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History Graduate Students Present at American Conference of Irish Studies

Story by Tian Quinn; edited by Jessica Cook

In October, Public History graduate students Mary Larkin, Jill Willis and Krystina Yeager traveled to Philadelphia to attend the American Conference of Irish Studies New England/Mid-Atlantic annual meeting, where they each presented recent papers on a panel titled “Northern Ireland Troubles through a Public History Lens.” The students worked closely with Public History program coordinator Professor Margo Shea, who helped the students to apply for travel grants from the School of Graduate Studies that allowed these students to stand among other scholars and researchers at this important academic event. 

The prospect of the conference began during Dr. Shea’s six-week Summer Session I course that concentrated on the Northern Ireland Troubles, a period of civil conflict that spanned from 1969 to 1998. The final assignment for the course was a research paper where students were encouraged to choose their own topic and delve into an aspect of the course they wanted to explore further. Dr. Shea saw this as an opportunity for students to engage in primary research as well as flex their intellectual muscles in ways that shorter writing assignments throughout the course did not offer. When reading her students’ final papers, Dr. Shea noticed something that Larkin, Willis and Yeager had in common: intelligent, clear voices that synthesized and developed course content to make it their own. Thoroughly impressed by each of their papers, Dr. Shea encouraged the three students to submit their work to a call for papers issued by the American Conference of Irish Studies. Soon after they submitted their panel proposal for “Northern Ireland Troubles through a Public History Lens,” the three students’ papers were accepted. 

To help them get a sense of what the conference would be like, Dr. Shea arranged a mock panel for the students to present their research papers to History department faculty.

In the months leading up to the conference, Larkin, Willis and Yeager asked hard questions about their research and worked together in a supportive environment to prepare for the event, where they would present on their own panel together. To help them get a sense of what the conference would be like, Dr. Shea arranged a mock panel for the students to present their research papers to History department faculty. This setup simulated the conference setting in a familiar space, which allowed the students both to practice presenting their papers to a live audience and hear themselves talk about the content of their own papers. After presenting their work in the mock panel, Larkin, Willis and Yeager also got to engage in a simulated Q&A, where they received feedback from their faculty audience. Dr. Shea, who was unable to attend the actual conference in person, was thrilled with the mock panel and felt confident that her students’ dedication and persistence throughout the preparation process would result in a successful and rewarding experience. 

At the mid-October conference at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Larkin, Willis and Yeager presented their work to an audience of scholars and graduate students. 

Larkin, who is pursuing a Certificate in Public History, presented the essay “Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland: Negotiating Public and Private History,” which investigates how contemporary grassroots organizations have historically dealt with restorative justice and offers new ways to heal through oral history and art. Larkin's connection to this topic is both personal and professional. In the 1990s, she studied in Ireland, where she learned about ongoing intergenerational issues that persist in Northern Ireland. Today, as a middle school history teacher, Larkin is interested in helping students navigate race and diversity issues. After a racial incident that occurred at her school last winter, the school began talking about different methods of incorporating restorative justice; now, after engaging deeply with this topic for her graduate work, Larkin feels as though she can contribute to the conversation. 

Willis, a History MA student seeking a Public History certificate, is interested in researching women's experiences during the Troubles. During the first few weeks of Dr. Shea’s summer course, the class was introduced to a variety of guest speakers, including geographer and author Bryonie Reid, whose research Willis found particularly engaging. Willis’s conference paper, “Reading While Walking: Rethinking Gendered Spatialities of the Troubles,” uses Reid’s work alongside Northern Irish author Anna Burns’ novel Milkman to explore the spaces that women in the Troubles experienced and belonged to. Willis, who used Burns’ historical fiction and Reid’s research to represent real women’s lives, is intrigued by the place that fiction has in history, particularly in how created works like Milkman can help audiences connect to concepts that portray public history.  

Yaeger, also a History MA student seeking a Public History certificate, presented “Bernadette Devlin McAliskey: Go Somewhere You’re Hated and Look them Right in the Face,” a paper that examines Bernadette McAliskey, an Irish civil rights leader who notably slapped the British Home Secretary across the face in the wake of the Bloody Sunday massacre. Yaeger’s interest in radical figures inspired her to learn more about Bernadette’s personal journey and the factors that influenced her as a person. Yaeger’s typical line of studies involves analyzing 16th and 17th century texts. However, a common theme that Yaegar enjoys researching about involves marginalized led narratives, which typically includes women. For Yaegar, this research paper was an opportunity to explore a topic that was more contemporary than her typical academic work, while still appealing to her personal interests.  

In discussing her students and their papers with the CRCA, Dr. Shea notes that the Irish Studies conference was an opportunity for this group of students to receive acknowledgement that the research they had done was worthy and what they were doing was strong scholarship. Larkin notes how easy it was for her to get lost in the research process; at some point, she advises, there comes a point when you have to stop reading and start writing. Still, being so engrossed in her research for this paper, Larkin says, made the end-product especially gratifying to present.  

The overarching sentiment the students mention is the gratifying experience of following a product to the end.

The overarching sentiment the students mention is the experience of following a product to the end. Yaeger notes how grateful she is for the support that the group received from Dr. Shea and the History department, recognizing that the amount of the support lended itself directly to positive experiences all around. Willis elaborates that, as a student, there are many times when you receive a grade on a paper or project that you never look at again. The experience of writing a paper that you really care about with a professor who supports you, Willis says, is rewarding within itself. However, the additional component of sharing that work at a conference with people with a shared love for an academic field is a special opportunity. 


Congratulations, Mary, Jill and Krystina on your accomplishments!  


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