On living your historical project

The last of the Triangle shirtwasit factory fire victims has been identified.  In the New York Times piece on the final victims, it was revealed that the man responsible for identifying them, Michael Hirsch “became obsessed with learning all he could about the victims after he discovered that one of those killed, Lizzie Adler, a 24-year-old greenhorn from Romania, had lived on his block in the East Village.”

I often think that I am luck to live in one of the places that I am writing about.  This is not a luxury allowed to all historians, and might not matter to many, but because much of the work I do is trying to figure out how people responded to a certain set of facts, framed in a certain way, at a particular time, I think a lot about how physical space impacts perceptions of what’s read, and what’s written.

National Library of Ireland, Interior.  It looks much the same today,
only with more women, more laptops and fewer moustaches.

In New York, hints of the city’s past come through in small but unmissable ways.  The New York Public Library feels timeless, insofar as when I am in the Rose reading room, I can look up and imagine the room filled with all of the people from previous times who studied there.  However, New York has expanded so much since my period (1840s and 1850s) that you have to look hard to see the roots of that city.  The smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island is a bit late, but evocative of a time of medical paranoia about foreign populations.  The Merchant’s House Museum and the Tenement Museum attempt to resurrect the past, but much of 19th century New York is buried under or obliterated by later incarnations of the city.

In Dublin, the project is somewhat easier.  The reading room at the National Library of Ireland has a similar feel, and not only because the library gift shop likes to remind people that in ye olde (and apparently entirely masculine) times, the library was there.

Postcard of UCC (then Queen’s College) c. 1900

At the moment, I’m resident in Cork, a city, unlike New York, that feels old.  The chapter I’m currently writing is about Corkonians’ reactions to the famine, and the intersection between their visercal experiences of starving (either personally or through the bodies of the dying in the streets and surrounding towns) and the experience of reading about that suffering in the press.  Cork City’s nineteenth-century architectural memories are literally laid bare – few  Celtic-tiger construction projects here to obscure the city’s most recent expansion, with the building of the University in the 1840s.    So, faced with a walk home past Victorian and Edwardian row houses, much time spent in a truly Victorian university, it becomes easier and easier to find myself trying to imagine what those 19th century Corkonians thought when they read about “another death by starvation in Skibereen” or of the hundreds of deaths at the Cork workhouse.  The sons of the better off of Cork and its surrounding environs were exactly the kind of people who would be expected to donate to local relief efforts.  Some of them, even, might have been the sons of the much-maligned landlords who expected rents when their tenants had no food to eat, let alone to sell.

Living here makes me want to try harder to imagine their experiences, to make like Simon Morley from Time and Again and by trying hard enough to imagine the past, actually having access to it, for even a brief moment.  But that is a romantic view of history.  I hope, in my time here, to travel to some of the oft-mentioned places in the Cork newspaper articles on the famine – I hope also to continue thinking about the ways in which the place of our writing impacts the way we (I, at least) think about my subject.

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