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Professor Margo Shea Published a New Book

The Center for Research and Creative Activities (CRCA) spoke this week with Professor Margo Shea of the history department at Salem State University, who recently published her book, “Derry City: Memory, and Political Struggle in Northern Ireland.” It was published by Notre Dame press and looks at Catholic Derry from the turn of the 20th century to the end of the 1960s and the start of the Troubles.

The idea for the book began many years ago while Shea was living in Derry and interning with a team of scholars who were mapping memorials, monuments and inscriptions that commemorated different incidents from the Troubles. Shea says that the Northern Irish countryside is blanketed with inscriptions that not only speak about the past, but also reflect changing attitudes surrounding the events. In that way, these memorials say a lot about the present, perhaps even more than they say about past events. Shea became interested in the idea of how memory could shape a place and how both the past and present could exist so visibly together.

Before and after the internship, Shea spent a lot of time in Derry and reckons that over the last 15 years she has spent somewhere around 4.5 years there. Shea continued to research the memorial landscape, focusing on the city of Derry itself, where she found more than 800 memorials. Shea says this research started her thinking and asking questions about who gets to inscribe their mark, who has access resources and the capacity to tell their stories.

When Shea decided to pursue a PhD and began writing her dissertation, she knew she wanted it to be about Derry. From the beginning, her adviser told her not to think of her work as a dissertation, but rather to imagine it as a book. Shea set out to write a dissertation that could become a book, though she claims there have been many iterations of it along the way. The original dissertation took the story of Derry all the way to the present, but in the end, she decided that she wanted to end just as the violence started which made it a very different project from what it was when it began.

Shea wanted to chart the ways a minoritized group keeps its history alive and a meditation on what it means to make and keep history, especially when you lack political and economic power. She became interested in what it means to write a history of memory because most people believe that memory is fallible; she saw the links between memory and the present as an asset instead of a liability, which historians are trained to assume. Shea wanted to represent all the different ways people use memory to create an idea of the past that serves them in the present. “In that way it [the research] was like a cross between chess and a puzzle,” Shea says, “and it was fun.”

Through her work, Shea has been able to meet people and build relationships within the community of Derry. When the book was eventually published, the press gave her several free copies of the book, all of which Shea sent straight to Derry to give to the librarians and historians who had been essential in the completion of the project. Shea says she wrote the book to be a resource for Derry, which made it bittersweet that when the book finally did come out, it was during a pandemic.

Plans to do a book launch in Derry were cancelled and Shea lost out on the opportunity to engage with local historians, writers and other pastmakers. Shea still sees the bright side. She says that even though the pandemic changed her plans, she was able to do a lot of virtual talks across Ireland and the United States at different libraries and museums, and in the end probably had a much larger audience.

Currently, Shea working on several new projects. She is working with people who were directly impacted by the Northern Ireland Troubles and feel that they were never really given the truth and reconciliation process or outcomes that they imagined and believed necessary for healing and moving forward. She is also doing a study that is continuing to look at the ripple effects of the clerical sexual abuse incidents in the Catholic church and the layers of loss felt by many Catholics as churches close because of the debts from settlements to victims of abuse.

Center for Research and Creative Activity (CRCA)
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