One of the activities that we did in the storytelling workshop was based around the standard trope of many fairytales and myths: THE QUEST.
I was (obviously) the hero of the story. During my quest, I had to get through a series of ‘trials’ - gate keepers, monsters, and ogres (played magnificently by my fellow workshoppers) blocked my path to the Goddess and therefore to my transformation from everyday PhD student to…well I’m not sure, but I’m going to assume Goddess PhD student. The form of the trials: an interrogation into why I thought I had the right qualities and knowledge to continue on the path that I had chosen. The questions ranged from technical questions about my methodology to personal questions about my previous interactions with violence. Most of the questions revolved around why I thought that I should be the one researching this topic, and whether I had enough passion and resilience to continue on. It got me thinking…Why Me?
Firstly, it has to be said, I am no stranger to the ‘why’ question. Let me explain.
I am researching militant nationalism in the Irish diaspora during the nineteenth century - basically, why did some people in, for example, Chicago, decide that they wanted to use their money to fund armed rebellion and dynamite campaigns to try to intimidate the Westminster Government into giving Ireland political independence? And why did others, in my case in Melbourne in Australia, decide that the best option was to give money to political groups to find a peaceful way of achieving Irish independence?
If I was Irish, and possibly male, this subject probably wouldn’t raise many eyebrows. However I’m English – with few discernible blood ties to Ireland – and female. One of the first things people ask me is if my parents are Irish. Usually straight after this is ‘so what got you into Irish history?’ My motives are relatively dull - a rather vocal Irish community kept popping up whenever and wherever I studied history: British, American, Australian (okay, they didn’t get into the Japanese history that I studied but that’s not the point). I’d been interested in The Troubles when I studied politics at school, and this interest just continued to grow – and regress a century – with all the references to the Irish throughout my undergraduate studies. I’m not sure where the interest in violence came from, I don’t want to blame it entirely on ‘Criminal Minds’ and other such shows. Maybe it’s because, especially with political violence, for me since 9/11 it’s always been there. Lurking. For my parents it had been the IRA attacks. Before that the Cold War and the threat of nuclear warfare. Every generation in practically every country since the late nineteenth century has felt, even if it’s not an everyday worry, the backlash of political arguments played out in the streets - attacking civilians and public monuments. This age of the ‘terror alert’ is not new and it’s important to realise that.
I love listening to how people came to their research subjects - how did someone from Cork get into researching the music of East and West Germany? How did someone from North Carolina become so passionate about Medieval currency systems in Britain? Sometimes it’s just one overheard comment that spurred them on, sometimes it’s a personal experience that led them there, a story that they heard which made them want to dig deeper. We’ve joined this scheme to tell stories about our research, but I think it’s important to remember that the story that got you here can be truly enchanting too.