Katy Lasdow introduces the “Where Historians Work: A View from Early America” summer series.
Just a quick follow-up to my post last week about James Valentine’s weekly radio slot in Sydney which he’s calling ‘The Historians’…. I was duly alerted by my non-historian friend that there was an historian on the radio this week again – it was Associate Prof Frank Bongiorno from ANU who had some insights into the Australian conscription debates during World War I. The segment is available for a few more days HERE, and starts at about 1:04:00.
As I’ve written here before, I’m an avid podcast-listener, and I’m a fan of Liz Covart’s format in Ben Franklin’s World. For those of you who haven’t listened, BFW is a weekly podcast in which the host (Liz) interviews an historian of early America about their research. The podcast has a loyal subscriber base, and is approaching its landmark 100th episode, which is a wonderful achievement as most podcasts don’t get into double figures.
I’m convinced that there is enough material in Australia to support a weekly conversation with an historian – I guess the question is whether there is the listener/subscriber base. This is something I’ve thought about pursuing after I get through my PhD. So I was delighted to hear this week that James Valentine, a radio host with ABC702 in Sydney kicked off just such a conversation with Associate Professor Clare Wright from LaTrobe University. What was even better for me was that I heard about this not from anyone in the history fraternity, but from friends in my exercise class…so there’s a small listener base excited about this already! Valentine’s stated aim is to have a weekly conversation with an historian on his afternoon radio show to discuss their research and current debates in history. He wants to talk with historians of Australia and beyond. His pitch for the segment was that we hear from journalists, writers and social commentators on history—but not a lot from historians.* He’s keen to find out if historians can talk!
You can listen to Valentine & Wright’s conversation HERE. It goes from 1:28:00 until about 1:50:00. (Unfortunately this recording will disappear after a few days, but if I find it elsewhere I’ll update the link.) Dr Wright talked generally about what she loves about researching history—about the detective work involved and the adrenaline of the chase that keeps her going back to the archives. She then talked about her own current research, which is an expansion of the work she did on the Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. She’s now looking at mining history in Australia from pre-invasion to the (doomed) 2012 Mining Resources Rent Tax.
*In Australia, this may have something to do with the virulent nature of popular debate around what came to be known as the Australian history wars, but that’s another story.
By the way, Dr Wright co-convened a great symposium on history and the media in 2013 – to revisit some of the discussions there, link here to the symposium blog.
While I’m not the most prolific blogger myself, I do love reading others’ blogs. I’m constantly discovering new blogs to follow, many (but not all) written by historians. If they are published in WordPress, they’re easy to keep track of in my Reader app, so I tend not to miss a post, but if they’re not WordPress…then I lose track of them. So as an aide memoire to myself, and as a way of promoting others’ blogs, I’m going to *try to* update this post regularly with blogs I’ve discovered.
The digital revolution and the practice of history: what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? This was the question posed by Dr Tim Sherratt in his keynote address at the History teachers Association/Macquarie Uni Headstart to Extension seminar this week.
Sherratt describes himself as a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections. As well as an academic post at the University of Canberra, he’s currently half of the Trove management team at the National Library of Australia. My favourite line from his keynote was that he wants “to mobilise our cultural collections into the spaces people already inhabit.” That is, I think, what public history is all about.
The study of the past has already been transformed by digital technology: Trove’s 190,000,000 newspaper articles is just one example of this. But Sherratt demonstrated that digital technology means more for the practice of history than ‘simply’ digitising documents. Through the course of his keynote, Sherratt demonstrated a number of digital tools which can help historians think about and analyse primary sources in different ways; and he showcased a number of projects which utilise digital technology to help us see people, places and events in the past in a new way.
But back to the question—what’s changed and what hasn’t changed? We must continue to be sceptical of our sources. Just as students of history are trained to think about the assumptions and forces which shaped individual primary sources, so we must also think about the assumptions and forces which shape digital collections. Funding priorities, significant anniversaries and curatorial agendas are just some of the forces which dictate which documents are digitised, and how the collection is presented. For example, Trove (which draws from other digitised collections around Australia) returns significantly more digitised newspaper articles for 1914. This is the result of the priorities of the state libraries around Australia, which have focused on providing sources in relation to World War I during the current 100 year anniversary.
Understanding the forces and assumptions that drive the creation of digital collections should in turn lead the historian to consider the age-old questions of what isn’t there, just as much as what is. Absence is just as important as presence when considering an archive. As Sherratt noted, it’s important to guard against the “sense of completeness” in the digital age. Just because something isn’t in google, does it mean it doesn’t exist?
Sherratt also drew attention to the presence of fake and unattributed historical pictures which seem ubiquitous online. But the well-known fake picture of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose was actually created in 1912. New technology may make it easier to share fakes, but as Sherratt pointed out, this technology also makes it easier to learn about—and from—those fakes. For example, @picpedant tweets attributions and calls out fakes, and digital tools such as Tin Eye enable anyone to analyse whether an image has been doctored. The fake historical pictures may drive pedants mad, but they do generate discussion.
The slides from the keynote are available online here and include links to many exciting digital history projects, and the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.
I’m really excited about the possibilities for accessing and analysing sources, and communicating historical findings, which digital technology is bringing to the practice of history. Much of the audience at the keynote yesterday was students in their final year at school. My hope is that Sherratt inspired some of them with the desire to see where technology can take their historical practice in the future—in Sherratt’s words, “the possibility of small revolutions.”
I’ve been thinking about writing about podcasts for a while and it seems I’m not the only one. Elizabeth Covart published a really interesting blogpost today about Trends in Digital Communications which is worth a read—she produces the successful Ben Franklin’s World podcast series in the US. I’m no tech writer, but it seems to me that the medium has come into its own this past year—possibly owing to the runaway success of Serial last year. The industry has now entered a consolidation phase as the commercial realities of the medium are thrashed out. As Covart argues, historians need to be aware of digital media trends in order to better communicate their work. I believe historians (individually or en masse) can utilise podcasting to get their work out into the public domain—to spark discussions, influence debate, entertain, and maybe even sell their books—with much lower barriers to entry than for other media formats.* We might even remind people why the humanities are so important to everyday life.
*My latest favourite podcast, which is not history-related, is Annabel Crabb & Leigh Sales’ Chat10Looks3. This is a weekly Australian podcast, where two journos discuss (often hilariously) what they’ve been reading, watching, writing, baking etc. They frequently remind listeners not to expect high production values in their podcast, so they serve as a good example of the low barriers to entry in terms of technology. Although having said that, both are well-known in Australian media, so I guess being a relatively-invisible historian might make launching your own podcast slightly harder. Hence networks as a way of getting content noticed.
There is a range of history-related podcast material out there, and I list below some of what I’ve discovered. Most of what I’ve found is American. Some of it is quite academic, advanced-meta-historiography-type stuff, some is really engaging, some is very light-hearted. There are also some lecture and conference recordings available, although I agree with Covart that this doesn’t always translate into great digital content. But as someone researching a topic on the other side of the world from most other researchers in my field, I would dearly love to see conference proceedings recorded for podcast on a regular basis (please!)
The Juntocast – a podcast on early American history
Ben Franklin’s World – what I love about this is listening to both academic and public historians talk about their work in archives, museums, research, writing etc.
Rum, Rebels & Ratbags – slightly irreverent Australian series presented by the author of Girt, the Unauthorised History of Australia Great for getting some facts about the early years of European Australia (but mostly stories about men…)
PastPresent – American, links history with current affairs
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – great content but slightly boring as it’s just someone reading out entries from the dictionary!
I’ll also link to an article from the Telegraph (one of my least favourite newspapers I must disclose), but they list some British history podcasts which may be of interest: The Telegraph’s best history podcasts list and this is a link to a list of 19 (American) history podcasts compiled by the online magazine Mental Floss
My other non-history favourite is Happier with Gretchen Rubin … an acquired taste perhaps, but it’s been great for helping me think about productivity, which has been important in my first year as a PhD student.
**Update 24 November 2015: I’ve had quite a few comments via WordPress and elsewhere, so here are a few more podcasts to add to my list. (Thanks to all the commenters.)
The British Museum/BBC podcast series: A History of the World in 100 Objects
Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast
Backdoor Broadcasting – this site contains recordings of presentations (often including Powerpoints) given at various UK universities in the Arts and Humanities. It’s not the easiest site to navigate but has some interesting content.
Finally, this is a blogpost on the Teaching United States History Blog, which contains an extensive list of podcasts, and some interesting comments on using podcasts as a teaching tool.
Institute of Historical Research Interviews The IHR produces occasional podcast interviews with historians, the list includes Peter Burke, Anthony McFarland & Lady Antonia Fraser.
**Update 2 May 2016: Some non-history podcasts I’ve enjoyed so far this year:
I religiously listen to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast and have recently discovered Dan Harris’ 10% Happier in which he interviews a great mix of people about their meditation practices. I loved his book, and find the interviews really engaging. I also really got into Serial Season 2 – a thought-provoking series, which really drove home the point that emerges again and again in historical research, that nothing is ever quite as it seems, and nor is anything ever black and white.
Liz Covart has also launched a great series with the Omohundro Institute as part of her Ben Franklin’s World podcast – it’s called Doing History and I think should be mandatory listening for all students of history. Three episodes have aired thus far, with experienced historians discussing questions such as how they come across their research topics, how they use sources, and the cross-over with archaeology.
I was honoured this week to receive the Irish Famine Memorial Prize at the annual gathering at Sydney’s beautiful Irish Famine Memorial at the Hyde Park Barracks. The prize is open to Macquarie University undergraduates for work on an Irish or Irish Australian topic, or on a global problem in the modern world. I received the prize for the biography of John Boyle O’Reilly I wrote last year, for the unit ‘Representing Lives: The Genre of Modern Biography’, taught by Dr Kate Fullagar.
A number of people at the Famine Memorial gathering approached me after the formalities to ask about O’Reilly’s life. In my (short!) acceptance speech, I said that it was an absolute pleasure researching O’Reilly’s life—he achieved so much, and the vibrancy of his personality and strength of his character shone through in all the sources I read. I’ve condensed my biography here, which I hope will give some idea of the adventures and achievements that comprised his tragically short life.
“He was a great storm out somewhere, a great sea pushing up against the shore”: Walt Whitman.
Born 28 June 1844 in Dowth, County Meath, Ireland ~ Died 10 August 1890, in Boston, USA.
After dark on the 18th of February 1869 John Boyle O’Reilly left his hut at the Vasse convict depot in Western Australia, and stole quietly into the bush. He had changed out of his convict-issue boots into freeman’s working boots and took a circuitous route through the bush, hoping to confuse the police trackers who were bound to follow him when his absence was discovered. It had been three months since he’d confided in a friend, Father McCabe, his desperate desire to escape. McCabe had discouraged O’Reilly from making his own attempt, but had promised to help. The priest soon enlisted the help of a local farmer, James Maguire, to help O’Reilly’s escape. In December, on learning that two American whalers would soon drop anchor in Geographe Bay, Maguire assured O’Reilly: “You’ll be a free man in February.”
O’Reilly had arrived in Western Australia a year earlier, aboard the Hougoumont, Britain’s last ship to transport convicts to the Australian colonies. He was one of 62 Irish political prisoners on board, most were convicted for their involvement in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Whilst only a young man, O’Reilly had been influential as the ‘Centre’ for the IRB in his cavalry regiment—he swore in eighty men from the regiment in a four-month period. John Devoy described him as “the most remarkable man among the Fenians in the British army…by long odds. After serving solitary confinement and hard labour in English gaols (one of which he almost escaped from), O’Reilly was elated at the prospect of transportation, “Australia! The ship! Another chance for the old dream (of Liberty).” He was also delighted to be reunited on board the Hougoumont with men he had not seen since his imprisonment; “we were with our friends—our brothers!”
As political prisoners, the Fenians were separated from the criminal convicts, and entertained themselves with nightly concerts of stories, songs and poetry. O’Reilly played a key role in these diversions, and also in the production of a handwritten newspaper The Wild Goose. Many of the poems later published in O’Reilly’s anthologies were first penned for The Wild Goose; in fact the paper was so popular that an extra copy of the final edition was carefully written out for the Hougoumont’s captain and mates and presented to them just before they reached Fremantle!
Once in Australia, the reality of O’Reilly’s situation hit home. The Fenians were split up, depriving him of the comradeship which had sustained him on the voyage. He was a broken man, and tried to take his own life in December 1868, as he waited for word from Father McCabe. Farmer Maguire’s daughter Annie recalled years later her father talking about “how poor Boyle cried and cried in desperation for help.”
Back to that warm night in February 1869. O’Reilly trudged three hours through the bush, then laid low, waiting. He soon heard the sound of approaching horses, followed by someone whistling the tune of an Irish song—Patrick’s Day. With Maguire and another man, O’Reilly rode for several hours, then walked several more until they reached the coast. It was well after midnight when they waded knee-deep through mud to reach a rowing boat manned by Maguire’s cousins. The men rowed until sunrise, making it across Geographe Bay towards their meeting point with the whaling ship, the Vigilant. They ran the rowboat high up on the beach, to await the rendezvous. No food or water had been provisioned. O’Reilly had not eaten or drunk anything for over twenty-four hours.
The attempt to rendezvous with the Vigilant was a disaster. The men rowed two hours to meet her out in the bay, but to their bitter disappointment she changed her course within two miles of them. They hailed her but to no avail; the whaler passed on. The group rowed back to shore, but O’Reilly’s attempted again later that night to meet the Vigilant on his own, again without success. What happened over the next few days is somewhat uncertain—in O’Reilly’s version, he was left to fend for himself in the sand dunes and bush for a number of days while Maguire came up with a new plan. Maguire’s daughter Annie Stokes remembered the story differently, however—she remembers O’Reilly hiding at the Maguires’ home for a fortnight after the failure to board the Vigilant.
In any case, McCabe managed to convince the Captain of another whaler, the Gazelle, to take O’Reilly on board. Captain Gifford welcomed O’Reilly warmly and accommodated him in his cabin. As the whaler departed, Maguire stood up and cried: “God bless you; don’t forget us, and don’t mention our names till you know it’s all over.” When O’Reilly finally arrived in Philadelphia on 23 November 1869, he immediately presented himself at the District Court to file for American citizenship. He was twenty-five years of age.
This is where O’Reilly’s Australian story ends, almost. He was a key figure in planning and funding the 1876 ‘Catalpa Rescue’ in which six Fenian convicts escaped from Fremantle Jail in Western Australia—rescued by the American whaler Catalpa. The Rescue was a highly organized expedition, in contrast to O’Reilly’s own escape. These two episodes, almost unique in Australia’s convict history, epitomize the determination and solidarity of the Fenians, who refused to give up on any of their number. The transportation of 62 of them to Western Australia in 1867 was part of a concerted effort on the part of Britain to drive into exile this threat to her hold over Ireland. O’Reilly’s escape and the Catalpa Rescue serve as a reminder that the Australian colonies played host to the ongoing political tensions in their homeland.
After becoming an American, O’Reilly set about making something of himself. He was feted by the Fenians in America and by politicians keen for the Irish American vote, but ultimately he opted to keep out of what he called “these Irish or American political “rings”. He secured a job on the Boston Pilot, America’s leading Irish Catholic newspaper. He covered the failed Fenian attempts to invade Canada, and the 1870 Orange Riots in New York, during which several men were killed and many more injured in clashes between Irish Catholics and Protestants. His fury in new York was evident:
“Is this not the cause for deep humiliation? Earnest men have labored for years to remove that bitter old taunt of our enemies—“You cannot unite.” … We prate and boast of our “national will”! What are we today in the eyes of Americans? Aliens from a petty island in the Atlantic… Why must we carry, wherever we go, those accursed and contemptible island feuds?
