The Arts Interview-Professor Bernadette Whelan

John Rainsford


John Rainsford

The Arts Interview-Professor Bernadette Whelan
Born in Limerick city, I lived variously in Cork, Dublin and the USA, before returning to live full- time here, in 1984.

Born in Limerick city, I lived variously in Cork, Dublin and the USA, before returning to live full- time here, in 1984.

I attended Scoil Mhathair De, Laurel Hill for Secondary School and, then, went on to University College Cork (UCC) for third-level. History was always a hot topic in my household. Both my parents were members of Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society and the Old Limerick Journal was bought religiously every Christmas. All of this influenced my interest in history, and of course, my current role as head of the history department, at the University of Limerick.

History as a subject provides the student with many transferable skills.

Indeed, since 2005, our history graduates have continued to make rewarding careers, for themselves, in journalism and broadcasting, publishing, diplomacy, the civil service, local government, independent research, policy analysis and teaching. Regardless of the career path chosen, the student who has been introduced to history, with all its preoccupations, acquires an enhanced capacity for self-knowledge and a deeper understanding of human culture.

Today, my main area of interest is diplomatic history, particularly, American-Irish diplomatic relations.

My particular focus is on Ireland’s special relationship with America. However, I am, also, course director for the MA in Local History (part-time) programme. My research has been published in both national and international publications. The Department of History, at UL, is a vibrant and lively place to work. Indeed, our staff comprises some cutting edge researchers with international reputations who are, also, excellent teachers and colleagues. Being head of the department, also, means that I can promote links between UL and the wider community. For example, currently we are hosting an exhibition of photographs of Scattery Island in Co Clare, and its past communities, at the Glucksman Library, in UL. We are, also, co-hosting a conference at the Hunt Museum under the title Limerick City: History and Heritage. This is part of our contribution to the Limerick City of Culture 2014 project.

Academics are in a privileged position.

While there are many challenges, I am very fortunate to have paid employment in an area that inspires me. I have published five books and numerous articles and chapters in various publications. Currently, I am working on US-Irish relations during the 1930s. Professor Joe Lee, formerly of UCC, now based in Glucksman Ireland House, in New York University (NYU), was a great influence on me. His support was invaluable for the development of my career and is much cherished. Even today, his academic work continues to inspire me in many ways. Dr John Logan, with whom I worked for almost thirty years, is another inspiring figure who taught me so much about academic life. There are countless others who helped me along the way, in terms of teaching and researching.

It is currently very challenging for young academics to establish careers.

However, most persist because of the intellectual challenge involved, their love of teaching and the possibilities for engaging with the wider community and contributing to public life. In each of these areas, academics play a vital in society, because they force us to question our inherited knowledge and assumptions. As a result I am currently a member of many historical research groups. For example, I work with research partners in Northern Ireland, the UK, Finland, Norway and Iceland. At a local level, UL’s history department has established links to Limerick City Archives, the Limerick City Museum, Limerick City Library, and the Hunt Museum. All of these are vital to the conduct of our work and, crucially, they provide important support to our students.

At weekends, or at night, I spend most of my time researching or writing books, articles, chapters or conference papers.

Much of my remaining time is spent correcting our students’ work which ranges from undergraduate essays or projects, to postgraduate dissertations or Ph.D chapters. Each student is given detailed feedback which allows them to learn and progress.

Beginning in the 1980s I started visiting the USA regularly.

In fact, I continue to visit there today and to conduct research at presidential libraries located across the USA. I, also, frequent the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress, both located in Washington DC, the New York Public Library and American Irish Historical Society Library, also, in New York. These libraries and archives are well funded with wonderful collections which are central to my work, so I make it my business to go there regularly.

Since independence Irish society, polity and economy have seen profound changes.

In that period the country has moved from a developing, emerging state to a developed, modern economy. Much has changed, in terms of the quality of our lives and standards of living, but there are continuities also. One permanent theme, of course, is emigration, which remains a persistent challenge both for policy makers and for society at large!

Professor Bernadette Whelan will introduce the UL and Mary Immaculate College, History Conference in the Hunt Museum on March 29, and a public lecture in UL by Catriona Crowe, Senior Archivist, National Archives of Ireland, on April 3rd. A history lecture series, also takes place at UL, as part of the Lifelong Learning Festival, from April 7-13 inclusive. For more information please see the website: