Irish history has returned to the curriculum of Australia’s leading university, the University of Melbourne, after an absence of a number of years.
The teaching of Irish history has undergone peaks and throughs at the University of Melbourne in recent years. Unfortunate considering it was an Irish man, Redmond Barry, who established the University in 1854.
Irish history at the University was probably in its peak when Elizabeth Malcolm was appointed as the inaugural Gerry Higgins Professor of Irish studies back in 2000. Professor Malcolm had studied under the godfather of Irish-Australian history Professor Patrick Farrell and hopes were high that Melbourne ‘could join Liverpool and Boston as a major international centre of Irish studies.’
As the weather vanes of academia and fortune turned that hope never truly materialised, despite the constant support of the Higgins family, and it is fair to say that UNSW’s Irish studies centre has taken the crown as the centre of Irish studies and debate in Australia.
‘Modern and Contemporary Ireland since 1790’ is being taught by Professor Gillian Russell at the University of Melbourne. Born in Lisburn in Northern Ireland, studied at Queen’s University Belfast Professor Russell has been living in Australia since 1989, and is the next Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies.
The Irish history course is divided into two parts, the first part dealing with key events such as the 1798 Rebellion, the Famine, the Revolution Period (1913-1923) and the Troubles, while the second part takes a more thematic approach, looking at material culture, landscape and language, and memory and commemoration. It concludes with a focus on the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath and the idea of being ‘post-conflict’ in relation to Northern Ireland. Though the course has primarily a focus on history, Professor Russell included some literary texts such as poems by Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, and films in order to encourage the students to think about varieties of ways of writing and representing Irish history.
The restoring of Irish history on the curriculum at the University of Melbourne gives hope that Irish history so intertwined with Australia’s can establish a new foothold of recognition and debate in Melbourne.