Irish research funding must not leave humanities to the amateurs

4 Aug 2016

Dr Myles Dungan speaks at a Trinity College Dublin event in 2014. Photo via

Dr Myles Dungan sings the praises of humanities research as part of the Irish Research Council’s #LoveIrishResearch campaign.

As they sing in Oklahoma, “I’d like to say a word for the cowboy. The road he treads is difficult and stony.”

For ‘cowboy’, read instead ‘humanities researcher’.

You don’t have to be a professional researcher to make a contribution to Irish humanities scholarship, but it helps.

I suppose we could just learn to rely on gifted amateurs. People like Joe Duffy, who has recently made a major contribution to the historiography of the 1916 Rising. Modesty forbids adding my own name to that roll of honour without first deleting the prefix ‘gifted’, though I may have done Irish memory of the Great War some service.

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But imagine a world in which research was the exclusive domain of people who could afford to fund their own scholastic jollies.

We’ve been there. It was called the 19th century. And prior to that it was the 18th, and so on and so forth.

Yes, I know I’ve just rubbished the Renaissance, Darwin and the Age of Enlightenment but, let’s face it, in those times you could only be reborn, evolve or be enlightened if you were rich or enjoyed the patronage of the rich.

And, yes, I know that state-funded research produced Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that the internet was originally a military tool. But, in an illogical neo-liberal world, I’m entitled to ignore even the most compelling counter-argument.

Historic professionalism

Let’s assume that Irish scientific and medical research will continue to receive State funding. Let’s ignore the fact that this will probably be based on that most fundamental of accounting positions, the ‘bottom line’, rather than on the necessity to encourage good research. Let’s just make the assumption and leave it there. This allows me to focus on the humanities.

What if our entire knowledge of, for example, our national history was based on the work of dilettantes, however talented? Latter-day revisionism would have been dead in the water. There are those who might see that as a consummation devoutly to be wished. Except that all good history is a form of revisionism. If we don’t revise and reassess, what is the point of research?

‘The professionalisation of Irish history has made a huge contribution to current political and social debates. It has informed the Northern peace process, the way in which we govern ourselves, the way in which we think of ourselves’

The professionalisation of Irish history has made a huge contribution to current political and social debates. It has informed the Northern peace process, the way in which we govern ourselves, the way in which we think of ourselves. Would that have been possible based on the ‘hit and miss’ efforts of a few gifted amateurs?

I know that I, for one, have made mistakes and assumptions and have taken short cuts in my own writing. These have been corrected and challenged by subsequent researchers with the requisite rigour, untrammelled by pressures of, at its most basic, wondering how to get to the end of the week.

Why fund humanities research?

Of course, this avoids the fundamental question of why humanities research should be funded in the first place. What good does it do? How many jobs does it create? How does it advance the sum of human knowledge? How do humanities researchers improve the lot of their fellow man? How many humanities researchers does it take to change a light bulb?

For that matter, why not close down all the museums and art galleries in the country, while we’re at it? Who cares anyway? What is this obsession with our past all about? Why do we need archaeologists and historians?

And why do we need most of our current crop of publishers when it comes to it? Most of them publish novels and poetry. Reading novels is such a hideous waste of time. Novel readers are sloths, and probably radical thinkers to boot. At least nobody reads poetry any more. Why are we subsidising them in so many overt and covert ways? Let them produce cookery books and eat cake.

Come to think of it, who needs architects either? Engineers can design houses just as well. Economists? Well, I suppose we could simply delete the prefix ‘dismal’ and just call them scientists.

No humanities, no need to fund humanities research. Result!

Let’s not forget the fate of the poor cowboy in the next two lines of that song from Oklahoma: “He rides for days on end with just a pony for a friend. I sure am feeling sorry for the pony.”

There, that’s the humanities all sorted.

By Dr Myles Dungan

Dr Myles Dungan has written on 19th-century Irish history, the American West and the Great War, and presents The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1. Read more of his work on

A version of this article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog.