RHS Visit to Belfast

As part of our 150th anniversary activities, the RHS is visiting history departments and hosting events in all four nations of the United Kingdom. In September, RHS officers visited Belfast to meet with history staff and students at Queen’s University, and for our symposium on ‘Teaching & Researching Controversial History’.

We held meetings with history staff from the new School of History, Anthropology, and Philosophy, and Politics to discuss their views on issues and challenges facing history departments in Northern Ireland and across the UK, and to learn about the work of Queen’s historians in research, teaching, and impact, including their new Centre for Public History. We also met with post-graduate and early career historians to discuss their views and to advise them on the Society’s resources for those beginning a career in history. It was illuminating to meet the wide range of historians at Queen’s and to hear their views on issues facing UK higher education, and to learn about their diverse work.

The symposium provided a full day of excellent presentations on the challenges and rewards of both researching and teaching controversial histories. Dr John Curran reflected on his experiences teaching ‘the historical Jesus’ at Queen’s, while Prof Colin Kidd (St Andrew’s) discussed the challenges of teaching unionism and nationalism in Scotland. Prof Fearghal McGarry and Dr Margaret O’Callaghan outlined their work during Ireland’s 2016 commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, while Prof Dominic Bryan (co-chair of Northern Ireland’s Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture, & Tradition) offered an anthropological perspective on historical commemoration. RHS Literary Director, Prof Richard Toye (Exeter), discussed his experience designing and leading the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Empire: The Controversies of British Imperialism’, while symposium organiser Dr Paul Corthorn discussed his work researching and teaching Enoch Powell.

Queen’s historians spoke about their extensive work in public history: Prof Sean O’Connell outlined his interactive course on Belfast oral history, Kieran Connell explained his role in the Varna Road exhibition at Ikon Birmingham, and Dr Olwen Purdue discussed QUB’s MA in Public History. Chairs including Prof Richard English (QUB Pro-Vice-Chancellor) and former RHS Vice-President Seán Connolly facilitated interesting comments and debate throughout the day.  In a keynote lecture, Prof Hugo García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) explored the challenges of teaching the history of the Spanish Civil War in contemporary Spain.

We had a fascinating two days in Belfast, and the meetings and events were a fitting start to our wide-ranging programme of 150th anniversary events. We would like to thank the historians at Queen’s, and especially Dr Paul Corthorn, for providing such a warm welcome.

In our 150th anniversary year we will also be making visits to the University of South Wales, the University of Strathclyde, and the University of Oxford.

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From left: Prof Richard Toye (RHS Literary Director), Prof Margot Finn (RHS President), Dr Paul Corthorn (QUB), Prof Jane Winters (RHS Council), Prof Hugo García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid).