Arts Week 2019: Irish Times: Myles na gCopaleen’s ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’

Charlotte Deadman, a postgraduate research student at Swansea University shares insights from the Arts Week workshop led by Birkbeck’s Tobias Harris and Joseph Brooker who delved into the famous column by Myles na gCopaleen.

It was a capacity audience for the Irish Times: Myles na gCopaleen’s Cruiskeen Lawn workshop presented by Birkbeck’s Tobias Harris and Joseph Brooker as part of this year’s Arts Week.

The workshop’s theme was a discussion of the four million words – equivalent, we were told, to 16 Ulysses. The famous column was penned by the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan using one of his many nom de plumes (here Myles na Gopaleen, an amusing intertextual reference worth Googling). The column appeared in the Irish Times from 1940 until the writer’s death on April Fool’s Day, 1966 under the heading Cruiskeen Lawn (another amusing intertextual reference…).

Operating as a kind of ventriloquism, the column’s purpose was to call out literary poseurs and their ilk – ‘corduroys’ as Myles nicknamed them and anybody else who got his gander up – by a mix of satire, cliche and faked texts and general ‘outpourings of derision’ upon his chosen victim/s. It was explained that the column started as a result of O’Nolan deluging the newspaper with letters attacking other letters within the paper – letters that very often had been manufactured by O’Nolan or Myles and/or his chums from his old days at University College Dublin. While this special breed of entertainment was eagerly savoured by the paper’s readership, it became a matter of increasing concern to its then editor, Bertie Smyllie, who by degrees became uncomfortable with content and tone of the letters in light of the censorship laws then energetically operating within the Irish Free State. As a result, Smyllie decided that the best course of action was to harness and tame the animal; he did this by inviting O’Nolan to become a regular contributor: the Cruiskeen Lawn column was the result.

Appearing initially in Irish (O’Nolan was a gifted linguist able to write fluently in several languages – Irish, English Latin and German); an early major target for the column was the Irish language revival movement – Douglas Hyde being a favourite target. By 1942 the column appeared half in Irish and half in English, reflecting O’Nolan’s increasing gloom regarding the future of the Irish language. The column was eventually published entirely in English, we were told much to Bertie Smyllie’s disappointment as he was keen to keep the Irish Free State on side.  The Irish Free State was a predominantly Catholic body with a passion for promoting the Irish language at an immense financial cost, regarding it as representing the core of a true Irish identity.

The workshop romped through a dizzying selection of readings to be found in a compendium – The Best of Myles – which were complimented by readings performed by the wonderful Hugh Wilde with brilliantly entertaining gusto. As would seem inevitable, Brian O’Nolan as Myles na gCopaleen ultimately went too far: working as a civil servant in his day job, O’Nolan had for years relentlessly mocked his bosses, who knew full well the true identity of the troublesome columnist – and fired him. This was a fabulous evening. My thanks to Arts Week.



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2019 Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture

James Handy, a Master’s student of European History, discusses the recent Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture given by Professor Chris Wickham on the topic of feudalism.  Professor Chris Wickham opened his Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that Hobsbawm himself ‘was not terribly interested’ in medieval history. Among his extensive works on the rise of modern capitalism, however, Hobsbawm wrote an introduction to Karl Marx’s Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. This year’s lecture used Hobsbawm’s introduction as a starting point in what was a highly enjoyable lecture on the economic logic of feudalism.

According to Wickham, the study of feudal society has too often been situated within a ‘meta-narrative of failure’, within which teleological terms such as ‘pre-capitalist’ are suggestive of a weakening of feudal processes. By prioritising a focus on the unique customary facets of medieval societies and how these in turn influenced their rise and decline, historians have often obscured an underlying economic logic to feudalism. Like Hobsbawm then, Wickham is wary of economic historians’ tendency to produce demarcation disputes by attempting to fit dynamic concepts into static ones. In this way, feudalism should be seen as a flexible world system rather than a fixed set of regional social relations.

Understood as a world system, feudalism enables us to begin to comprehend the medieval world as an innovative set of economic relations on its own terms, rather than as a developmental stepping stone towards modernity. ‘Different regions get brownie points’, asserts Wickham, for being most like modern society with individual regions ‘passing the baton’ to whoever looks most like us. Historical transformations – ranging from the centralising bureaucratisation of China’s Ming dynasty to the urbanisation of tenth century northern Italy – are best understood as products of feudal economics.

Generalising outwards, Wickham asserted that at the centre of this dynamic system was the peasant family – the vast majority of people between the Neolithic and twentieth century. For Wickham, the economic logic of feudalism lies in the fact that the peasantry were responsible for the surplus needed for economic growth. This necessitated an immensely costly ‘stabilising’ programme by the Church and nobility to justify the extraction of surplus from the peasantry. Elites responded by nurturing art, religion, ritual and political culture in ways that reinforced exploitative productive processes. When this failed, elites maintained a dispersed monopoly of violence. If the economic logic of feudalism was inherently on the side of lords, asks Wickham, why expend a tremendous amount of resources keeping market forces at bay?

A key theme of the lecture was that feudalism consisted of far more exchange complexity than previously thought. A key reason for this dynamism was that medieval economies were not solely propelled by lords’ economic demand. Wickham drew on archaeological surveys from across Europe and the Mediterranean that have shown a wide availability of coloured and patterned ceramics as evidence of peasants’ disposable incomes. From as early as the tenth century in Tuscany, for example, both lords and peasants could purchase professionally made ceramics imported from urban centres. Furthermore, many peasants worked with considerable autonomy such as the flax producers and merchants of Busir in Egypt, whose textiles were shipped as far as the Low Countries as part of a global network of peasant trade. We can therefore see that commerce could hold an important role among rent-paying peasantry.

Wickham concluded his lecture by rebutting the idea that there was a global systematic trend towards a weakening of the feudal process. High levels of commerce do not undermine feudalism if we concede that feudal economies logically tended towards increased peasant surpluses which lords struggled to confiscate.

The lecture challenged historical assumptions and set out new perspectives for thinking about the past, exactly as a Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture should do.

I would also like to thank the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund for supporting my Master’s in European History. It was during a previous Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture that I was made aware of the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund, whose financial support I have found invaluable.


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Arts Week 2019: Telling Stories about Syphilis

Christine Slobogin, PhD candidate in the History of Art discusses an Arts Week event about the history of Syphilis.

Image: Syphilis, Richard Tennant Cooper, 1912

Dr Anne Hanley began her talk this Monday with: ‘Welcome everyone, to this afternoon of syphilis,’ going on to give a trigger warning that if any audience member did not want to see ‘ulcerated genitalia,’ then perhaps this paper may not be for them. This arresting introduction set the tone for the entire presentation, rife with images of the ulcers that Hanley had promised but also full of thoughtful discussion on narratives of disease, widespread cultural fear, bleak Victorian literature, and propagandistic film.

The main purpose of Hanley’s paper was to trace the shift in the way that syphilis was depicted in Britain’s public imagination between the Victorian and interwar periods. Because syphilis was such a stigmatised venereal disease (VD), men and women who were infected, as well as their relatives were more likely to suppress their stories about their experiences rather than write them down or describe them in another way. Therefore, historians are often thwarted as they search for patient’s perspectives on what it was really like to experience the pustules, the deteriorating nasal cartilage, and even the sink into insanity associated with neurosyphilis.

A large factor in the stigmatising nature of the disease was that it led either to the grave or to the asylum. And this was the narrative that was espoused by Victorian authors when writing about syphilis. Hanley described how novelists used the illness as a plot point to show the medical and moral consequences of transgressing sexual mores and expectations of the time. These stories told about syphilis often followed a similar trajectory, in which a woman and her children are ruined by the moral wrongdoings of the husband. The woman, expected to be innocent and therefore ignorant of sexual matters, can become an easy victim of a morally-suspect spouse and a rampant venereal disease.

This lack of knowledge was compounded at the doctor’s office once the woman sought treatment for her worrying and mysterious illness. Hanley described various medical men who used dangerous paternalism to justify keeping syphilitic women in the dark about their health. After all, the truth could result in a broken home and the damaged reputation of her husband. Often the treatment of these ill women would carry on under the pretence of a different disease, without the patient knowing the full extent of her condition. But sometimes the husbands prevented treatment from happening or from finishing for fear of the monstrous syphilitic truth coming out.