O’Reilly soon rose to be Editor of the Pilot, and formally left the Fenians around the same time. Although he disapproved of organised activism, he wrote to his friend John Devoy that he may have been “a sceptic in all your movements; but I’m as ready as any one of you to do anything for the old cause.”
Literary Life & Humanity’s Friend
As well as establishing himself on the speaking circuit and in the Pilot, O’Reilly worked hard in America to pursue his other great passion—writing. He was prolific—he published four anthologies of poetry, a serialized novel, a manual on the merits of his favorite physical pastimes (canoeing and boxing), and a host of journal articles, lectures and public speeches. He soon established a network of literary friends, many of whom went on to occupy senior positions in newspapers and the arts around America. O’Reilly’s ability to gather people around him, and to inspire loyalty and affection, was a quality which he had carried with him all his life.
O’Reilly became Boston’s unofficial poet laureate, busy dedicating monuments and memorials, and publicly reading his poetry. Daniel Tobin has described O’Reilly as the preeminent Irish American literary figure of his time—describing his poetry as “perhaps the last, misbegotten heir of an older Irish bardic tradition.” This tradition is anchored in a strong sense of social vocation and a public tone, and eschews the individual for the broader narrative. O’Reilly’s personal story is not explicitly documented in his poetry. Rather than dwell on his own rather exceptional story of exile, O’Reilly wrote poetry in a style with which his Irish American readers were familiar, and told stories to which they could all relate.
He also used his poetry to address many of the same issues that he raised in the Pilot. During the 1880s he gained a reputation as “humanity’s friend,” with a particular interest in the plight of the African American. He used his public profile to persistently criticise American racism towards African Americans. O’Reilly concluded his poem about the eighteenth century slave Crispus Attucks with the words, “God made mankind to be one in blood, as one in spirit and thought.” He worked closely with high profile advocates of abolition such as Wendell Phillips and Thomas Higginson. In this, he worked against a wider tradition within the Irish community in America, but followed in the footsteps of Daniel O’Connell, who had famously challenged Ireland to oppose slavery, and had campaigned for abolition in America.
At the public memorial service after his death, Edwin G. Walker, an African American man, said this of O’Reilly,
“I come here tonight because John Boyle O’Reilly was the friend of my race …With his pen, O’Reilly sent through the columns of a newspaper…words in our behalf that were Christian, and anathemas that were just. Not only that, but he went on to the platform, and in bold and defiant language he denounced the murderers of our people… in the midst of all the gloom we could hear Mr. O’Reilly declaring his determination to stand by the colored American in all contests where his rights were at stake.”
O’Reilly was forty-six years old and at the height of his career when he died suddenly in the early hours of 10 August 1890, after accidentally overdosing on his wife’s medication. He suffered from insomnia, and the assumption is that instead of taking his own mediation, he took his invalid wife’s medication instead. A funeral mass was held on August 12. The church, sidewalks and adjacent streets thronged with a multitude of mourners, and afterwards it took more than an hour for the mourners to file past his coffin.
It is easy to characterise O’Reilly as remarkable. He endured tremendous experiences, achieved great fame, and gathered around him many friends and admirers. He touched the lives of countless individuals with his personal charity and his public advocacy. His lawyer recounted how O’Reilly “could not hear a tale of woe or misfortune that he did not set himself about rectifying or relieving.” Yet he was no radical. The Pilot remained popular throughout his tenure; thus while the views he expressed on issues such as the Fenians, and civil rights may have been challenging for his readers, nonetheless he struck a chord. His public consumed his poems and his newspaper columns, they attended his speeches. In this way, he mingled fiction and poetry with commentary, newspaper reports with narrative, to envision the possibilities for the Irish in America, how they could at once hold onto their homeland, whilst engaging with America and all its possibilities. He embodied the ideal of what it was to be Irish American in the nineteenth century. This is his lasting legacy.
