The Arts Interview - Dr Ruan O’Donnell

John Rainsford


John Rainsford

Dr Ruan O'Donnell
Born in Dublin city, after periods living in the USA and Australia I was appointed to the History Department of the University of Limerick.

Born in Dublin city, after periods living in the USA and Australia I was appointed to the History Department of the University of Limerick.

Education has been valued in my family for a number of generations. It stems, I believe, from a skilled working class and lower middle class environment where engagement in society was valued and positively encouraged.

Originally, I attended Sandford NS in Ranelagh.

However, for my secondary education, I attended Ballinteer Community School and St. David’s, Greystones. At University College Dublin I studied Arts, majoring in English and History and then completed an MA by Research covering the 1798 Rebellion, in Wicklow. This secured for me a scholarship to the Australian National University, in Canberra. Here, I wrote a PhD on the transportation of Irish political prisoners in the early colonial period. I was also a Visiting Chair of Irish Studies at the Keough-Naughton Institute of Notre Dame, in Indiana and am currently a Senior Lecturer in History at UL.

Today, I am a member of a number of history-based groups, including the Universities Ireland Decade of Centenaries Committee (DCC) and the Irish Manuscripts Commission.

The DCC assists in the organization of events to mark the ongoing centenaries for the years 1913-1923 when Ireland moved from the Lockout to WWI, the 1916 Rising, War of Independence, Partition and the Civil War. Generally, my books have attempted to illuminate major areas once neglected and to situate substantial research in what I regard as its appropriate social, economic and political context. My view is that the trend towards over-simplification of historical narratives has hindered the full scope of potential retrospective analysis. My interest in history comes from my two grandfathers who were both keen amateur military historians who lived through the revolutionary period. Undergraduate work at UCD involved a significant original research component and I found that this was by far the most compelling aspect of college life. On delving into the archives, I came to understand that the history of modern Ireland is yet to be written. Indeed, many key aspects of our national heritage have been obscured, repressed or ignored. If I was to have another career it would be as a campaigner for conflict resolution.

My main area of research interest is the history of the Irish Republican Movement worldwide from the time of the United Irishmen to the ‘Long War’.

This spans late eighteenth century and contemporary history, encompassing the organizations and ideologies that contributed towards the foundation of the modern Irish state. At the moment I am completing the second volume of a two book set on the history of Irish political prisoners held in English jails between 1968 and 1998. This takes account of the role of the IRA in fomenting riots, breakouts, hunger strikes, rooftop protests, and legal campaigns in Europe, as well as notable miscarriage of justice cases. Another project of mine is the acclaimed ’16 Lives’ series for O’Brien Press. This is the most comprehensive publishing initiative for the Decade of Centenaries (1913-23). Myself and Lorcan Collins are its co-editors. The series consists of sixteen new biographies covering those Irish Volunteer and Irish Citizen Army leaders shot in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.

Since the 1990s I have personally engaged with Unionists, British officials and Irish government representatives at international conferences on the ‘Troubles’.

I have also attended events organized by the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation. Dialogue is essential for conflict resolution and the Irish model, albeit imperfect and ongoing, offers hope to others with seemingly intractable difficulties. Although a private citizen and academic, the scope of my research includes important aspects of Anglo-Irish conflict. Constructive engagement with progressive elements is clearly desirable.

An academic should be a person who strives to improve society by equipping the coming generation with the skills, knowledge base and will to do so.

However, it is very difficult to break into academia in the current economic climate. Even junior academic positions today are being competed for by people with completed PhDs and already have a book in hand.

Currently, history as a subject is under dire threat from ill-conceived ‘reform’.

This will render studying the topic non-compulsory at secondary level. Therefore, the likelihood is that knowledge of our origins and sense of national identity when facing an uncertain future will increasingly be in jeopardy. History is the subject that provides context and, therefore, meaning to everything else in modern life. Alongside some form of civic instruction, is the cornerstone of active citizenship.

The main threat to our sense of Irish identity arises from an excessive sanitization of our difficult evolution from being part of the British Empire to becoming an independent state.

In marked contrast to the US, we have no constitutional national holiday along the lines of Independence Day, only a quasi-religious and social event on March 17. If membership of the EU has brought some social, economic and cultural benefits to Ireland since 1973, it has also resulted in some serious demerits. Confusion surrounding the Lisbon Referendum and ongoing crises in the Eurozone are notable examples.