Too Cool For School

History is the new black and today’s hip historians look nothing like their dowdy, bookish stereotypes. They’re just as likely to tweet as tutor and are making their ideas relevant to a new and wider audience, says Antonia Hart

Who’d have predicted the day when a documentary about Glasnevin Cemetery, One Million Dubliners, would be a hit in cinemas across the country? Or that the Little Museum of Dublin could schedule a series of 20 lectures throughout 2015 for which you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money after last October? History is hip, and everyone wants to be involved, whether it’s picking up the latest copy of History Ireland (the current cover illustration shows Brendan Behan in sunglasses with a fat cigar, and trails details of his MI5 file), or preparing for a glamping weekend in a vintage caravan or houseboat at the History Festival of Ireland, which for 2015 joins forces with the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas. What hasn’t changed on the history front is that as a historian you have to be glitteringly bright and questing, endlessly hard-working, and committed to getting new work published. What has changed is the refreshing approach of a young, cool bunch of historians, whose brightness is evidenced not just in academic ability but in humour, and in placing their work within popular culture. Their hard work may not necessarily take place in a university library, and they’re as likely to share their ideas through films and festivals as academic journals.

Amber Jane Butchart, Fashion historian

It’s clothes that intrigue and delight London-based Amber Jane Butchart (pictured centre), who takes endless pleasure not just in selecting and wearing her own glorious vintage wardrobe, but in researching garments’ history and analysing their social and political context. A fashion historian, writer and lecturer who originally studied literature, she was head buyer for vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, and did an MA in the History and Culture of Fashion at the London College of Fashion.

Fashion, which is of course pretty much always cool, seems to be a democratic kind of route into history: Butchart points out that everyone is already involved in it. “Even if you don’t read fashion magazines, you’re still getting dressed every day, whether it’s because you are interested in looking a particular way or because you have to wear something specific for your occupation. However you dress, you can tell such a lot about the wearer and the context they’re wearing clothes in. Fashion illuminates so many areas: decoration, taste, class, levels of luxury, technological innovation – and each is deeply interesting in itself.”

Items of clothing often reflect significant issues in contemporary life, and this direct link between what people are thinking, doing and talking about and a shoe or a pair of trousers is one reason why fashion history will always be cool. Butchart cites the Rapid Response gallery at the V&A: “It’s collecting contemporary items which have significance within a wider political movement. A pair of Primark trousers in khaki, significant because of the factory disaster in Bangladesh, or Louboutin shoes made in five shades of nude. Because there is no colour nude, and to talk about that beigey-whitey-yellowy colour as defining nude is really quite racist.” This approach of contextualising contemporary clothing lends everything relevance.

Butchart is snobbery-free when it comes to popular history, so long as it’s well researched. “If people think history’s cool, that’s fantastic, but there’s always debate around any academic/popular divide. People use that horrible phrase ‘dumbing down’, but it’s possible, and useful, to create successful and reasonably rigorous TV and radio programmes and books that will have a broad appeal.” Her own latest book, Nautical Chic, as gorgeously illustrated as you’d expect, will be published by Thames & Hudson next spring.

Turtle Bunbury, Historian & author
Turtle Bunbury (above right) also refers to the contemporary relevance of historical themes. “I’m not sure cool is a word I’d use, but perhaps it explains history’s currency. The impact of wars, for example, is very much being felt psychologically. The experience of war completely derailed my generation’s grandparents. That had an effect on our parents, and trickles through to us.”

Bunbury is 42, and lives with his wife and daughters at Lisnavagh House in Carlow, an estate owned by his family since 1702. Lisnavagh was also home to the first History Festival of Ireland, an event co-founded by Bunbury and Hugo Jellett. “It’s an extraordinary event which brings together all sorts of people with the most immense amount of knowledge over a huge range of subjects, and really there is nothing cooler than that. And as Bert Wright [ex-curator of the Mountains to the Sea festival] said to me the other day, ‘history is the new black’.”

Bunbury’s most recent work is a book on the Irish and the Great War and, with the year that’s in it, he’s been travelling the country with the Great War Roadshow. “There is a re-evaluation of our view of the Irish who fought in the British Army – championed by people like Kevin Myers and Myles Dungan in different ways for a long time – and that’s had a direct effect on people’s lives. With the Roadshow, we’ve been inundated with people coming forward with medals and memorabilia that they now feel comfortable talking about. Of course, there are some who always kept the medals polished up, but there are plenty more who had them tucked away in a drawer and never mentioned them.”

Bunbury is steeped in his subject. “If I’m walking through city streets I’m looking at buildings, if I’m driving across the country I’ll make it my business to stop at a battlefield site or a megalithic monument. I realise I’m a bit of a nightmare father to my girls. They’re five and seven, so still quite tolerant, but I know I’ll have to rein it in.” He’s generous with his endless research: as well as being a prolific writer of books, he shares much of it freely on the internet, either on his own website or with the 17,000 followers of his Wistorical Facebook page. “It’s brilliant, people will always contact you with comments. Or corrections! The internet means you have local historians uploading stories, and academic historians tend to sniff at those. It’s wonderful that there’s so much interest and so much material, but you do have to wade through mythology to arrive at fact.” The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War (Gill & Macmillan, €29.99).

Dr Lisa Godson, Historian & lecturer

Dr Lisa Godson (above left) is not a conventional historian, flawless though her academic record is. Now based at NCAD, where she’s acting director of the MA in the History of Design and Material Culture, she speaks and writes across many different areas, including geography, history, archaeology, anthropology and architecture – she is co-author of Design in Ireland 1900-2000, one of a collection of essays featured in the RIA’s five-volume Art and Architecture in Ireland. She collaborates regularly, with artists and filmmakers too, as you might expect of someone working in an art college. “And perhaps that kind of work is not recognised by the history establishment, but if it’s rigorous historical research underpinning say, a film, then that’s a good use for it.” More conservative historians weren’t above making barbed comments about selling out when Godson, amid more academic pursuits, spent six years writing a column for the Sunday Times.

“I’d done some research into the history of neon, and a friend and I arranged for the repair of the famous Why Go Bald? sign in Dublin. I wrote a newspaper piece about it and subsequently got the call that led to the column. I wrote about a different object each week, maybe an Eileen Gray chair, or something pretty everyday, like rosary beads, the accident black spot sign, or street signage. It’s good to make ideas accessible.” She thinks there might be fewer objections if she were to write this column today. Maybe this relaxation has allowed history to burst its academic banks into cool.

“Is history cool?” She laughs. “I don’t know, I suppose it must be. It’s definitely opened up.” She identifies numerous recent factors for this, including changes in Irish society, which is more pluralist, less focused on the national question, less dominated by Catholicism. “There’s a sense that we’ve come to more of an accommodation with our history. But it’s the influence of other trends, too, like the strong embrace of retro chic and the secondhand culture.” These trends mean that old objects, or new versions of old objects, are present in people’s lives, and if you’re in any way curious, these objects open up endless lines of enquiry. Godson points out that if you Google “that changed the world” you’ll find books on the history of just about everything – pineapples, salt, gin, cod, longitude, marriage.

She’s delighted by the new wave of younger historians with good literary styles, making history books far more enjoyable to read, and by the efforts of cultural institutions to make sources accessible and invite public participation. “Look at the National Library’s brilliant Flickr stream, Facebook history groups enabling people to post pictures and comments, the Great War Roadshow. Or the Little Museum, crowd-sourced by the donation of objects. It’s all so empowering.” Art and Architecture in Ireland (Yale University Press, €400) is out now. Antonia Hart’s Ghost Signs of Dublin (The History Press, €18.99) is out now.

Books To Bed Down With

Antonia Hart suggests some good reads for dark December evenings

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary, the narrator, opens her story of childhood among siblings, though some time later we realise that her sister Fern is actually a chimp being raised within the human family. When the experiment falters and Fern is sent away, Rosemary grows mute, and the family becomes unlaced. Strange, disturbing, compelling, and based on real experiments. Serpent’s Tale, €11.95.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald
In the miasma of depression following the death of her father, Helen Macdonald, passionate about falconry from childhood, undertakes the mammoth task of training a goshawk. She interweaves her account with the story of TH White, falconer, Arthurian novelist, and “one of the loneliest men alive”. It may sound an unlikely combination, but this poetic memoir absorbed me from the start, and I barely raised my eyes until it ended. Jonathan Cape, €17.99.

