An interview with Coleman Dennehy

UCL History chats to our newest Visiting Research Fellow, Dr Coleman Dennehy from University College Dublin:

Coleman, what attracted you to coming to UCL on secondment?

“I would have to say I found UCL attractive on a number of different levels. In the first instance, its reputation for both teaching and research. It is staffed by historians at the very top of their profession and so my time here will allow me to work with specialists in the general area I am researching. Add to this the fact that my office is equidistant between the Institute of Historical Research, the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, the History of Parliament, and the British Library, with Parliament and the National Archives only a short journey away. This allows me to network with all the other historians in the hub and to tap the rich primary and secondary resources. For the project I am undertaking it is essential to come to London, and UCL was the obvious choice – it is like Disney World for an historian!”

What will your two year Fellowship here involve?

“Well, strictly speaking it is a three year award, the first two spent in UCL, and the third writing-up back in Dublin. The project is in seventeenth and early eighteenth-century legal history. As cases proceeded through the courts, they could be appealed (as today) to a higher court. Some cases (virtually always relating to possession of large amounts of land), went all the way to the House of Lords in Ireland, and could then be appealed to the House of Lords in London. My project will study this procedure, particularly the practical aspect of costs, attorneys, the time it took, etc. I will then disseminate my findings through conference presentations and also by publishing some articles and a monograph book.”

What is the most exciting part of your project? 

“I enjoy all aspects of my work – working in history is the best of jobs. If I were forced to pick any particular part, it would probably be working in the parliamentary archive at the Palace of Westminster. There is a large tower at the opposite end of the complex from Big Ben that houses the archive. The palace is very much high-security as you can imagine, and after I’ve been checked in by the police with the machine-guns, had my briefcase x-rayed (and been occasionally frisked – it’s just like at the airport), I have a minder to take me to the reading room. But once I’m inside, it is totally relaxed and the big rolls (sometimes several hundred feet long) are taken out and I can lose myself in them for the day. It is a very interesting place to work. My project has generously funded me to undertake presentations of my work abroad so it is also quite exciting to be going abroad to conferences in Europe and the US.”

How do you find life in the department?

“I love it – although it is a big department in a big university, it is very friendly. The staff members here are enthusiastic about their work and always interested in what their colleagues are doing. In that way, it was very welcoming and easy to fit in. I share an office with other post-doctoral researchers, and whilst it is hive of activity and hard work, when we do break for coffee it is a great opportunity to get out of the bubble of your own project and listen to, and learn from, how other researchers are getting on in their endeavours. I am also looking forward to teaching in the next academic year. Back in Dublin, and before that in Maynooth, I taught early modern history and late medieval parliamentary history also. I usually teach Irish history and occasionally some British, so it will be interesting to teach on the other side of the sea and understand to what extent the students both here and there are similar, or if their perceptions of their past show distinctions.”

The University College Dublin campus

The University College Dublin campus

Is it very different to the history department at UCD? 

“Well, we do not keep a dead chap in a cabinet…..although there may be a few skeletons in cupboards!
The physical environs are very different, in that University College Dublin is largely a 1960s/70s campus in leafy green Dublin 4 (Dublin’s embassy belt), about three miles from the city centre. The School of History & Archives is based in one large building named after John Henry Newman, the founder of the university, and all on the one floor (no stairs!). It is the largest history department in the largest university in Ireland, with in excess of 450 first year students each year. After first year, however, teaching is usually done in small groups like here. It also has a large post-graduate community as well as several research centres, so in many ways it is similar to UCL. History in UCD usually begins around the time of the end of the Roman Empire, or in Ireland around the beginnings of Christianity, so unlike here, classical history studies are based in another department. We are, as you would expect, particularly strong on all periods in Irish history, but also have experts from all over the world teaching there too. Because of the many similarities, it is no surprise that several people have crossed in both directions in the past, such as Dr Patrick Walsh and Dr Johannah Duffy, and the initiation of an Erasmus link will, I believe, further the positive and successful interaction between the two departments.”

What has surprised you the most about London?

“I suppose the most surprising things is that I’m still alive. I’ve taken to the ‘Boris Bikes’ to zip about from here to there, and had always been led to believe that the drivers in London were very aggressive, but I have been pleasantly surprised by just how considerate and friendly they are.”

Coleman travelling by 'Boris Bike'

Coleman travelling by ‘Boris Bike’

Any recommendations for students and staff soon to make the move here?

“It is not always easy making a big move, but I firmly believe that you get out what you put in. Make it your business to go to every seminar, lecture, reception, and public meeting that you find even remotely interesting. Every day is a school day and this area of London is dripping with excellent intellectual stimulation. This leads on to social contact and so makes any move all the more enjoyable and easy.”

Dr Coleman A Dennehy is an Irish Research Council Marie Skłodowska-Curie Elevate Fellow based at UCL Department of History, 2014-16. His recent lecture given in the Irish House of Lords on the appointment of judges in 1660s Ireland is available to listen to online.

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