Round-Up: Social History Society Conference #northumbria2014

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Pulling into Newcastle Train Station

This is the first chance I’ve had since last week’s Social History Society conference to sit down and record my thoughts on the gathering — although I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the event, which was held at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle.

The programme had much to offer: I mostly attended the sessions in the ‘Narratives, Emotions and the Self’ strand, although I heard some papers also from the ‘Life-cycles and Life-styles’ strand. Given my current work on first person narratives, I was keen to hear how other historians were approaching emotions and the individual in history.

There were numerous papers I thoroughly enjoyed, including a presentation by Sian Pooley (Lancaster University) on child writers and adult journalists in the British popular press, 1870-1918. I’ve previously written about Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin newspaper (published in Ireland between 1906 and 1914).  Although the newspaper featured a dedicated children’s column, my research was more concerned with Griffith’s political agenda. At the time, I gave passing thought to what Griffith might have been attempting to achieve with the children’s column, but listening to Sian Pooley’s account of the British popular press has made me re-evaluate Griffith’s endeavours.  There’s clearly a lot more at play than simply providing a space for children’s views and offering a sense of identity and belonging to the nationalists of the future.  

While completely unrelated to anything I work on, my favourite paper of the conference was the presentation by Helen Parr (Keele University) on women’s recollections of the Falklands War. Particularly touching was the story she told of one mother who had preserved her son’s room (where an unopened Easter egg still sat) as a shrine to his memory, so that his presence could still be felt in the house long after he had died in service.  

In terms of my current research, I learnt the most from Steven Fielding’s (University of Nottingham) paper on fiction and politics in 1970s television dramas in Britain — this offered interesting parallels for my own research on The Riordans, which I recently presented on at the Pill and Pen conference —  and Rachel Rich’s (Leeds Metropolitan University) paper on women’s diaries and the passage of time in France and England between 1850 and 1905. Although the latter is outside my timeframe and geographical focus, the concept of how time is recorded and, arguably more important, how time is defined is relevant to any historian working with diaries.

My panel — ‘In Their Own Words: Constructing Everyday Lives’ — presented on Wednesday. It featured papers from Christian Bailey (The Open University) on strategies for reading diaries and memoirs, Niamh Cullen (University College Dublin) on gender and emotion in Italian men’s first person accounts of courtship between 1945 and 1965, and Julie Hipperson (King’s College London) on integrating the personal back into the history of professional women.  My own paper explored how the changing language of advice columns in women’s magazines reflected social change in Ireland between 1950s and 1980s.

All too often at conferences, papers run over or a speaker from the floor monopolises the discussion time so there is little opportunity for questions and answers. Happily, we did not have that problem and there was plenty of time for a lively exchange between the panellists and audience. There were some very helpful questions and comments regarding methodology and useful comparative sources. A discussion also emerged about the extent to which the study of the history of emotions has focussed on love at the expense of jealousy, pain, suffering, regret, etc. It was agreed that difficult emotions are more problematic to research, and often the historian will have to work with what isn’t being said to tease out such emotions.

I’ve come away with lots to think about after the Q&A session, including readership strategies and the agenda of the advice columnists themselves. One particularly interesting question I received was the extent to which the public line of the columnists reflected their private views. Angela Macnamara (probably Ireland’s most famous advice columnist) recorded in her own memoir, Yours Sincerely how she had hoped that the Catholic Church would relax its attitude towards artificial contraception, and when it didn’t — despite privately thinking it should have — she continued to give advice informed by religious teaching in her columns. The identity of the columnists is fascinating, and something I will certainly have to explore more. 

I’m particularly grateful to Rosa Medina Doménech who told me of her work on Spanish advice columns (and subsequently sent me her fascinating article ‘”Who were the experts?” The science of love vs women’s knowledge of love during the Spanish dictatorship’, which was recently published in the Science as Culture journal).


In addition to hearing some great papers and getting to know new people, I also had the opportunity to catch up with old friends and former colleagues, as well as to finally meet other historians I had only previously ‘known’ through twitter. All in all, a productive trip to Newcastle.

For more on the conference, check out the Social History Society’s Storify of the twitter feed.



Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

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