An obscure centenary

2013 is the centenary of some important events in Irish history. It is also the centenary of some very obscure ones. 1913 saw the publication of one of the earliest books of essays honouring an Irish academic. ‘A great Irish scholar’, the Irish Times called him in its review of the book, and ‘one of the most seminal minds now in mortal existence’.

Such books are common nowadays, and many professors and lecturers are presented with one when they retire, written by their colleagues, students and friends. A hundred years ago, it was a new practice and was imitating universities in Germany, hence its usual name, ‘festschrift’. In the later nineteenth century, German universities were the most advanced in the world, and a lot of the features of modern academic life were developed there, such as the PhD thesis and the research seminar. These then spread to the rest of Europe and the United States, often brought back by those who had gone to Germany to study.

The man who was given this book on his 60th birthday was William Ridgeway, born in Aghanvilla, King’s County (Offaly), which is between Tullamore and Portarlington, in 1858, and educated at Portarlington school, Trinity College Dublin and Cambridge.

Ridgeway Photo

After a decade as Professor of Greek in Queen’s College Cork, he was appointed professor of archaeology in Cambridge in 1893. The book was presented to him at a 60th birthday dinner in Cambridge in July 1913, and at the back of the book is printed the menu of the birthday dinner:

Ridgeway menu

as well as the seating plan of the four dinner tables. The poet A.E. Housman is in the middle of the page on the right, the anthropologist A.C. Haddon on the bottom right, and the physicist Joseph Larmor, previously at Queen’s College Galway, in the middle of the page on the left (click to enlarge):

Ridgeway seating plan

Two things are noticeable about the seating plan. The first is the presence of no fewer than five newspaper correspondents (in the top right corner), and the event was widely reported.

The second is that there were no women present. Even Mrs Ridgeway, Lucy Samuels from Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) wasn’t present at her husband’s birthday dinner, even though she ‘was hardly less interested than he was in his work’, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. This may have been university practice at the time, or it may have been William Ridgeway’s own choice. Women were only beginning to be admitted to Cambridge, and one of the principal opponents of this change was Ridgeway himself. ‘The higher education of men is far more important for the community than that of women’, he wrote to the Times in 1920, adding that women students ‘distract the men from their proper pursuits’, leading to ‘ill-advised or improvident marriages’!

– Niall ó Ciosáin

Ridgeway title page


Landed Estates & Irish Society Conference, NUI Galway, 13-14 June

The programme is now available for the ‘Landed Estates & Irish Society’ conference (part of the Landed Estates project) at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, 13-14 June 2013. Click the image below to enlarge, or download the pdf here.


Burying the past

9781780878355I’ve just started reading Daša Drndić’s novel, Trieste, and came across these words of wisdom that I thought I should share with you:

Wars are games on a grand scale. Self-indulgent young men move little lead soldiers around on many-coloured maps. They draw in the gains. Then they go to bed. The maps hover in the sky like paper aeroplanes, then settle over cities, fields, mountains and rivers. They cover people, figurines, which the great strategians then shift elsewhere, move here, there, along with their houses and their stupid dreams. The maps of the unbridled military leaders cover what was there, bury the past. When the game is done, the warriors rest. Then historians step up to fashion falsehoods out of the heartless games of those who are never satiated. A new past is written which the new military leaders then draw on to new maps so the game will never end.

Daša Drndić, Trieste (London: MacLehose Press, 2013), p. 10

– Kevin O’Sullivan


North American buckskin map. Object 88 of 100. British Museum.Back in 2010, while reading – and listening to – the brilliant A History of the World in 100 Objects (yes, that’s where the Irish Times got it from), one of my favourite items was a North American buckskin map from the late eighteenth century. Depicting the region between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the map was drawn by Piakshaw Indians to communicate in discussions over land with European settlers. I can vividly remember loading the podcast on to my iPhone last summer and standing gazing at the object in the British Museum while Neil MacGregor – BM director and narrator of the BBC Radio 4 series – explained the conceptual differences between American Indian visions of territory and those of the ever-encroaching Europeans. (A note in case anyone is worried about my sanity: Neil MacGregor’s voice was coming through some pretty standard in-ear headphones rather than a disembodied voice in my head.) So for me it’s not just the colours, the place names, or the buildings and roads that are there no more that draw me in. It’s the power relations that maps embody, who drew them, why, and what they tell us about how different peoples in different time periods visualise the world. I mean, what’s an ‘accurate’ map anyway?

But, of course, it is also about the colours, the place names, and the buildings and roads that we’ve forgotten. So you can imagine how long I’ve spent on the myriad new historical mapping sites that have popped up in Ireland in the last while. The OSI site is a particular favourite – just click ‘historic layers’ and have some fun toggling between the different time periods. But then I discovered the recently released Down Survey, digitised by TCD, and decided to go searching for all those little places that have meant something down through the ages (if you really must know, Louth has a nice little spot for itself on the map). And it turns out there are dozens of these kinds of sites out there – if you know where to look. Chatting about this topic earlier, a colleague here at NUIG pointed me in the direction of Maps and Pictures, which sells reproduction antique maps but also lets you have a sneaky look at some high quality images before you do.

Kevin O’Sullivan

Image by Mike Peel, 

History at Galway

Photo 22-05-2013 18 03 15 (1)

So what’s all this about then? Written and run by the history community at NUI Galway, we hope that this blog will give you a sense of the kinds of things we teach, research and write on, the topics we’re interested in, and also provide a window on what’s happening in the wider world of historical research. (With a regular dose of fun thrown in too, of course.)

Feel free to use the comments section at the bottom of each post to add your own questions, queries or additions to the discussion. If you want to find out more about the blog and its authors, or have any comments about its content, you can email us at, or read more on the NUIG history website. Oh, and you can also sign up for RSS feeds, email alerts, etc, in the usual fashion if you want to be really up-to-date.