Cycling through a troubled past

bamarstgOne could argue that Berlin was at the centre of world history for the best part of a century. So many eras have left their mark in one way or another in the city that it makes it a uniquely interesting place to take and give historical tours. Remnants of previously dominant ideologies are present throughout the city, from remains of the Berlin wall to the giganticism of the Nazi’s Luftwaffe building to the egomaniacal pet projects of Kaiser Wilhelm II. As it is built on a marsh it means that the city is entirely flat which makes seeing it by bicycle easily accessible and fun.

As a graduate of history and German from NUI Galway I was able to get a job with Fat Tire Bike Tours, so called because the bikes we use are beach cruisers known for their wide handlebars, comfy seats, and large tires. It’s a job I’d recommend any history student or graduate to try out for a summer. If you’re only in Berlin for a week and are interested in history I’d recommend going on one (there are discounts for students!)

Most of the stops involve explaining history with the odd joke thrown in for the sake of levity -German history of course tends not to be very pleasant so this is good way of keeping everyone comfortable. There are some stops though where this wouldn’t really be appropriate. I wouldn’t make jokes at the Holocaust memorial for example. I generally follow the rule that joking about perpetrators and tyrants is fine but making jokes about their victims is insensitive.

We get a lot of different groups and as a result you have to cater to fairly different tastes. I had a fourteen year old boy from America who was obsessed with Bismarck, possibly the only 14 year old boy from America with this particular obsession, and so we made a quick detour so he could see the Bismarck statue and be photographed in front of it.

I had a private tour booked once with a stag party. They were all dressed up, one as a banana, two of them as Super Mario (“they didn’t have Luigi”), one of them as a minotaur, there was Wonder Woman and one optical illusion. It was surreal standing in front of the Reichstag explaining the rise of Hitler with a straight face to an anthropomorphic banana.

One thing which is very rewarding and enjoyable in the job is the dispelling of historical myths. You occasionally get told that Hitler escaped to South America and lived out the rest of his life in the hills of Argentina. This isn’t helped by the explosion of conspiratorial thinking since the rise of the internet. The internet though proves a handy tool for counteracting such myths. For this particular myth I often direct people to the FBI’s website where the original documents of their investigations into the matter are now declassified and accessible to the public. The FBI took these claims extremely seriously and their head J. Edgar Hoover even took a personal interest in the case. Every one of the documents concludes that there is no evidence whatsoever to any of the claims about Hitler’s survival and escape.

I’d advise anyone to come to Berlin in general as it’s a hugely diverse and interesting city with the best food I’ve ever had. But it’s particularly interesting for anyone interested in history, especially the history of Prussia, the history of democracy and anti-democratic movements, labour history, communism, Nazi Germany, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War as well as the rise and fall of that most iconic of divisive structures, the Berlin wall. I myself am immensely interested in these things so I love being a tour guide here.

– Kenneth Walsh

[Note: Kenneth Walsh is a recent graduate of NUI Galway in History and German]


The history of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes

SAB book coverThose of you wishing to find out more about the historical background to the current controversy about Ireland’s mother and baby homes should tune into comments made by NUI Galway’s own Sarah-Anne Buckley on the subject last week. You can catch Sarah-Anne’s contributions on the RTÉ Six One News here (starts at 22:34) and on Newstalk’s Breakfast Show here (starts at 11:36). Sarah-Anne has also recently published a book, The Cruelty Man: Child Welfare, the NSPCC and the State in Ireland, 1889-1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), documenting the history of child welfare in Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War I – Upcoming Conference, 13-14 June 2014

German_trenches_in_GaruaOn Friday and Saturday this week (13-14 June 2014), NUI Galway hosts an international workshop on Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War I. With a keynote address from Michael Neiberg (U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania) and speakers from as far afield as Germany, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Britain, the United States, Kazakhstan and India, the purpose of this workshop is to provide a forum of debate for transnational and comparative approaches to the history of small European nations and Europe’s colonial peripheries in World War 1 in the context of the epochal changes brought about by the collapse of large imperial states. You can download the full programme here (pdf), or contact the workshop organisers, Gearóid Barry, Enrico Dal Lago and Róisín Healy, for further details.

[Image: German trenches in Garua, Cameroon, c.1914-1916, Koloniales Bildarchiv, Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main, via Wikimedia Commons.]

The Emergency: Ireland in Wartime – Upcoming Conference

Info TileThe Emergency: Ireland in Wartime conference takes place at NUI Galway on 27-28 June. Speakers include Robert Fisk, T. Ryle Dwyer, Mervyn O’Driscoll and Michael Kennedy. Further details, including a full programme, are available at the conference website, or via the conference organisers at

Nautical Science, Navigation, and the Exploration of the Atlantic – Upcoming conference

Cantino Detail

The XVII Reunion of the International Committee for the History of Nautical Science will take place on October 2 – 4, 2014 in Galway, Ireland, at the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway.

The theme of the 2014 conference will be: Nautical Science, Navigation, and the Exploration of the Atlantic

The theme will incorporate many ideas, including, but not limited to:

  • The role of nautical science in opening the Atlantic in the Age of the Discoveries and later
  • The transmission of knowledge of the Atlantic through various methods: piloting, experience, literature and propaganda, state institutions, etc.
  • What is the Atlantic? International perspectives
  • The role of the Atlantic in local and national cultures
  • The history of Atlantic exploration

Conference Language: English

Successful applicants should note that presentations should not exceed 30 minutes.

The ICHNS is already in the process of negotiation to publish these papers in an edited, peer-reviewed volume of the conference proceedings.

Moreover, this year sees the presentation of the first Luis de Albuquerque Prize for Outstanding Paper at the conference, which will be chosen by the audience. 

Registration fee for speakers: €30

Please send your submissions to Edward Collins ( with a CV and an abstract of between 150 to 200 words before the end of July 2014. The titles and abstracts will appear on the website once the programme is complete.

[Image: detail from the Cantino planisphere (c.1502), via Wikimedia Commons.]

William Bindon Blood: the first Irish cyclist?

Blood_bicycleThe tricycle pictured here – patented the ‘Dublin Tricycle’ (1876) and regarded by cycling historians as ‘the first practical tricycle’ – was invented by William Bindon Blood, professor of engineering at Queen’s College Galway (1850-1860). The woman shown riding it is Miss Persse of Castleboy, Blood’s sister-in-law and Lady Gregory’s first cousin, who, it was reported, once rode it from Galway to Spiddal and back in a single afternoon.

From a landed background in Rockforest in north Clare, Blood worked as an engineer on several major railway projects before his appointment to the Galway professorship. A leading engineer of his day, he designed the Boyne Viaduct, which had a longer span than any other in the world at the time of its construction. His significant contribution to cycling however has been overlooked.

According to the Irish Cyclist and Athlete (19 March 1890), Professor Blood ‘may fairly be described as the first Irish cyclist,’ having begun cycling to work in Galway in 1852 on a contraption he built of wood, with iron rimmed wheels. Slow and noisy, it must have attracted a lot of ridicule, but he continued to use it throughout his tenure in Galway, and evidently to ponder how it might be improved upon. The following is from an advertisement for its successor of 1876, the ‘Dublin Tricycle’:

After a little practice, this tricycle can be driven with ease at a speed of from five to ten miles an hour, according to the nature of the road and the skill of the rider. There is no difficulty in getting into or out of the seat; and the carriage is perfectly safe, there being no tendency to upset… [It] can be used with ease, not only by gentlemen but also by ladies, as it can be adapted to the requirements of the fair sex by the addition of a lightly-framed apron.

William Bindon Blood 1817-1870Blood later patented a small bicycle, sold as the ‘Blood Pony’, and a cyclometer.

A great engineer and a pioneering cyclist, Blood however was also an unsympathetic and unpopular landlord in his native Clare. The Irish Cyclist reported as follows in 1890: ‘latterly he has been compelled to give up cycling, as he is under police protection, having been fired at by two men with Snider rifles in August last, and again a week or ten days ago.’ Blood would survive a third assassination attempt in 1892, before succumbing to ‘acute bronchitis’ in 1897, in his 80th year.

Paul Duffy, ‘Engineering’, in T. Foley, ed., From Queen’s College to National University; essays on the academic history of QCG/UCG/NUI Galway, Dublin: Four Courts, 1999.

Brian Griffin, Cycling in Victorian Ireland, Dublin: Nonsuch, 2006

The Irish Cyclist and Athlete, March, April 1890

 – John Cunningham

[Images: ‘Miss Persse on her Dublin tricycle, c.1876′; and ‘William Bindon Blood, 1817-1897’.]

Ireland & British Democracy: International Chartism Conference, NUI Galway 4-5 July 2014

Chartism Poster

Here’s one for your summer diaries. On 4-5 July 2014, NUI Galway hosts the 2014 International Chartism Conference. The theme of the conference is Ireland and British Democracy. Details are on the poster above, and inquiries can be directed to Laurence Marley. You can also check out the conference website for further details.

Growing up Irish in early twentieth century New Zealand – public lecture

Anna Davin posterThe Irish Centre for Histories of Labour & Class (based at NUI Galway) and the NUI Galway School of Humanities Civic Engagement committee are organising a public lecture next week by Dr Anna Davin on ‘Growing up Irish in early twentieth century New Zealand’. The event takes place at 20.30 on Wednesday, 30 April 2014, in the Town Hall Theatre (studio), Galway. Entry is €3 (€2 concession), and all are welcome. Advance booking at the Town Hall is advisable (091 569777). A poster for the event is available above, and further details on the talk follow below. We look forward to seeing you there!
Dr Davin, a pioneering feminist historian of the 1970s, a founder of the History Workshop movement in Oxford, and author of the influential Growing up poor: home, school and street in London, 1870-1914, has recently been researching her own family background in Co. Galway and New Zealand. Her antecedents include Ellen Silke of Ballindooley, who left Ireland in 1866 and two years later got married in New Zealand to John Crowe of Corrandulla. Another ancestor was Patrick Davin of Tonegurrane, Corrandulla. In this lecture Dr Davin will discuss the fortunes of these people and their families.

There’s something about St Patrick

DÓC001-TVHere, in case you missed it, is our very own Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, discussing Patrick, Palladius, and the origins of Irish Christianity with Neil Delamere. The interview is part of a documentary called There’s something about Patrick, first broadcast on RTÉ 1 television on 17 March. You can catch the whole programme on the RTÉ Player, or have a listen to Delamere chat about the documentary with John Murray on RTÉ Radio 1.

The legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Free State politics- This Week’s Seminar

Stamp_irl_1922_2N6seThis week (2 April) we are delighted to have a paper from one of our own postgraduate community: Martin O’Donoghue. His paper will examine ‘The legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Free State politics, 1922-26’. This seminar will be our last of the semester (how time flies!). We look forward to seeing you there.

Speaker: Martin O’Donoghue (NUI Galway)
Title: ’The legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Free State Politics, 1922-26’
Time & Date: 16.00, 2 April 2014
Venue: Room G010, Humanities and Social Sciences Research Building, NUI Galway

All are welcome!

[Image: 1922 2/6 value King George V stamp overprinted Saorstát Éireann 1922 for use in the newly independent Irish Free State; source: Wikimedia Commons.]