It’s Not Yet Dark, by Simon Fitzmaurice
Film-maker Simon Fitzmaurice was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2008, and given the brutal news that he had four years to live. This memoir, which grew out of his wife’s request that he write something for their five children, was written using eye-gaze technology because his eyes are the only part of his body that he can still move. It’s a vivid expression of family love and the love of being alive. Hachette Books Ireland, €11.50.


This story appears in the December issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Saturday January 3

10 Ways to Own A Room

Some women can command the attention of a room just by showing up. Be the life and soul – or just the soul – of the Christmas party …

1. Don’t be fashionably late
“If I go to a party, I like to be there at the beginning or the end. I’m bored in the middle,” proclaimed the artist Sophie Calle. Arrive first and you get the best chat – later, groups will have formed. If you do arrive late, make it a fantastic entrance. The actress Tallulah Bankhead was famous for cartwheeling into parties.

2. Come in costume
Looking good is one thing, but to own the room, you need to look striking. A show-stopping dress or flamboyant headpiece commands attention. Or a great hat. Use an eye-popping necklace or great chandelier earrings to dazzling effect.

3. Book in for a new ‘do
Ever witnessed the Twitter storm when Beyoncé unveils a new haircut? Don’t stop at getting a boring blow-dry. Get a chop that will make you feel like a new person.

This story appears in the December issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Saturday January 3

Books with Style

Chic coffee table compendiums to inspire

Photographs, Yves Saint Laurent
The world of Yves Saint Laurent as seen by Roxanne Lowit, a pioneer of backstage photography and member of the designer’s inner circle. Thames & Hudson, €44.60.

Lanvin, I Love You
Exploring Alber Elbaz’s inspiring work for Lanvin, this monograph focuses on the designer’s theatrical mise-en-scenes for the fashion house. Rizzoli, €68.

Liberty Style
Arthur Liberty revolutionised design with the opening of his Regent Street shop in 1875. Its spectacular story is brought to life in Martin Wood’s gorgeous hardback. Frances Lincoln, €51.

This story appears in the December issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Saturday January 3

Fond of a Tipple

We’re told to drink and be merry this month, but many women are embracing the spirit of Christmas a little too wholeheartedly, says Maggie Armstrong

Tis the season for office parties, family parties, mulled wine and mince pie parties, pub crushes and the unfortunate “Twelve Pubs”, when extremely energetic kids in flashing polyester Christmas jumpers drink twelve drinks in twelve pubs. The wine gushes and bosses put generous tabs behind bars. December is for getting involved, defying the stresses of the year. It’s a jolly old binge.

The latest unpleasant statistics on Ireland’s drinking problem emerged from the Irish Alcohol Diaries, a robust survey conducted in 2013 on 6,000 18-75-year-olds across Ireland. It found that 75 per cent of all alcohol consumed was done so in a binge-drinking scenario. According to the survey, more than 1.35 million people in the country are harmful drinkers.

For women these are tidings full of woe. As we’re often reminded, with unhelpful scaremongering, Irish women are becoming problem drinkers, especially 18-24-year-old Irish women – those drunk, leggy girls shivering down Harcourt Street or outside the infamous Wesley disco we like to make fun of. Of the 18-24-year-olds surveyed, 22 per cent of women consume their weekly guidelines-worth of drink in one sitting, while 28 per cent of men do. For women that’s eleven units down the hatch. As if a Senior Cup rugby team was standing over them shouting, “Chug, chug, chug!”

Women are putting up tough competition to male drinkers, but there are many reasons why they shouldn’t. One is that women have more body fat, making it harder to break down alcohol. According to Suzanne Costello, CEO of Alcohol Aware, young women’s drinking habits “increase the risk of developing more than 200 diseases, such as liver cirrhosis and breast cancer. Drinking one standard alcoholic drink a day – a small glass of wine – is associated with a nine per cent increase in the risk of developing breast cancer”.

