“What is local history anyway?”

Address to the County Kildare Federation of Local History Groups, 7th annual seminar, Kilcullen Heritage Centre, Co. Kildare, 6 May 2006.

Professor Colum Kenny, School of Communications, Dublin City University.

Thank you for your kind invitation to open your federation’s seventh annual seminar today. It is a long time since I last visited this small town of Kilcullen, and must say that Kilcullen Heritage Centre is a welcome addition to its facilities. The views of the old stone bridge and River Liffey, from the big window at the back of this centre, are particularly nice on a sunny Spring morning such as this.

But I must start with a confession: I am not sure what exactly “local history” means.

What does that word “local” signify? Is all history not “local” in some sense, unless one is writing about the history of the whole world. Is not Irish, or British or US history local in its own way? Indeed, even if attempting a history of the world, you may need to go further and consider environmental questions that involve the place of the earth itself in the broader context of the solar system.

So, for me, the “local” in “local history” refers to where one starts, to the relationship that an individual has to where that individual lives and to a locality’s positioning in respect to a greater reality.

The term is sometimes used to hook a fish, to get people interested in aspects of their surroundings and reality that they might otherwise find “boring” or too complicated. In that context, the word “local” may stir them to wake up and pay attention. As people are drawn into considering the history of places closest to them, they may then take a broader interest in history generally. I assume that is one of the reasons why at St Patrick’s College of the National University of Ireland, at Maynooth, Co. Kildare, and elsewhere within academia, there has been a growth in activity relating to the history of smaller localities.

But I fear that “local history’ has also come to have a certain limiting application as a term. There is sometimes a pecking order when it comes to history. If we are not alert to the possibility, some people may get away with using the word “local” to signify historical research that is somehow judged to be less important than that involved in writing national history. The term may even be used, more pejoratively, to reflect a judgement – either conscious or unconscious, that someone choosing to write about local history will be an amateur and will have lower intellectual or research standards than academics whose full-time job is in a history department of a university.

In reality, of course, there are various standards reflected in works of local history, as there are in national or international history. Depending on the time and resources available, on a writer’s level of experience and training, some local history will be far more complex than others. Just as some national history is far better researched and written than others. But, provided it is not riddled with errors or bias, all of it is valuable.

Understanding where we come from, socially and culturally and otherwise, is an important step in managing to respond to personal and political challenges in an appropriate or useful way. If we do not understand our history, we may not only be forced to relive it but may find ourselves in a very confusing world. How can we make sense of what is happening if we have no grasp of the processes and changes that shaped our cultural and social environment. As history slips down the agenda at Leaving Certificate level in secondary schools, with fewer senior students studying it than did so before, and as young people are bombarded with electronic stimuli that fill time otherwise available to read books, the role of local historians in engaging and informing people becomes even more important.

Indeed, talks such as those which we are about to hear today, might profitably be recorded and put on your website as podcasts. These could then be downloaded and enjoyed by people as they move about, which might be of benefit particularly to that significant proportion of the population of Co. Kildare that commutes to Dublin.

But local history is not all duty and sweat for the sake of a good cause. Historical research is also immensely enjoyable. Speaking personally, the history that I have written, national or local, has been a labour of love. I am not employed to teach history but communications, and have come to history as an activity that I enjoy.

The sheer pleasure of taking down and opening old books, or summoning up old manuscripts for inspection, has both sensual and an aesthetic aspects. It may never replace beer as an intoxicant, but that is only because most people have never experienced the particular high of historical research.

To drop into somewhere like Dublin City Archive for a period of research can be as if to experience a balm. Pouring over maps of the Wide Street Commissioners may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it keeps some people happy for a while.

Explaining the history of localities can make people’s lives more interesting and helps them to feel that they matter. This is especially important in a heavily-populated, globalised context. By referring local places and events to broader national and international trends or events, one can also point readers towards further avenues of interest. And, at a time when our environment is threatened, highlighting the value of conservation or encouraging people to appreciate what they have around them already, is another reason why local history matters and must be encouraged.

The importance of the local was brought home to me especially when employed as a journalist and presenter for RTE in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For a period, I was assigned to IRELAND’S EYE, a television programme that is now long defunct. In that capacity, I travelled the length and breadth of Ireland filming in every county on the island. That, and working also on general current affairs programmes, taught be how the biggest stories are best told and most real when related to specific places and people.

If a journalist wants to bring home the reality of unemployment, do not simply cite facts and figures (no matter how relevant and accurate they are) — but go as I did to Tuam, Co. Galway, when a factory closes and talk to out-of-work locals on the ground. If you want to capture the reality of abusive power in the church, do not just interview disaffected theologians but go (as I did) to Castletownbeare, Co. Cork, and talk to people who helped repair an old school only to have the local bishop (Diocese of Kerry) sell it over their heads. That is real. That is local history in action.

