Two recent events

A pair of events I attended recently have sparked some interest in me about what being a geographer in public means. They are not meant to sit at either end of a spectrum but each in turn told me things about what geography can be ‘for’, beyond educational settings. In late August, the Irish Modern Urban History Group met for the second time at DCU. In attendance were historians and geographers with some more of the former than the latter. The Group arose out of a symposium in Leicester in April 2016 to respond to the observation by Mary Daly in 1986 that “Irish historians have been rather slow to recognize that urban history constituted a valid area for scholarly research” focusing instead on predominantly rural themes. As someone not familiar with Irish history in an academic context (except through my writing practice partner and the odd pub conversation), the group provides an interesting insight into how the urban is researched in an Irish context. I heard some interesting new ideas. For example, that after the Restoration in England, a large number of towns in Ireland were given the right to appoint small representative bodies of landowners and others. It partly explains why we have many medium sized towns with a sense of their own centrality.

I am interested in urban history in as much as it might connect with some ideas I am trying to develop around the growth of Dublin and its suburbs. In particular, I want to begin to understand how suburbs got connected to the town of Dublin during the 19th century, what were the technologies used to ‘make’ municipalities etc. This comes from some reading I have been doing based on work by Roger Keil and Dallas Rogers among others. I think there is a job of work to be done on understanding the suburban geographies of Ireland in their own contexts, not as some add on to rural migration across the 20th century. Others are already doing this work. Over the course of the day, I noted a dynamic in the room between one view of history as ‘nice things to talk about’ and others prepared to draw from and add to larger narratives and theoretical perspectives. A simplistic boundary-marking I know but this was my first academic history gathering. What might a geographer contribute to the latter? is a question I was left with.

In early September, a group of people came together for a meetup in NCAD called Gender, Religion and Historical Injustice in Ireland. I cannot hope to capture all of the energy and ideas among this gathering of law scholars, geographers, social historians and others but it was an exhilarating morning’s work. We discussed redress schemes, Christian church politics, the state’s attitude to historical injustice, legal mechanisms for progress, archival access. I suppose broadly speaking I was there as an interloper, listening and occasionally contributing a post-it for the Wall of Responses. The gathering was a way to frame a set of actions (as in praxis) that may emerge in the coming time around these nodes of affective/political significance. Both events in their own ways provoked within me a different sense of what geography can be.

The first made it clear to me that geography is far more than just the accretion of nice things. Marx’s 11th thesis is rightly one of his most quoted. One of the participants gave a paper which made reference to the creation of Dublin’s south suburbs, in and around Ballsbridge. The story of the laying out of streets is very interesting involving land owners, city capitalists and the division of large homes to ensure domestic economy, and attendant class privilege, could be maintained. I was left wondering though what was meant by the “empty space” within which these streets were laid out. At the edge of Dublin (Ballsbridge, Ranelagh, Donnybrook) in the mid-19th century, there must have been people living in cottages, inhabiting small farms and other plots to eek out a life for their families. The paper declared these as terra nullius, a line beyond which the city simply didn’t exist, and therefore unimportant. My geography training tells me of the violence that such a perspective brings on.

The second event reminded me that all of our lives are accretions of experiences we have and events that are enacted on our bodies. In Ireland, the female body has been the subject on whom the state has acted most forcefully. The inscriptions were evident from the event and its participants’ contributions. From the laundries to direct provision and sideways to the struggle for health rights, the evidence of state and other actors’ power is right in front of us. What can geographers contribute to this process of research and praxis? Where are the geographies of the layers of symbolic, ontological and bodily violence enacted on people present around us today? How can geographers in Ireland speak to this second agenda of injustice and the glaring need for justice?

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