tell a story, not to foster innovation. The kind of geographic thought that he encourages does not slavishly attend to fund-inducing rankings or linked in any way with international best practice. It is a kind of research and writing that is full sure that others will take an interest in what he has to say because it constitutes the fabric of the world around us. It is politically engaged but not freighted with political-economic theory. This chapter on the changing fortunes of places of worship mentions places that many will know or are now only imprinted on the streetscape as memory. It shows a concern for place that may never find a home again. The Irish university that Arnold worked within is changed utterly. Now, universities see more purpose in rebranding bins than encouraging students to be curious. It actually insults his intelligence while at the same time worries about how much paper is being used in the photocopier. It seeks validation from the Anglo view of the world while at the same time talking up its Irishness as an essentialised virtue. Arnold’s geographic imagination (and those of Simms, Nolan and Aalen) will outlast the passing fad of registrars with red pens.