 Walt Whitman, in Gary Schmidgall, ed. Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s Conversations with Horace Traubel 1888-1892, The Iowa Whitman Series (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001).
 The first account of O’Reilly’s escape was written by Alexander Young in the Philadelphia Times, 25 June 1881. The article is extracted in full in James Jeffrey Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly, Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches, Edited by Mrs. John Boyle O’Reilly. (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1891).
 Devoy, Recollections of an Irish Rebel (a Photolithographic Facsimile of the First Edition, Unabridged)., pp.155-156.
 Conor Johnston, “Review of Fenian Life on the Convict Ship Hougoumont: Denis B. Cashman on Board the Hougoumont 1867-1868, by Cw Sullivan,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Irish Issue 8, no. 1 (2002)., p.271.
 Walter McGrath, “Convict Ship Newspaper, the Wild Goose, Re-Discovered,” Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 74(1969)., pp.23-24.
 Martin Carroll, “The Mark of Boyle O’reilly’s Escape,” The West Australian, 20 December 1952.
 Carroll, “The Mark of Boyle O’reilly’s Escape.”
 Letter O’Reilly to Devoy, 26 May 1871 in William O’Brien and Desmond Ryan, eds., Devoy’s Postbag 1871-1928, 2 vols., vol. 1, 1870-1880 (Dublin: CJ Fallon, 1948).
 The Pilot, 23 July 1870, in Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly.
 Letter O’Reilly to Devoy, Thursday, 1871.
 Daniel Tobin, Awake in America: On Irish American Poetry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).
 “Death of John Boyle O’Reilly”, in A Memorial of John Boyle O’reilly from the City of Boston.
 “Crispus Attucks”, printed in full in Roche, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly.
 Kenneally, From the Earth, a Cry., pp.165-166.
 A Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston.
 “Remarks of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler”, in A Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston.
A cornerstone of this week’s New South Wales History Week was Presenting the Past: A Symposium on History and the Media, held at the State Library of New South Wales. The symposium has its own blog which will soon feature detailed reviews of the sessions. Suffice to say I came away from the Symposium inspired about the potential for public history, education and story-telling!
What I’ve been thinking about most since the symposium is the power of audio. As Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer of ABC Radio National’s history program Hindsight said, radio is undergoing a renaissance in the age of the podcast. The possibilities for using radio and audio for history teaching, story-telling and for connecting with the public are enormous. History programming on radio is no longer the ephemeral thing of the past, once heard, often forgotten (unless of course you had your tape recorder at the ready to record a program…)
Dr Siobhan McHugh’s presentation during the Radio Panel in particular evoked the power of audio. She argued her case for the need to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with an audience using the medium she is so passionate about. We heard clips from radio documentaries she’d made about the Snowy Hydro scheme, with the rich variety of voices and accents of the Scheme’s workers; from Beagle Bay, which featured the voices of a child of the stolen generation, and one of the Irish nuns who cared for the children. Siobhan’s excerpt from Marrying Out reminded me of stories my Mum has told me of growing up Catholic in small-town NSW. But the most powerful piece for me was an excerpt from a program about Vietnam, in which an army nurse described cradling a soldier as he died. It took enormous self-control not to dissolve into tears in the midst of the symposium. I suspect I wasn’t alone in that.
This experience took me back to a lecture that the late great Dr Tom Stannage delivered in my first-year Australian history course at UWA in 1988. I will never forget the recording he played of Aboriginal women describing the day their children were taken from them, talking about how the children’s footprints remained on the sandy ground of their huts long after they were gone. It was the most powerful lecture I have ever attended—of course that has to do with the lecturer’s skill, and the emotive subject matter, but it was the voices of those mothers that remain with me to this day.
Attending the Symposium reminded me I hadn’t listed to Hindsight for a while, so I listened yesterday to The Catalpa Escape, which aired about a month ago. My connection with that story and the hold it has over me is probably the subject of another blogpost, but hearing the voices in that audio as they discussed a story I so love gave me goosebumps. Historians can reach different people in different ways, for me audio seems to evoke a deep-seated response… Surely the aim of any public history project.