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Irish-speaking Yorkshire man who has made city his home

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Date Published: 29-Jun-2012

 PROFESSOR Steven Ellis is a native of Halifax in Yorkshire but his publications over the last three decades have helped to shape our understanding of Irish history.

He has taught at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) since 1976 and during that time he has earned a reputation as a distinguished historian in late Medieval and early modern Irish History. Steven recently received the highest academic honour in Ireland when he was enrolled as a new member of the Royal Irish Academy.

The seeds of a career in Ireland were first sown when he studied History in Manchester University.

“I’m totally English but I’ve always been interested in things Irish,” Steven explains.

“One of things that you had to study was Latin but you also did a modern foreign language, so I learned Irish from scratch at Manchester.”

After finishing university, he worked in Queen’s University Belfast in the mid-seventies, at the height of the Troubles. When a post in NUIG came up two years later, he chose to make the move to the West.

Naturally, an Englishman who could speak Irish was something of a rarity at the time.

“I think there were very few people from my background who would know Irish.”

Many of the lectures were carried out through Irish and he recalls that this offered him an opportunity to usurp his students’ expectations. “I could tease the first years when they started my course because they didn’t know me from Adam. As soon as I opened my mouth in English, they knew I was English.

“With the group through Irish, I would do about 20 minutes in Irish and gradually make more and more provocative comments about the Irish question and, so long as they thought I was Irish, this was acceptable. Then I would tell them, by the way I’m English, and you could see the credibility draining away from the lecture at that stage!

“People did not expect that an outsider would be able to speak Irish to them. There was quite a number in those days – there was a Greek who taught Mathematics, a Swede who taught Irish – to get an Englishman doing this seemed even more exotic.”

The move to Galway was obviously a change from the social unrest in Northern Ireland but he also had to adjust to simple things like the Galway accent.

“I also thought that Galway in those days was quiet. It was OK in the Summer when there were lots of tourists around but it got very quiet in the Winter. Now I think it’s come on by leaps and bounds. I really like the place.”

He points out the many cultural attractions in the city, which compare easily to larger cities, saying “it’s the cultural capital of Ireland”.

The recognition from the Royal Irish Academy was a welcome acknowledgement but many felt that it was overdue.

He admits that it was an honour to be enrolled.

“I was very pleased about that. Some people said to me afterwards that it was a long time in coming. I think if I had been in a different situation that I might have got the honour a bit earlier than I did but that reflected the fact that I was actually quite controversial as an academic, particularly in the ’80s during the revisionist controversy.

“I mean the difficulty there is that Irish people do not like to be told their own history, certainly not by an outsider. They know their own history.”

Galway in Days Gone By

The way we were – Protecting archives of our past

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A photo of Galway city centre from the county council's archives

People’s living conditions less than 100 years ago were frightening. We have come a long way. We talk about water charges today, but back then the local District Councils were erecting pumps for local communities and the lovely town of Mountbellew, according to Council minutes, had open sewers,” says Galway County Council archivist Patria McWalter.

Patria believes we “need to take pride in our history, and we should take the same pride in our historical records as we do in our built heritage”. When you see the wealth of material in her care, this belief makes sense.

She is in charge of caring for the rich collection of administrative records owned by Galway County Council and says “these records are as much part of our history as the Rock of Cashel is. They document our lives and our ancestors’ lives. And nobody can plan for the future unless you learn from the past, what worked and what didn’t”.

Archivists and librarians are often unfairly regarded as being dry, academic types, but that’s certainly not true of Patria. Her enthusiasm is infectious as she turns the pages of several minute books from Galway’s Rural District Councils, all of them at least 100 years old.

Part of her role involved cataloguing all the records of the Councils – Ballinasloe, Clifden, Galway, Gort, Loughrea, Mountbellew, Portumna and Tuam. These records mostly consisted of minutes of various meetings.

When she was cataloguing them she realised their worth to local historians and researchers, so she decided to compile a guide to their content. The result is For the Record: The Archives of Galway’s Rural District Councils, which will be a valuable asset to anybody with an interest in history.

Many representatives on these Councils were local personalities and several were arrested during the political upheaval of the era, she explains.

And, ushering in a new era in history, women were allowed to sit on these Rural District Councils – at the time they were not allowed to sit on County Councils.

All of this information is included in Patria’s introductory essay to the attractively produced A4 size guide, which gives a glimpse into how these Rural Councils operated and the way political thinking changed in Ireland during a short 26-year period. In the early 1900s, these Councils supported Home Rule, but by 1920, they were calling for full independence and refusing to recognise the British administration.

“I love the tone,” says Patria of the minutes from meetings. “The language was very emotive.”

That was certainly true of the Gort Rural District Council. At a meeting in 1907, following riots in Dublin at the premiere of JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World the councillors’ response was vehement. They recorded their decision to “protest most emphatically against the libellous comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, that was belched forth during the past week in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, under the fostering care of Lady Gregory and Mr Yeats. We congratulate the good people of Dublin in howling down the gross buffoonery and immoral suggestions that are scattered throughout this scandalous performance.

 

For more from the archives see this week’s Tribunes here

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Archive News

Real Galway flavour to intermediate club hurling battle in Birr

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Date Published: 23-Jan-2013

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Archive News

Athenry fail to take chances as they bow out of Junior Cup

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Date Published: 29-Jan-2013

Athenry FC 1

Kilbarrack United 2

(After extra time)

For the second year in succession Athenry were done in extra time in the FAI Junior Cup as last season’s beaten finalist’s came from behind to snatch an excellent game in Moanbawn on Sunday afternoon.

On a heavy pitch that was only playable following extensive groundwork by club officials all morning, the home side were by far the better side in the opening half, but failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities that came their way.

An Alan O’Donovan penalty gave them a merited advantage just after the restart, but thereafter were on the back foot as Kilbarrack took over, but for all their pressing, the home rearguard were dealing comfortably with their forays.

However they were struck a body blow just six minutes from time, as big striker Keith Kirwan was left all alone at the far post to head the equaliser and from that point on the Dubliners were the better side.

They started off the extra time in the ascendancy and enjoying all the momentum before striking for a good winning goal on 104 minutes. A strong bench allowed them to make some necessary changes and it was not a facility that was available to Athenry manager Gabriel Glavin.

With Gary Forde and Gary Delaney out through suspension following their sending off against OLBC in the previous round, and Seamie Crowe injured, it left their bench rather threadbare with just a number of young squad players available.

Playing with the aid of the slight incline and any wind advantage going, the home side had a Connor Cannon effort on target in the opening minute, while John Meleady was just over with a flick at the other end.

Meleady then tested Andrew Walsh who saved comfortably, before the goalkeeper pulled off a brilliant double save on 14 minutes.

Firstly he went full length to push away a Meleady shot and was then back on his feet to parry David Jackson’s close-range rebound.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Sentinel.

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