Women could stay ignorant of the risks and symptoms of venereal diseases in the Victorian era because public health information was scarce. The only stories that were told about syphilis were those in the plots of the novels previously described. But this double standard of men having all of the knowledge and therefore power when it came to syphilitic infection began to shift in Britain in the interwar years. The British Social Hygiene Council was established and with it came advertisements for VD clinics through posters and word of mouth but, most importantly, films.

These cinematic visualisations of syphilis contained narratives distinct from the bleak and fatalistic ones of the Victorian-era novels. These films were often light and entertaining moral tales crafted so that viewers could identify with the characters. In one, Any Evening After Work (1930), a man contracts a venereal disease and considers forgoing treatment until his daughter is afflicted with the illness. While the film does use scare tactics to get people to have themselves checked at VD clinics, the overall narrative is that the little girl will get better, and everything will turn out alright—as long as the proper precautions are taken and help is sought.

This shift from pessimistic written narratives to more uplifting and informational films caused an increase of British people going to VD clinics (with both diagnosable diseases and with false alarms). Both ways of telling stories about syphilis fostered an atmosphere of syphilophobia, but the films fulfilled their propagandistic purpose of improving Britain’s sexual health. Hanley argued that to tell stories about syphilis, we need both the fictional and the medical to understand the full cultural narrative of the disease.

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Welcoming the research scientists of tomorrow

Trishant, Jenny and Alex, all PhD candidates in the Department of Biological Sciences, were part of a team who invited local secondary school students to Birkbeck to take part in scientific experiments and to show them the College’s suite of electron microscopes. They recount the experience here. 

On the 29 March, our normally peaceful research institute – the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) at Birkbeck – became a bustling classroom. We – a team of research scientists from the ISMB Electron Microscopy laboratory – were hosting a group of thirty 14-15-year-olds from Regent High School in Camden to plunge them into the unfamiliar world of biomolecular research. The visitors, who are on their way to taking GCSEs, were taken on a whistle-stop tour of our high-tech research facilities, and even given the chance for some hands-on experiences! This was in no small part to show off our suite of electron microscopes, with our visitors having the rare opportunity to see our brand-new world leading electron microscope, the Titan Krios. We hoped our efforts would enable our visitors to get engaged with the exciting world of research, help them understand more about what goes on at universities, and, most importantly, stimulate their scientific curiosity.

In groups of six, the students were given a taste of all stages of the process of structural biology studies – from preparing biological samples to the final data analysis. Work that would usually take months was showcased within one afternoon to convey the importance and excitement behind the scientific method at each step. After a discussion of cells, molecules, and atoms, students were quick to appreciate the applications of light and electron microscopy. The importance of understanding the underlying principles of living things and the joy of discovery were quickly grasped by the students, who were engaged and inquisitive. They were not shy to ask questions not only about the science, but about the humans behind it – “What does a PhD student do?”, “Why did you chose to become a scientist?”, “What is a typical day in your job like?”. Some openly expressed their long-standing fascination with biology, chemistry, and physics. Others were just beginning their exploration of different disciplines and discussed the impact that scientific developments have had on their lives. Throughout the day, we and our visitors had valuable conversations centered around scientific concepts and beyond.

After much fun and awe for our visitors, our day wrapped up and we were fortunate enough to receive feedback in the form of a board of sticky notes. It was reassuring to read that the students each enjoyed their visit – something that was clear throughout the day. For many of them, this event was the first opportunity on a light microscope, looking at specimens ranging from developing chick embryos to the striped DNA from a fruit fly, or getting close to a behemoth multi-million-pound electron microscope. Both students and teachers spoke with us about the benefits of getting hands-on with equipment and elements of the scientific process, and even asked about opportunities available in higher education. From our point of view, this event was a success in many ways, allowing us to learn from each other and our visitors. We opened a small part of our world of research, and in doing so, we hope we inspired the next generation of scientists.

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