This story appears in the December issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Saturday January 3

A Tale of Two Christmases

She’s celebrated many a season in sunnier climes, but Penny Mc Cormick finds she can unearth touches of a traditional Irish Christmas in even the most exotic of locations

Being fairly idealistic, the perfect Christmas for me derives from my love of film and romantic fiction where women dress in tartan (Ali MacGraw in Love Story), men rush through snow to declare their love (Bridget Jones/When Harry Met Sally) and the best present ever is a puff-sleeved dress (Anne of Green Gables). To wit, all of my imaginary festive seasons are in cold climates where log fires and simple and sentimental gatherings take precedence over glamour and glitz. What happens, therefore, when you take the girl out of Christmas? Does it necessarily follow that you take Christmas out of the girl?

When I arrived in Maputo, Mozambique as the fledgling girlfriend of my Italian boyfriend for our first Christmas together I did not anticipate the battle of wills that would ensue between Fatima, the housekeeper, and myself. Up until my arrival she had looked after The Roman, so did not take kindly to my ideas of Christmas entertaining. It was rather like that scene from Sex and the City where Samantha (for once) concedes defeat at the hands of a suitor’s overprotective Filipina helper. In much the same way, when The Roman went off to work in the mornings, I faced a fairly hostile reception, but love is a great motivator and so I set out to enjoy my first hot Christmas.

I couldn’t deck the halls with holly – frangipani and bougainvillea were more appropriate, with a smattering of seashells for good measure. I had the added complication of fusing Irish and Italian Christmas traditions. Seafood lasagne instead of turkey, Prosecco and panettone replaced plum pudding, and a surprising love of lentils and red underwear (for New Year’s Eve) were among the culinary and sartorial novelties. I introduced celebration trifles, cranberry muffins and yule logs to the mix; some of my own favourite Christmas foods. I also battled with the emotional tugs and flashbacks of what would be happening at home. My mother’s birthday is on Christmas Eve so in our family this takes precedence over much of the holiday. Home Christmases are also precisely timed when it comes to icing the cake, wrapping presents and making table decorations. But in spite of the best-laid plans, all are done on December 23 with a “never again, I’ll be more organised next year” rider.

This story appears in the December issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Saturday January 3

Finally I know who I am

After almost 20 years of searching, Edel Byrne met her birth mother, but rather than an end to her emotional journey, this reunion was only the beginning of a heartbreaking tale of familial destruction

Growing up in Clonmel, I always knew I was adopted. I sensed there was something different about me. I didn’t quite fit in, always conscious of an untold narrative in my past. My adopted family were fine but I always felt like an outsider. A bit rudderless. Unanchored. The only left-hander in the family. Tall and dark, where they were not. When I came of age, I made tentative moves to trace my birth mother; a big step, one that required a lot of soul-searching and courage. All this, in a time when there was no counselling available, no dedicated, trained adoption social workers. However, I was stonewalled by the Health Board, hit a brick wall with the adoption agency. They fobbed me off with every excuse. They didn’t have the files. The files were burnt. The files were lost. All lies. Why not leave sleeping dogs lie? My mother might be married, have kids, and not want her life disturbed. She might not want to be disturbed? How blithely they uttered those words, oblivious to the monumental hurt they caused. Rejection over and over again.

But the urge to find her was stronger, the need to know who I was, where I came from, the longing to fill in the gaps in my past. Eventually they gave me her name and I decided to do a trace myself, trawling through birth registrations at the General Register Office. This painstaking and oftentimes frustrating experience took years but eventually I came up with a name, and an address. She was married, living in Kilkenny. My mother, my own mother, no longer a shadowy figure in my imagination but a real live person. But what to do with this information? Impatient to make contact, yet aware of the sensitive nature of our situation, I crafted a carefully worded letter and posted it. And waited. Finally a reply arrived. We were in touch at last. Careful to take it slowly, we wrote and emailed at first, waiting until the time was right for us to meet.

This story appears in the December issue of The Gloss. Find more features like this in next issue, out Saturday January 3