Complicated Pasts, Promising Futures Public History on the Island of Ireland

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Ann-Marie Foster


This overview article explores the nature of public history on the island of Ireland, discussing current trends in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Family history and digital history are highly popular ways of engaging with the past, both on the island and among the Irish diaspora, who have a voracious appetite for engaging with their heritage. Given that the island contains a postcolonial society (Republic of Ireland) and a post-conflict one (Northern Ireland) attention is given to the ways that these difficult pasts are engaged with by communities, through examining the histories of Mother and Baby Homes, The Troubles, and dark tourism. This article also briefly comments on who is involved in public history. Academic historians are engaged at state and local levels, and are often turned to as experts in the field, but grassroots public history projects which offer participatory ways of doing history are growing. This article emphasizes the high levels of engagement Irish and Northern Irish publics have with their history, however, it also suggests that public history as a radical method of ‘doing history’ is still in its relative infancy.  

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Author Biography

Ann-Marie Foster, Northumbria University

Ann-Marie Foster is a Research Fellow at Northumbria University, UK, working on the AHRC funded project ‘Ephemera and Writing about War in Britain, 1914 to the Present’. Prior to this, she taught public history at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Foster’s research focuses on the intersections of history and memory, with a focus on how people relate to their family pasts. Her articles have been published in History and Memory, Twentieth Century British History, Urban History, the electronic British Library Journal, and 1914-1918: International Encyclopedia of the First World War. She is currently working on her first monograph, which explores how families commemorated the death of a loved one in war or disaster in early twentieth century Britain, while working on a new project, which explores how ephemera has shaped the memory of the First World War in Britain and Ireland.