The there was the hour-long documentary that I made in West Cork about the Tailor and Ansty, an old couple who in 1942 were the subject of a harmless book by Eric Cross to which (God knows quite why) both Church and State took great exception. To tell their story was to tell the story of Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. One should never underestimate the power of the local. Organisations such as the Catholic Church, the G.A.A. and Fianna Fail have appreciated it only too well. The great anthropologist Margaret Mead is often quoted as having remarked once that we should, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, [she added] it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Which reminds me of a reflection by the poet Patrick Kavanagh, stuck in muddy and remote Co. Monaghan in 1938 and thinking of Homer’s Iliad. His “Epic” recalls his feelings as vain efforts were made at Munich to avoid world war, and it goes like this:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned,
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother.
Which Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such A local row.
Gods make their own importance.

EPIC by Patrick Kavanagh

Well, I am not sure that I always know what is really important. But I do know that I like to hear people talk about history, and I am looking forward to what you will have to say today.

I have my own historical connections with this county of Kildare. Naas is the town where my wife, Catherine Currran, was born and reared. Her father Jimmy is now gone but her mother Mary (from Abbeyleix) still lives there on the Dublin Road, now aged over 90. Such old people are a bridge to an Ireland that now seems very far removed from us today. But this provides another opportunity for local historians to explain why the past matters, and why breaks with the past are seldom clear-cut, no matter how much the “Celtic Tigers” of out modern and relatively prosperous state fancy that they might be. The late Jimmy Curran had a great interest in his local town and was particularly concerned about the manner in which Catholic authorities set out to restructure the church interior in Naas. He also had an eye for the historical, telling me once of a photograph that hung in a house he had visited and that showed cattle pulling a plough. This was an unusual photograph, in a country where horses had long been harnessed to ploughs and where the use of cattle might be taken to signify poverty. Because of my interest in history, I asked to see this photograph and perhaps make a copy of it. Every effort to do so was politely blocked by the people in whose house it hung, they making some excuse or other presumably because they feared that any publicity about the photograph might reflect on the social standing of their family. The photograph was never seen by me!

The paper today on “The Black [Spanish] Flu in Naas, 1918”, by Ms Ronnie Kinane of Naas, is particularly relevant at this point because of the imminent threat of Bird Flu reaching these shores from further east in Europe.

And in respect of another aspect of my personal role in the history of Kildare, I notice that Mr Brendan Cullen of Clane will be speaking about Clongowes Wood College today. My own father, Michael, was packed off there from Dublin at a very young age, as a boarder. Like James Joyce before him, he was about “half-past-six” at the time. Later, he would speak admiringly of the late Fr John Sullivan whom I think he must have met there and who features, I believe, in the forthcoming book on Co. Kildare being written by your chairman, Mr Ger McCarthy of Naas.

It was at Clongowes Wood chapel that, on the extraordinarily historical 1 May 1980, myself and my wife tied the knot in a simple ceremony in The People’s Church. The night before our wedding we arrived for a rehearsal and, entering through the main door of the college in search of a particular person, we heard a voice above us giving advice on how to succeed in life. As we moved forward and looked up the stairs, we saw Tony O’Reilly, undoubtedly one of Ireland’s leading business brains, holding forth to two schoolboys! Where are THEY are today? Could one have been Michael O’Leary of Ryanair? I am afraid not. He had left Clongowes a few years earlier.

After we had tied the knot, our wedding reception took place at Curryhills House Hotel, which had then just opened and has since shut, in the tiny village of Prosperous, Co. Kildare.

I cannot claim any particular connection with the location to be considered by our other speaker this morning. Ms Margaret Walsh has come from Athy to talk about “Successive Owners of Moore Abbey, Monasterevin”. However, one of those owners was Sir Adam Loftus, who as chancellor of Ireland was closely associated with King’s Inns, the history of which I have written. Another was Ireland’s greatest tenor of the twentieth century, Count John McCormack. Margaret has found various images to interest us, including a particularly fine old photograph of a carriage drawn up at the front door of Moore Abbey. The photograph is still kept there by the nuns who now own it.

All these papers today are the result of hard work, and it is heartening that there has been a good turn-out of delegates from around the county to hear them this morning. The widespread interest in local history, and the growing number of publications at local level, suggests that many people wish to know more about their place in the world.

Thank you again for the invitation to attend.


Colum Kenny was born and works in the city of Dublin but has lived for thirty years in Bray, Co. Wicklow. His publications include the following:

King’s Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland: the Irish ‘Inn of Court’ 1541-1800 (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1992. 352pp); Kilmainham: the history of a settlement older than Dublin (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1995. 128 pp); Standing on Bray Head: hoping it might be so (Poetry and historical notes, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Kestrel Books, 1995. 158pp); Molaise, Abbot of Leighlin and Hermit of Holy Island: the life and legacy of St Laisren in Ireland and Scotland (Killala, Co. Mayo, 1998, Reprinted 1999, 140pp).