The director of Liverpool University’s Irish Studies tells us why his subject matters
By Professor Peter Shirlow Director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool
The Prince of Wales and the President of Ireland are to become joint Patrons of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.
As Director of the Institute I feel that this is important symbolically as it reflects the diversity of traditions founded on the full respect of all identities and parity of esteem.
The Patronage fulfils the representation of and aspirations for the two main traditions to work closely and through greater fraternity. Our Patrons have each promoted a vision of constructive relationships between these islands that preserves our unique character and which embodies the richness of our interdependence.
The joint patronage reminds us that there is strength in unity/ ní neart go cur le chéile.
The University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies’ foundations lie in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to encourage greater understanding and mutually enriching contact between the two islands.
The Institute of Irish Studies was consequently established in 1988, and it is unique in terms of scholarship and outreach.
Its internationally-recognised excellence in teaching, research and outreach beyond academia was recognised in 2007 by the Irish government through the creation of an endowed chair in Irish Studies.
We are delighted to have some 800 students who take our modules. Some are from Irish backgrounds and others are just curious. Irrespective of their background they learn about Ireland as a place of change, contradiction and hope.
Whether they’re students of geography, literature or politics they come to appreciate that Ireland is important to the future of Britain and beyond. All the more so after Brexit and the DUP propping up the British government.
The majority of our students are young and do not join us with some wearied and worn out idea about identity. Whether it is the peace process or the effect of global forces they are open to challenging their identities.
For my generation the teaching of identity was akin to learning how to be a custodian of a received, and therefore someone else’s, past. That rendered us as ill-equipped to offer ideas on how conflict and animosity could be transformed.
In previous times there was little vocabulary to react to Heaney’s request that hope and history would rhyme. In teaching Irish Studies we are guided by James Joyce’s line ‘I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day’.
Of course, our past was error prone and riddled with multiple forms of marginalisation and exclusion. That should act as a reminder of how easy it is to become complacent and lapse into ideas about each other – green v orange, conservative v liberal and old v young – that undermine our capacity to co-join.
Difference is too easily framed by these binaries and the walls that surround them. It is incumbent upon us all to find ways to engage that allow these binaries to exist but through a desire to be slow to chide and swift to bless.
The Patronage is one of many small steps that will help us build proper and civic-minded ideas of who we are.
In the complexity and difficulties we at times face on a divided island and in the turmoil of Brexit we should remind ourselves that Brendan Behan praised those who in understanding limitations.