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Conference review: the British Society for the History of Science, Swansea University, 2-5 July 2015


Title page of Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Basel, 1566), available at wikimedia commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_revolutionibus_orbium_coelestium.jpg) (23 July 2015).

By Adrian James Kirwan

The conference was, as usual, a highly enjoyable mix of academic sessions, roundtables and keynotes; with a bit of time reserved for some socialising. The conference was opened by Prof. Iwan Morus on the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Swansea in 1848. The first full day of the conference, 2 July, was packed with sessions, with five parallel panels running at simultaneously. These ranged from early-modern science to Darwinism to the development of hearing technologies by the twentieth -century British Post Office.  The day was finished with the awarding of two of the societies prizes the John Pickstone prize 2014 for best scholarly book (awarded to Graeme Gooday and Stathis Arapostathis, Patently contestable: electrical technologies and inventor identities on trial in Britain (Cambridge, 2013)) and the Dingle prize for the best book on history of science accessible to a wide audience. The Dingle prize was awarded to Martin J.S. Rudwick, Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014). Rudwick’s acceptance speak was a masterclass in the public lecture. He masterfully brought the audience through the evolution of thinking on the age of the earth and the significant impacts this deepening timeframe had on our understanding of not just the earth but also of man’s existence on it and theology. If the book is half as good as the lecture it promises to be well worth the read not just for those with an interest in the history of science but anyone who wants to understand how the natural sciences impacted upon society.

The second full day of the conference brought a plethora of excellent panels on the history of science, technology and medicine. The day included a panel on Science and Religion. This contained perhaps one of the top papers at the conference, Bill Jenkins (University of Edinburgh), ‘Evangelicals and extra-terrestrials: the plurality of worlds debate in Scotland, 1815-55.’ This paper trace the impact of astronomic discovers on Scottish Evangelicals who set out to deal with the possibility of life on other worlds. These evangelicals not only accepted that life existed on other worlds but also engaged in a series of discussions that sought to understand the nature of salvation in an extra-terrestrial context. The paper also explained how these figures combined science and teleology to justify their beliefs.

Perhaps the best panel of the conference was one entitled, ‘the travelling rat, 1850-1950’ which traced the interaction and co-existence of man and his travelling companion, the rat. One very good paper on the co-existences of man and rat, by Kaori Nagai (University of Kent), look at rats as passengers on nineteenth-century ships. The paper highlighted that while rats were considered a problem, they had to be managed rather than destroyed. For example, to stop rats eating into water butts the crew had to ensure that the ships complement of rats were well watered. The highlight of the session was Neil Pemberton’s (University of Manchester) ‘From foreign invader to subterranean fiend: sewer rats, sanitary modernity and Victorian underworlds’. This highly informative and enjoyable paper highlighted the fact that rats enjoyed a status as eaters of waste in sewers and, hence, were deemed important to public health. The paper also looked at the complex relationship between man and rat once it surfaced out of the sewer. By using contemporaneous accounts of rat catchers the paper demonstrated that the relationship between man and rat in the Victorian period was much more complicated than we assume.

The conference reached a crescendo with the Presidential keynote by Greg Radick (University of Leeds). This was based on some fascinating work using the history of biology to produce a genetics course that removes the concentration on Mendel’s famous experiments with peas and inheritance. This allows the student to learn the importance that other factors, such as environment, play, alongside genes, in human development.

Further reading

Further information on the British Society for the History of Science can be found at its website: http://www.bshs.org.

For more information or to purchase Martin J.S. Rudwick’s Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014)  go to: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo19211655.html


Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.



Conference review: Irish Towns as shared European heritage, Irish Historic Towns Atlas seminar, 22 May 2015


Map of Dublin, in James Dignam, Dignam’s Dublin Guide. With a handy map, etc (Dublin, 1891), available at (https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11209516723).


By Adrian James Kirwan

The Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA) is a project of the Royal Irish Academy. It was been producing historical atlases of Irish towns since its establishment in 1981. Each atlas is produced as a separate fascicle and allows the user to trace the development of Irish towns through space and time. One of the central purposes of the atlas project is to allow for the comparative study of historic settlement. With a sufficient number of atlases completed, the IHTA has for the last number of years been holding an annual seminar to explore the utility of the project for comparative studies of historic settlement in Ireland.

The IHTA is part of a wider European project under the auspices of the International Commission for the History of Towns. This project has surveyed c. 500 European settlements in eighteen countries and represents a valuable resource for comparative studies of urban morphology. This seminar represented some of the first attempts to use atlases from Ireland and other European projects to engage in comparative study of historic settlements as a shared European experience. Thus, not only were the presenters attempting to compare various settlements but also in breaking new ground they were seeking to understand and identify the strengths and difficulties of such an undertaking.

The seminar had two main panels: ‘Medieval towns, colonisation and legacy’;and ‘Transformation in 18th and 19th century towns’. Each presentation used an Irish and European town to engage in a comparative study of urban development through space and time. A fine example of this was Mark Hennessy’s (TCD) presentation: ‘Kilkenny and Lviv: comparative perspectives’. Using the historic town atlases as the bases of his talk, he discussed developments in the urban environment within a broader political, social and economic context to highlight the factors driving urban development in each city and to explain the similarities and differences that these experienced. The two main panels were followed by a plenary session by Michael Conzen who provided an elucidating and informative discuss of the comparative study of urban morphology.

The conference was quite successful not only in producing some insightful studies of the idea of urban areas as a shared heritage but also highlighted some of the benefits and drawbacks of the atlases as a tool for such studies. While differences between and limitations in the various atlases were discussed, the conference very ably demonstrated that the wider European atlas project is a very useful resource for such studies. One hopes that this is the start of a very rewarding series of seminars that will further explore this topic and in doing so display another important use for the excellent work that is being done by the IHTA.

Further reading:

The IHTA has produce a series of books aimed at those seeking to understand both the atlases and the wide range of uses to which they can be put, these are :

Jacinta Prunty and H.B. Clarke, Reading the maps: a guide to the Irish Historic Towns Atlas (Dublin, 2011).

H.B. Clarke and Sarah Gearty, Maps & Texts: Exploring the Irish Historic Towns Atlas (Dublin, 2012).

There have also been a number of atlases produced, these can be view and purchased at:



Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.


Irish History Student’s Association: Conference Review

Uni of Limerick

University of Limerick


The annual conference of the Irish History Student’s Association took place in the University of Limerick between 13-14 March. The IHSA was founded in 1950 to promote the study of history among students in third level institutions on the island of Ireland. The IHSA has served Irish history students for decades and has allowed them to experience the world of academic conferences in an open and helpful manner.

The conference provided many quality papers, too numerous to review in this blog. During a panel titled ‘conflict in the wider world’ there was a very informative paper on ‘The Red Power Movement: a symbol of Indian Resistance and native political action’ by Katya Radovanova (T U Dresden) from Bulgaria and currently an Erasmus student in NUI Galway. It examined the nationwide campaign of Native Americans to reclaim the tribal right to sovereignty and self-determination during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s which became known as Red Power. In the years prior to this there had been a growing interest in culture and language and Red Power proved a turning point because it made an issue of neglected treaties and assimilation policies. Dónal Brennan (UL) gave an informed paper on the historical development of counter-insurgency and the Western view that it was reliant upon professional soldiers similar in vain to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and how this was applied in subsequent conflicts. Cian Moran (NUIG) gave an interesting paper on the issue of humanitarian intervention in the case of the 1978 Uganda-Tanzania War. It gave a detailed description of Uganda under Idi Amin, their attempt to annex Tanzanian territory, the repelling of this attack and Tanzania’s subsequent invasion of Uganda and overthrow of Amin and that this was humanitarian intervention in all but name.

At an afternoon panel titled ‘Parliamentary Ireland’, the role of the Irish National League in the Free State was examined in an excellent paper by Martin O’Donoghue. He outlined its formation by two former Irish Party MPs, Captain William Redmond and Thomas O’Donnell and how it sought a rejection of the treatyite political duopoly. The paper examined the question of whether the party was a legacy party as it drew on the symbolism, personnel and support networks of the Irish Party. The party failed to secure a political niche for itself and after a successful election in June 1927, when it returned eight TDs, got involved in an unsuccessful attempt to form a coalition with Labour and Fianna Fáil, which weakened its support base and saw it retain only two seats at the September 1927 election. An interesting paper was delivered by John Phayer (Independent) on the establishment of the United Irish League in 1898, and the controversy surrounding the imprisonment of its former honorary secretary, Samuel Phayer-Harris. The impact of evictions in the Limerick area was examined; Phayer-Harris’s attempts to stop these evictions and also analysis of his trial at Newcastlewest court and time in Tralee jail.

At one of the concluding panels titled ‘conflict and law’, Anne Marie McInerney gave a detailed paper on ‘prison riots, escapes and hunger strikes during the Irish Civil War’.  She explained differences from the British policy and how internment was now initiated by those who had themselves been interned, and hence had a good understanding of the prisoner’s mindset. An escape from Newbridge was outlined and how the hunger strikes of 1923 evoked a different reaction from the church, compared to the strike of Terence MacSwiney in 1920. Matthew X. Calvert gave a paper on ‘the early Irish outlaw: of brigands and heroes’ in which he drew on law tracts of early Ireland where descriptions of those deemed unfit to live within society are contained. He also used examples of outlaws found in early Irish literature.

At the section after lunch Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley spoke of the importance and relevance of the IHSA and outlined some of the aims and plans for the society’s future and Dr John Logan (former head of history at UL) gave a brief talk about some previous conferences. Next year’s conference will be held in NUI Galway.


Bio: David Gahan

My main research is in political and socio-economic developments in twentieth century Ireland and the wider world. I attained a BA in History and English in 2012 from St. Patricks College, Drumcondra. I am currently a PhD student at the Department of History, at NUI Maynooth. My thesis which is being supervised by Prof. Terence Dooley, examines the agitation around the land annuities issue 1926-32.  It aims to look at the economic effect of annuities on farmers and the effect on political developments, particularly the positions adopted by the various political parties and how this impacted in the wider Irish political context.

Review: The British Society for the History of Science, postgraduate conference, UCL, 7-9 Jan. 2015


Boulton and Watt Steam Engine 1786, available at Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boulton_and_Watt_Steam_Engine_1786_(4537762717).jpg?uselang=en-gb)


By Adrian James Kirwan

The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) is the biggest society in the British Isles dedicated to the promotion of scholarly research into the history of science, technology and medicine. It holds two conferences each year: its annual conference (during the summer) and a postgraduate conference in January. This year’s successful postgraduate conference was held by the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at University College, London.

The conference had a range of panels including ‘Histories & Medicine’, ‘Science & Empire’, ‘Science & Public Discourses’ and ‘Philosophy of Science’. There was an excellent panel entitled ‘State Sponsorship vs. Private Reward: The role of the twentieth-century General Post Office in Warfare and Welfare’. This was comprised of presentations by Alice Haigh, Coreen McGuire, Sean McNally and Jacob Ward which looked at the Post Office’s research and development activities in twentieth-century Britain. In particular this panel gave a fascinating insight into the Post Office’s role in the development of hearing aids for the NHS and its role as an R&D centre for the British military during the First World War.

An extremely interesting paper was provided by Michael Guida entitled ‘Sonic therapy: birdsong on the radio during the Second World War’. This paper provided a fascinating look at not only an emerging technology but also an insight into the debate over the use of these natural sounds to alleviate the tensions brought to Britain during the Second World War.

The highlight of the conference, for me, was a paper given by Erin Beeston (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester) entitled ‘A space to congregate, educate and exhibit: sites of knowledge production and consumption at the Camp Field, Manchester’. This paper looked at the social impacts of the construction of a train station at the site. The paper traced the encroachment of the sub-urban Manchester on this site that had many traditional functions including an open air market. The presentation sought to explain how municipal authorities sought to influence the activities happening in the area by the construction of an enclosed market space in which social interaction could be controlled.

The conference keynote was provided by Prof. Hasok Chang (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge). This focused on the relevance of History of Science to both scientists and wider society.

The conference was well attended with a large number of speakers and was a great display of the vibrancy of the history of science, technology and medicine. As well as a large number of presentations from various UK universities, speakers were also present from across Europe including Finland, Spain and the Czech. Republic. As always with a BSHS event there was a welcoming and congenial atmosphere. A lively series of social events and excursions added to this collegiality. These included visits to the Science Museum (London) and the Wellcome Collection. The social events included a welcome reception at the Grant Museum of Zoology and a Bright Club Event. The Bright Club which originated at UCL is a stand-up comedy show where students and lecturers use their research as the bases of a comedy act. Despite reservations this turned out to be a highlight of the conference and a very enjoyable evening was had by all.

The call for papers for the society’s annual conference is now open. More information about the British Society for the History of Science and its annual and postgraduate conferences can be found on the society website http://www.bshs.org.uk/.



Conference Review: The Economic and Social History Society of Ireland (ESHI) 21-22 November 2014, St. Patricks College, Drumcondra, Dublin.

By David Gahan

The Economic and Social History Society of Ireland formed in 1970, promotes the study of economic and social history in Ireland. It publishes a peer reviewed academic journal, Economic and Social History, a pamphlet series and organises an annual conference.

Prof. James Raven gave the Connell lecture, ‘Publishing business in eighteenth-century Ireland’ which looked at the role of jobbing printers whose numbers saw an increase in Dublin from three in 1690 to fifty-three in 1787.

In keeping with the economic theme there was a very interesting session on ‘Policy and economic development in the twentieth and twenty first centuries’, in which three of the papers dealt with relatively contemporary issues. Niall Curran (UCD) gave a very informative paper on the Kenny Report and the question of development land in Ireland 1963-75. Measures taken by governments to stem price inflation of development land which resulted in the Kenny Report of 1974, which recommended limited price control for development land and why this report was not implemented, were outlined. Ciarán Casey (Oxford) provided a very interesting paper on what domestic organisations, the Central Bank and the ESRI published about the economy from 2000 to 2006. Both organisations were concerned about the over reliance of the economy on construction, but both underestimated what a ‘collapse’ would entail, suggesting a drop to between 40,000 and 50,000 housing units being built, while in reality it fell to 8,500. Despite some warnings, the Central Bank continued to argue that the financial system was inherently stable. The monetary policy of the Irish Central Bank under successive governors Joseph Brennan 1943-53, James J. McElligott 1953-60 and Maurice Moynihan 1961-8, was thoroughly examined by Dr. Ella Kavanagh (UCC). Rebecca Stuart of the Central Bank finished this session with a paper on ‘Stock returns in Ireland, the UK, and the US, 1864-1930.

An excellent paper by Dr. Daithí Ó Corrian (SPD), ‘loss and compensation in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising’ looked at an aspect of a period not often considered. He outlined the work of the Property Losses Committee 1916, which was established in June to access compensation claims. The British government admitted liability and paid out £1.8 m on claims ranging from destruction of buildings, loss of tools, jewellery and a consignment of butter. Brian Casey (UCD) delivered an informative paper on the struggles between the Fenians and the Catholic Church, centring around the candidature and election to Westminster of the Fenian John O’Connor Power, for Mayo in 1874. Declan O’Keeffe (Clongowes) gave a paper on Jesuit publications in Ireland, 1873-1912, detailing how they promoted the Jesuit mission.

There were two papers on the Mount St. Lawrence Cemetery Project in Limerick from Matthew Potter (Limerick Corporation) and Helene Bradley Davies (MIC).

Robyn Atcheson (QUB) gave a paper on charity in pre-Poor Law Belfast which looked at various charitable organisations from poorhouses to self-help schemes set up in the city before 1838. Prof. Thomas Callahan (Rider U. New Jersey) detailed the arrival of the famine Irish in New York; how many ended up in the Five Points area with its cheap accommodation and that by 1850 there were more Irish in New York than in Dublin. Also explored was some of the less well known history of their unhappy experiences in Liverpool while awaiting embarkation to the US. The conference finished on the Famine theme, Ciarán Reilly (Maynooth) gave a very informative paper about the often undocumented role of land agents attempts to improve agriculture prior to the famine. He outlined examples of this in Offaly, of improvements at Tullamore and the introduction of new cattle breeds such as Ayrshires, but also that many landlords were reluctant to make improvements. ‘Who ate Ireland’s food during the Famine?’ by Charles Read (Cambridge) was an interesting paper suggesting that the responsibility for high food prices during the famine came not from domestic demand, but from imported high prices, influenced by demand in France for corn.

Further reading:

The Economic and Social History of Ireland Society website, available at http://www.eshsi.org/


My main research is in political and socio-economic developments in twentieth century Ireland and the wider world. I have a BA in History and English from 2012, from St. Patricks College, Drumcondra. I am currently a PhD student at the Department of History at NUI Maynooth. My thesis which is being supervised by Prof. Terence Dooley, examines the agitation surrounding the land annuities 1926-32. It aims to look at the economic effect of annuities on farmers and on political developments, particularly the positions adopted by the various political parties and how this impacted on the wider Irish political context.


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