The Irish Famine in France

It is often said that the Irish educational system has become over-competitive, with a disproportionate emphasis on the points race and so on. This is absolutely true, but the Irish system pales in comparison with the French one. There, for example, as well as the universities, there is a whole range of elite schools (the ‘Grandes Écoles’, dating from the Revolution) to train engineers, administrators, artists, teachers, scientists and even soldiers. These are very difficult to get into, to the extent that there are special secondary schools whose purpose is to prepare students for the entrance exams.


Alongside this, there is a system of national exams, some also dating from the eighteenth century, to become a teacher, a university lecturer or a judge. These are highly competitive, and students usually spend a year or more preparing for them. The best known is probably the agrégation, a teaching licence for universities or higher secondary schools. It is highly competitive – in the history agrégation in 2014, 800 took the exam, but only 100 succeeded.


The curriculum for these competitions changes every two years, and for 2015 and 2016, the agrégation in English (which features the sociology and history of English-speaking countries as well as language and literature) includes an element on the Great Irish Famine. As a result, there has been a series of conferences and events focussing on the Famine and a number of books on the Famine have appeared in French over the last six months.


In December, Cormac Ó Gráda and I spoke at a workshop in Toulouseposter-la-famine11_1417511630273-jpg

and at a conference in Bordeaux.

There was another conference in Paris, also in December.







One of the speakers at the Bordeaux and Paris events was Laurent Colantonio, a scholar of O’Connell and democracy who teaches in the university of Poitiers. He has has co-authored a survey of the Famine with Fabrice Bensimon, a political historian of 19th-century England.




Another book is by Philippe Brillet, a geographer who teaches English andBrillet Irish studies in the university of Toulouse.










The last book is a collection of essays published by the university press of Rennes. Half of the essays are in French, half are in English.






For an Irish historian, all these books, the first two in particular, are fascinating to read. They are written for a non-Irish audience by non-Irish writers (there is one Irish contributor in the book of essays) and also for readers who are students of English rather than history. They take a thematic and very structured approach, whereas surveys by Irish historians for an English-speaking (largely Irish) audience tend to take a chronological approach. I’ll order them for the NUI Galway library so that you can judge for yourselves!


Niall Ó Ciosáin


Famine and the Devil in Brittany, 1845

This summer I discovered a very unusual book, the autobiography of a self-educated, opinionated and well-travelled Breton man from the second half of the nineteenth century. Mémoires d’un Paysan Bas-Breton was published in 1998, after the discovery of the text in 1995 in forty notebooks. Jean-Marie Déguignet was born on a small farm near Quimper in 1834. His family lost the farm soon after, and they moved to one of the poorest streets in Quimper, where the young Jean-Marie worked, among other things, as a professional beggar. He joined the army and fought in the Crimea, Italy and Mexico and returned to Brittany as a multi-lingual, self-taught, extremely sceptical and anticlerical individual. It’s a wonderful book, and Déguignet is humorous and acerbic both about his fellow Bretons and about the urban intellectuals who were collecting folklore and constructing an idealised picture of a peasant Brittany in the later nineteenth century.

There is one section that might strike a chord with Irish readers. Déguignet tells a few folk tales, one of the longest of which refers to the arrival of potato blight in Brittany in 1845. Some people (though certainly not Déguignet himself) saw it as the work of the devil, following the events recounted in the story. It’s an extraordinary tale, far more elaborate and complex than anything recorded as a popular belief about the Irish Famine. I’ve taken the pages here from an English translation by Linda Asher, published by Seven Stories Press, New York in 2004.

– Niall Ó Ciosáin.



Deguignet p.1

Deguignet p.3

Deguignet p.3Deguignet p.4


Dr. LoPrete unexpectedly runs into an old friend….

Kim in Budapest

Visiting Buda castle on family holidays last June, Dr Kim LoPrete caught sight of some old stones as the rest of the gang soaked in the panoramic vista of the Danube & Pest below…. ‘Oh no’, they groaned, ‘not more historic rubble…’.   Undeterred –or was that totally bored– nephew no. 1 decided to follow her ’round the corner, where she stumbled into the ruins of the 13th-century Dominican church, serving as the atrium of a modern office building, complete with quarter-vaulted steel pillars mimicking the lost Gothic arches of the old nave (now you know why they groaned…).

But who was that cowled campaigner pointing east?  Why, none other than brother Julian, with his side-kick Gerard, who had set off c.1235 to find the original Magyar homeland & convert a few Cumans (nomadic Turkic folk) and arrived just in time to meet Russians fleeing from renewed Mongol onslaughts–and even advance envoys of the Mongols themselves.

Those of you taking her Colloquium, ‘European Encounters with the Mongols’ can read about some of brother Julian’s adventures, including the ultimatum, a virtual declaration of war, he transmitted from the Mongol leader Batu to the king of Hungary….

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’.]