Irish Studies

Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland – In Conversation with Ciarán McCabe

Beggars and begging were ubiquitous features of pre-Famine Irish society, yet have gone largely unexamined by historians. Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland explores for the first time the complex cultures of mendicancy, as well as how wider societal perceptions of and responses to begging were framed by social class, gender and religion. The book has recently been unlatched by Knowledge Unlatched, and the ebook can now be accessed for free. We spoke to author Ciarán McCabe about this recent publication.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

I have been interested in the history of poverty and welfare for a number of years, and the topics of begging and vagrancy kept coming up in the sources, but there was no substantial study of them. I think I was initially attracted by the language used by contemporaries to describe “study beggars and idle vagrants”! The sheer ubiquity of beggars in the pre-Famine period was fascinating to me: they were everywhere and constant. They were found in large numbers in both urban and rural areas, and they were inevitably commented on by foreign travellers, albeit with some literary gloss sometimes applied to their account!

When researching this topic during my PhD at Maynooth University, I decided to explore how charitable societies, civil parish bodies and the various churches dealt with mendicancy. And this facilitated the approach I have taken in Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland, wherein I consider societal perceptions of beggars and begging, and then responses to the problem  – (begging was usually seen as a problem!). I also consider the other side of the giver / receiver exchange, and explore the motivations and experience of alms-givers.

The book explores different ways in which beggars were seen: as spreaders of disease; as work-shy idlers; as conveyors of gossip and political sedition; as a drain on the benevolence and Christian generosity of a mostly impoverished population. But, they could also be seen as engaged in a perfectly legitimate, fundamentally human act: asking assistance of one’s fellow man. When factors such as gender, social class and religious background are considered, it becomes a fascinating, yet complex, topic.

In a nutshell, Chapters 1-3 consider the broad topic of mendicancy: how can we define who was a beggar and what was begging; how and why were many contemporaries so eager to enumerate the numbers of people begging; and the disparate ways in which beggars were perceived.

Chapter 4 explores the short-lived mendicity society movement (there were more than fifty anti-begging societies established throughout Ireland between 1809 and 1845), while Chapter 5 looks at how parish vestries regulated begging through a badging / licencing system.

Chapters 6 and 7 respectively examine Catholic and Protestant approaches to mendicancy and discuss differences and similarities in perceptions and responses.

You highlight the lack of historical study into begging in pre-Famine Irish society. Why do you think this topic has been somewhat overlooked?

I think that the seeming lack of sources – especially sources from the perspective of the soliciting beggar – did not lend itself to considerable attention from scholars. I trawled through archives and libraries throughout Ireland and Britain finding material relating to begging and beggars in Ireland, and in some cases came upon sources which had not been used before, while in other cases, I asked new questions of well-worn sources.

The historian Caitriona Clear has written about beggars and vagrants as having “at best, a walk-on part in Irish history”, which I think is perfectly accurate. In social historians’ studies of the pre-Famine period beggars are usually mentioned, but have been left as ubiquitous, yet not terribly important, figures. My book broadens out the question beyond just the people engaged in begging and considers the practice of begging itself, as well as the significance that begging played in wider social and political reforms, such as the introduction of the Poor Law into Ireland in the late-1830s. But also, it looks at how a study of mendicancy informs changes in other developments within Irish society – the evolving experiences of poverty and welfare; the emergence of statistical and social inquiry in the early- to mid-nineteenth century; societal responses to disease epidemics; the changing function of the parish vestry as a unit of local government.

How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?

Among the topics I explore is the changing role of the civil parish vestry as a local government entity and a provider of social services, such as the care of orphans and deserted children, the provision of coffins to poor parishioners and the regulation of begging through a badging system. The parish gradually lost these powers throughout the mid-nineteenth century and this loss, I think, represents a substantial change in community power-brokering and interdenominational relations, especially in urban parishes, which is a much-neglected subject.

My book also makes considerable use of the published reports of the Whately Poor Inquiry, which sat between 1833-36 and examined in considerable detail the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland a decade before the Famine; their final output comprised more than 5,000 pages of reports. While numerous historians have made great use of the Whately Inquiry material, I still found new questions to ask of the sources. I think that the inquiry’s reports are wonderful sources that other scholars can return to as well, bringing new interests and asking new research questions.

The book uses a range of sources including case studies. Are there any sources which particularly stood out to you which you could discuss further with us?

The most enjoyable sources to work with were ones which opened up new perspectives on the history of begging, vagrancy and the relief of the poor. I started my research by considering these topics within the broader history of criminality, but the research evolved away from this angle and towards considering the responses of charities and churches. As such, it became a study of begging and alms-giving within the wider sphere of charity. The sources which facilitated this approach included Presbyterian kirk session minute books, the manuscript records of the Methodist-run Strangers’ Friend Society, the Society of Friends’ monthly meeting minute books and, for a Dublin case study, the papers of Archbishop Daniel Murray, who served as the Catholic archbishop of Dublin between 1823 and 1852.

Most interesting of all, though, were the vestry minute books of parishes from across Ireland. With some exceptions, these were all consulted in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin. The parish vestry was a gathering of (male) householders in a parish, to consider the levying of local rates (a parish cess) to fund particular items of expenditure for the coming year. The minutes reveal that, from the 17th into the 19th centuries, parishes’ role was not limited to ecclesiastical matters, but extended into social matters – for example, the support of foundlings, orphans, widows and, in some fascinating instances, the operation of a system of licenced begging. Local ‘deserving’ beggars, who were known to the authorities, were issued with copper or tin badges, which served as a licence to solicit alms in a public place. The beggar who did not possess a badge could, therefore, be labelled ‘undeserving’ and duly refused alms. The parish vestry minute books are a much underused body of sources for Irish social history tell us much about the public operation of power and community tensions, as well as attitudes towards poverty and welfare, in this period. I was fortunate in being pointed in the direction of the vestry minute books by the late Dr Caroline Gallagher of Maynooth University.

As valuable as the vestry minute books are, they are best considered alongside contemporary newspaper reports of the annual Easter vestry meetings. These reports, especially for parishes in large urban centres such as Dublin and Cork, reveal much more about these meetings than the administrative records. Journalists’ accounts reveal to us the debates, arguments and (occasional) boisterousness which went unrecorded in the minute books.

What are you going to be working on next?

At the moment I am a postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin, funded by the Irish Research Council’s Enterprise Partnership Scheme. My project examines the survival strategies of working-class women in Dublin city between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, and is associated with Dublin City Council and its new museum at 14 Henrietta Street. Among the topics I am exploring are the position of charwomen in Dublin’s unskilled labour force, women’s use of pawnshops, Dublin’s second-hand clothes markets, and the social and cultural relevance of the ubiquitous ‘open front door’ in the city’s tenements.

Visit our website for more information on Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland or to read the ebook for free.


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Irish Studies, Uncategorized

Women of the Country House in Ireland – Five minutes with Maeve O’Riordan

Ahead of the launch of Women of the Country House in Ireland, 1860-1914, author Maeve O’Riordan discusses the various experiences of women among the Irish Ascendancy, from financial freedom to their own observations of motherhood.

Women of the Country House in Ireland 1860-1914 reveals the lives of the women among the Irish Ascendancy. How did you go about conducting your research for this project?

The book examines the lives of women from twelve landed families in Ireland, all of whom had a house in Munster. It explores their experiences from girlhood to old age, whether they married or not. I wanted to give space to these women’s own voices, so most of my research time was spent with the letters, diaries, scrapbooks, novels, memoirs, sketchbooks and other items written by women who either were born or married into the Irish landed class. Luckily, their descendants have shared their papers with a library – mostly the National Library of Ireland but also the Boole Library in University College Cork and other places.

With literally thousands of pages of letters written by these women preserved in these libraries, it was possible to become totally immersed in the material. The structure of the book evolved over time as the themes emerged from the surviving letters.

I hope that readers will gain a clear insight into the female experience among the class through the book. By examining women’s own voices it is possible to see how they viewed their own roles within the house. The female role was an important one to the success of the family, even though, legally, women had few rights at the time.

‘a youth and a matron suspiciously placed…with his arm encircling the motherly waist.’‘A Floggy Flirtation, 1889 –Lady Castletown’s scrapbook. Image Credit: NLI


What was the female experience among the privileged landed classes like in the mid-nineteenth century? Did it vary a lot between families?

The women in this study were all members of some of the wealthiest families in Ireland, however, even within this group, there were differences in wealth between families. For example, the estate of the Earl of Bantry stretched over 60,000 acres while the Ryan family in Tipperary only owned around 1,000 acres. Olive, the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bantry married Lord Ardilaun – one of the richest men in Ireland or Britain – who owned the Guinness brewing empire. She had every possible comfort and a number of properties to call home, including Ashford Castle in County Mayo and Macroom Castle in County Cork.  The wives of the Ryan landlords had no such comparable wealth.

The most pronounced difference in experience, however, was within families between married and unmarried women, and women at different life stages. For example, Ethel, Lady Inchiquin, brought a dowry of £100,000 to her marriage in 1896. Throughout her married life, she acted with financial and personal freedom while remaining close to her husband. Ethel’s niece by marriage, Maud, was not as independent. After quarrelling with her mother, Ellen, in 1905, the unmarried woman was thrown out of the house and had no option to live with another sister on an allowance of £15 per month. To provide some context; in 1886, Ellen had hired a governess for Maud and her siblings on a salary of £80 per annum. Maud was completely reliant on the goodwill of her family for her financial security.

Ethel Foster, and extremely wealthy English heiress married the heir of Dromoland Castle in 1896. Their wedding was a statement of wealth and power. Read more about them in Women of the Country House in Ireland, 1860-1914 Image credit: NLI

When working on this project did you come across anything that you found particularly surprising?

There are a number of findings which surprise others when I talk about the book, particularly the fact that so many of these women were involved mothers who breastfed their babies and only relied on wet nurses in instances where they were too sick to nurse their own babies. For example, Mabel, who is depicted on the cover of the book with her son Brendan joked that he was turning her into a pagan as she could not attend church as he wanted to be constantly fed. When he was three months old she wrote that Brendan was ‘still practically a two-hours baby’ which meant ‘that the time for doing regular everyday things never seems to come’.

However, what has surprised me the most was the amount of movement across the Irish Sea on marriage. It has long been understood that many Irish landlords found English wives, but it was not known the extent to which women who grew up in Ireland ended up marrying into the English gentry and aristocracy. Of the peers’ daughters in this study, twice as many married English rather than Irish husbands. I want to examine this experience further in my future research.

How do you think Women of the Country House in Ireland 1860-1914 paves the way for further research into the history of women?

There has been a huge increase in the level of interest on women in the country house over the past few years. This book examines the female experience in a number of aspects of their lives. However, this book is only a starting point. Each one of the chapters could be expanded into longer studies of marriage, experiences of unmarried women, girlhood, political involvement, travel, social networks etc. I hope to complete some of this work, but many studies are needed before we can build a complete picture of the class at the time.

Maeve O’Riordan is Lecturer in Women’s and Cultural History at the School of History, University College Cork.

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Irish Studies

The Sixties and Youth Culture – A Distinctly Irish Experience

How was Ireland affected by the international youth culture of the Sixties? Author Carole Holohan discusses the pros and cons of life as a young adult in Sixties Ireland and reveals some of the surprising discoveries she made whilst writing her new book, Reframing Irish Youth in the Sixties.

How was the reformulation of youth key to social change in the Republic of Ireland during the sixties?

Changes in people’s expectations of young people and in their understanding of youth as a stage in the life cycle are a very significant element of the broader social changes of this period. Whether or not young people in your society work, emigrate or are in education tell you a lot about that society. The extent to which they engage in traditional or commercial leisure activities and the way in which adults in statutory, religious and secular agencies and associations respond to young people also gives us insights into how that society operates. Internationally, the status of youth changed in the post-war period and a new media environment, and greater political and economic connectedness in the West, facilitated a greater level of Irish interaction with new models and ideas. Like in other modern industrial societies, youth became a central focus and this was evident in the rhetoric of official, religious and civic bodies, and in the media.  Young people, long associated with emigration in the Irish context, were more likely to be viewed as an asset, rather than a burden, worthy of investment with a view to a more prosperous future. At the same time an international youth culture propelled the cultural significance of young people and intersected with commercial interests to produce separate physical and cultural spaces for young people. These developments suggested that authoritarian approaches by adults towards young people were inappropriate and ineffective, and the field of youth work adapted accordingly. Adult and parental authority was somewhat undermined, while cultural and market forces fuelled the independence of young people in certain areas of their lives. These shifts in how youth was understood worked in tandem with actual changes in the experiences of Irish young people and they directly contributed to changes in many areas of life, from the further commercialisation of leisure to changes to access to education.

How did the experiences of young people in the Republic of Ireland change in this period?

While at a rhetorical and planning level the position of young people changed significantly, the impact of these shifts in understandings of the position of youth impacted different sections of the youth population in different ways. For the social category of youth, the sixties marked a significant break with the immediate past – youth emigration was no longer chronic as it was in the 1950s and this was reflected in the rise in the number of 14-24 year olds engaged in non-agricultural employment and in education. Some trends such as the falling numbers in agriculture and domestic service were ongoing from the 1940s. Others such as the rising numbers in education and in white collar employment accelerated, while the number of young people in industry had actually fallen in 1950s. Young people were increasingly engaged either in waged employment or in education, the former granting a significant measure of independence, the latter providing for occupational opportunities in the future. However, there were definite winners and losers. Those without education and training would find it increasingly difficult to find employment as unskilled workers, with many continuing to emigrate. Others, particularly those with a secondary school or third level education, benefited from a more diverse employment market, often in Irish cities. The most vulnerable therefore gained least from the economic changes, while those with greater social capital, already destined for white collar work, benefited more.

Has your research on Irish youth revealed anything that you found particularly surprising?

I found that the received wisdom that Ireland is a place that is always lagging behind, imitating or catching up with its near neighbours is not always a useful way to consider the nature of social and cultural change in this society. While this can be true in certain areas, Irish governments, churches and civil society organisations were often engaged with forums where new ideas about the economy and social services were just being developed. International models would face adaptation of different kinds in different societies. The same pertained in the cultural sphere. Irish showbands should not be compared to the Beatles or the Beach Boys but rather the copycat bands of Western Europe who, similar to Irish showbands, adopted and adapted British and American music for a domestic audience. The Irish experience is often a distinct, though not exceptional, one. Using youth as a historical lens made this very clear to me.


Carole Holohan is Assistant Professor in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

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Irish Studies

Interview with Laura Kelly, author of Irish Medical Education and Student Culture, c.1850-1950

To celebrate the release of Irish Medical Education and Student Culture, c.1850-1950, we caught up with Laura Kelly to discuss the roles of women and religion in medical student culture, and how the student experience differed from that of modern day students.

Irish Medical Education and Student Culture, c.1850-1950

What drew you to this period, and why do you think this is the first comprehensive history of medical student culture on this period?

I’ve been really interested in the history of medical student experience ever since my masters thesis which focused on the social backgrounds and careers of Irish students who studied at the University of Glasgow in the nineteenth century. While studying for my masters I came across a book by Wendy Alexander on the history of the first female medical graduates at the University of Glasgow and then became interested in exploring the first generation of Irish medical women’s experiences, which was the topic of my PhD and subsequent first book. I’ve also been inspired and influenced by historians such as John Harley Warner, Keir Waddington, Jonathan Reinarz, Marguerite Dupree and Anne Crowther, who have written fascinating and important studies of medical education and student culture in the United States and Britain, as well as the work of Greta Jones, who has published widely on the history of the Irish medical profession. I became interested in discovering what was distinctive about the Irish medical student’s experience and in understanding how medical education evolved in Ireland over the nineteenth and twentieth century, as well as wanting to understand commonalities between the Irish case study and studies of medical education internationally.

The period 1850 to 1950 is a really fascinating one, not just in terms of the significant political and social changes taking place in Ireland, but also more broadly with regard to the increasing professionalization of doctors in this period, and attempts at reform of education. Class and social mobility are important concerns of the book.

I was surprised to find that there had been no comprehensive study of the history of Irish medical education since Charles Cameron’s survey of the Royal College of Surgeons and other Irish medical schools, published in 1886. Since then, there has been little written on the history of medical education in Ireland, with the exception of important articles by Greta Jones who has examined themes such as the emigration of Irish medical graduates and the Rockefeller report on Irish medical education, and my own first book, which has one chapter on women medical students’ educational experiences. There have also been a number of institutional histories also, but these tend to focus on the staff and administration of medical schools, rather than looking at the experiences of the students who attended them. My book looks at all of the Irish medical schools, rather than focusing on one, and importantly, it places students at the centre of the analysis.

You used a variety of sources including novels, newspapers, student magazines, doctors’ memoirs, and oral history accounts. Did this sources reveal anything that surprised you or changed the direction of your research?

I found that student newspapers and magazines were remarkable in terms of getting a glimpse of what life was like for medical students in the past. Most Irish universities had their own student papers from the 1900s onwards, and these had news on the medical schools as well as information about students’ extra-curricular activities, and poems and short stories written by students themselves. They revealed a lot about what it was actually like to study medicine in the early twentieth century, as well as giving me as sense of representations of medical students and attitudes towards them. The records of university sports clubs and discussions of pranks in the student press also meant that I became more interested in the interplay between sport, medical student culture and masculinity.

Diaries were also an important source for me, such as the diary of Alexander Porter, who studied medicine in Dublin in the 1860s. Porter had a challenging time as a student and frequently wrote about his fears about money and establishing himself in a medical career after graduation. These personal perspectives are invaluable.

There are also numerous memoirs written by Irish doctors which were very interesting in terms of collective memory and the particular image that doctors tried to present of their student days. In terms of novels, perhaps the most famous fictional Irish medical student is Buck Mulligan, who features in James Joyce’s Ulysses. He was based on Irish doctor Oliver St. John Gogarty, who published his own memoirs and a novel about medical student life called Tumbling in the Hay. A lesser known novel I looked at was G. M. Irvine’s The Lion’s Whelp (published in 1910) which is a fictional account of the experiences of a medical student at Queen’s University in Belfast.

My favourite part of the research, however, involved conducting oral history interviews with 24 men and women who had studied at Irish medical schools in the 1940s and 1950s. It was really enjoyable to hear about their experiences and to get those personal insights into the challenges they faced in studying medicine, as well as learning about the quality of teaching, and the gender dynamics. All of these personal perspectives really brought the book to life.

How did the medical student experience change in Ireland between 1850-1950?

For the nineteenth century, and much of the twentieth century, the British and Irish medical profession were inextricably linked and had much in common. In common with their counterparts in Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and the United States, Irish medical students were warned about the importance of cultivating diligence, good behaviour and avoiding the company of idle students in an effort to improve the behaviour of medical students, who were conventionally viewed as badly-behaved, an image which persisted into the twentieth century. As reports of bad behaviour by medical students began to decline, their image was remoulded into a more respectable one by the late-nineteenth century. Additionally, traits such as nobility and heroism became more important, thus reinforcing ideals about medicine being a ‘manly’ profession, particularly significant as women began to be part of the student body in Ireland from the 1880s. Sport, in particular, rugby, became important in maintaining cohesive social bonds.

Sir Patrick Dun's Rugby Football Team, 1895

Sir Patrick Dun’s Rugby Football Team, 1895.

Courtesy of RCPI Heritage Centre. (

I was interested to discover that teaching at Irish medical schools was generally of a poor standard for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century in Ireland. On top of this, Irish medical schools were beset with economic difficulties which meant that practices such as night classes, grinding and the issue of sham certificates were common in the earlier period. Moreover, owing to increased competition between medical schools, Irish students had a huge amount of power as consumers in the period. Medical students were not passive consumers either. Students also actively began to get involved in the concerns of the profession in the nineteenth century too and their complaints highlight not only the inadequacies of teaching at Irish schools, but also that students were beginning to see themselves as part of the profession and therefore felt entitled to get involved in such discussions. For instance, student protests were often concerned with appointments to hospital or university staff which students not agree with, or cases where an “outsider” had been appointed. Emigration was also an important part of medical student life across the 100 year period.

You also start to see changes in terms of the student body from the 1940s and 1950s. There were more international students, as well as ex-servicemen who began their medical studies in Ireland. Also, following the 1936 change in canon law, medical missionary nuns gradually became part of the student body, in particular at the medical schools at UCD and UCC which had a strong Catholic ethos.

Medical students of the past also share much in common with their counterparts today. Emigration is still really common for new Irish medical graduates, while there are also concerns about medical students possessing the appropriate traits to become good doctors, which partly resulted in the introduction of the HPAT (Health Professions Admissions Test) in 2009. However, there have also been important changes. For instance, today female students predominate in medical school applications in Ireland, a pattern which is mirrored by medical schools internationally. And medical students also face new concerns such as ‘burn out’ and the working pressures experienced by junior doctors.

How did religious divisions affect institutions and the student experience?

There was significant sectarianism within the Irish medical profession in both the nineteenth and twentieth century, however, I was surprised to find that this does not appear to have affected Irish students’ experiences in a major way. Oral history respondents who studied in the 1940s and 1950s also did not recall major rivalries between the different institutions; often such rivalries were quite benign in nature, and were played out on the sporting field. Religion was also an important factor in choice of medical school, and evidently, although Catholics began to increase in numbers in the medical profession from the mid-nineteenth century, they still continued to attend the Catholic University and the Queen’s Colleges over Trinity College, and for later generations of Catholic students in the mid-twentieth century, University College Dublin and the former Queen’s Colleges were preferred.

What was the role of women in Irish Medicine at this time?

Many people don’t know that Irish medical schools were at the forefront with regard to the admission of women to the medical profession in the nineteenth century. The King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland was the first institution in the United Kingdom to take advantage of the Enabling Act of 1876 and admit women to its degrees in 1877. From the 1880s, Irish medical schools opened their doors to women students. Numbers of female students matriculating at Irish medical schools were initially low. In the ten year period between 1885 and 1895, only forty-one women matriculated at Irish medical schools. Numbers of female medical students gradually increased during the years of the early twentieth century, peaking as they did in Britain during World War One, before declining again after the war. At Queen’s College Belfast, for example, one in twenty medical students in 1912 were female, while by 1918 one in four were female.

Women medical students, being in the minority, stood out in the medical student body and were often characterised in a certain way. In Ireland, female medical students were often thought to have a ‘civilising’ effect on the male student body. At the same time, female medical students were often figures of fun in the contemporary student press. In the student press, the male medical student was usually depicted as boisterous, sporty, and extremely sociable. Women medical students, on the other hand, were generally represented as being better behaved, more studious and hard-working than their male counterparts.

Although my earlier research has shown that the first generation of women students at Irish universities were treated in a positive manner, moving into the twentieth century and a more conservative Irish society after the establishment of the Irish Free State, women medical students became an increasingly segregated part of the student body.

A Bevy of first years on the way to the anatomy room

‘A Bevy of first years on the way to the anatomy room’.

Photograph from L.E. McLoughlin (ed.), Surgeon’s Log, annals of the schools of surgery, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, (Dublin: Regal, 1949). Courtesy of the RCSI Heritage Collections. (

How does this book pave the way for further research in the development of medical education throughout Irish history?

I hope it will! I feel that there is much potential for future research on the history of university education and student culture more broadly in Ireland. Although there have been a number of histories of Irish universities, as with histories of medical schools, these have tended to focus on administrative changes in these institutions and on the professors involved in teaching. There is much scope for research into the experiences of students and student culture more generally in Ireland, and as this book shows, there are a variety of sources available to do this. Moreover, I would love to know more about the experiences of medical students who trained in the 1960s and 1970s. There is also further scope for further work on the history of the Irish medical profession. In recent years, there have been a number of valuable studies which have significantly enriched our understanding of the Irish medical profession, for instance, with regard to issues such as emigration (Greta Jones), the First and Second World War (David Durnin), in the field of psychiatry (Catherine Cox) and in the medical missionary movement (Ailish Veale). Considering the huge amount of emigration of Irish doctors in the 1940s and 1950s, a project which explored the experiences of doctors who emigrated in this period would also enrich our understanding of the Irish medical profession.

Laura Kelly is Lecturer in the History of Health and Medicine at the University of Strathclyde.
For more information on Irish Medical Education and Student Culture, c.1850-1950, please visit our website.
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Irish Studies

Jonathan Jeffrey Wright – Author Insights

To coincide with May’s Free Read Friday – here are some author insights from Jonathan Jeffrey Wright on his book The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801–1832.  

1. What prompted you to write this book?

The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World is based on my doctoral research, which focused on the Presbyterian community of Belfast in the early nineteenth century. I was prompted to research this area because it had, to some extent, been overlooked. It is well known that some Presbyterians were active in the United Irish movement and that, during the 1790s, Belfast was a dynamic urban centre with a reputation for political radicalism. I wanted to explore the aftermath of this period. In the past, it was thought that after the 1790s Presbyterian radicalism declined, and the early nineteenth-century tended to be viewed, in a negative sense, as a period in which the opportunities of the 1790s were shut down. I wanted to reframe the period and look at it on its own terms.

2. What is the main argument of the book?

Essentially, the main argument of this book is that the early-nineteenth century was, for the Presbyterians of Belfast, an altogether more complex period than has previously been understood. In simple terms, there was a lot more going on, whether in terms of politics, cultural life or religious life, than is often appreciated. Related to this, the book argues that what was happening in Belfast cannot be understood in isolation, but must be viewed against a broader British and, indeed, European backdrop. The early-nineteenth century was a period of transition throughout Britain – it was arguably a period in which a shift from early modernity to modernity took place – and Belfast’s experience has to be viewed in this context.

3. How does your approach differ from other research in this area?

My work differs from other research in terms of its focus. Rather than focusing simply on politics or religion (or the interaction of the two), it focuses on politics, religion, culture and also family life. Central to The ‘Natural Leaders’ is the story of the Tennents, a prominent family of Belfast Presbyterians. While not a straightforward group biography, the The ‘Natural Leaders’ combines elements of biography, using the Tennents and their experiences as a means of illustrating the broader social, political and cultural changes of the period.

5. Did anything within your research surprise you?

During my research a lot of things surprised me. Not the least of these was the private life of William Tennent, a well-known and, seemingly, well-respected member of Belfast’s Presbyterian middle classes, who had as many as thirteen illegitimate children. I was also surprised to discover just how deeply involved Tennent had been in the United Irish movement and by the way in which he was able to re-establish himself in Belfast society despite his associations with radicalism. Beyond this, I was particularly struck by the engagement of Belfast’s Presbyterians with broader cultural trends, such as romanticism. Romantic literature appears to have been as popular in Belfast as it was elsewhere in Britain, and particularly among the young men educated in the Belfast Academical Institution. Their literary preferences, and also their pretensions and their numerous flirtations with the young ladies of the town, are revealed vividly in the papers of Robert James Tennent (William Tennent’s nephew); I was frequently amused as I worked on those papers.

Dr Jonathan Jeffrey Wright holds an IRCHSS-funded postdoctoral fellowship at Trinity College, Dublin and is a research fellow on the AHRC-funded Scientific Metropolis project at Queen’s University Belfast.

You can download Jonathan’s book free on the 6th of May here or purchase from our website.


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