Research Seminar Reflection: “Ports, Past and Present: Cultural Research, Community Engagement and Impact”

This semester’s Research Seminar Series was both thought provoking and edifying. Not only did the seminars introduce me to areas of research with which I was not familiar previously, they also provided insight into the mechanics of academia. It was useful to listen to academics speak about their experiences in the field of research and the various paths by which they arrived there. One of the highlights of the series was the opening talk given by the Ports, Past and Present team. Ports, Past and Present is a collaborative research project led by University College Cork’s Professor Claire Connolly in partnership with Aberystwyth University, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Wexford County Council. The project looks at the long history of movement and exchange between Ireland and Britain, via the Irish Sea Basin, as a consequence of conflict, trade, and other socio-political factors. Focusing on Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke, the project aims to enrichen the heritage of and encourage new modes of tourism around these ports by unearthing the stories behind them. Ports, Past and Present is funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Ireland Wales Cooperation programme.

Royal Museums Greenwich. Fishguard, __http___collections_rmg_co_uk_collections_objects_105339, 1797. Accessed 29 Dec. 2020.

Along with Professor Connolly, those speaking at the seminar were Aoife Dowling, the Project Manager, as well as Postdoctoral Research Fellows for the project at UCC, Dr. Jonathan Evershed and Dr. James Smith. What struck me about the speakers was their range of disciplinary backgrounds. Connolly teaches Modern English at UCC, and her work focuses mainly on eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Irish culture. Having obtained a BA in History and Greek & Roman Civilisation from UCC, Dowling completed an MA in Culture & Creative Industries at King’s College London and went on to work in both media and cultural heritage before joining the project. Dr. Evershed is an anthropologist researching in the area of postcolonial British-Irish relations and has previously examined this in the context of Brexit for another of UCC’s research projects. Dr. Smith’s work spans environmental, blue and digital humanities and his most recent research looked at Lough Derg, which is also the subject of his current book project. Having experience in literature, heritage, politics and geography, the PPP team members present at the talk exemplify the interdisciplinary nature of the project as a whole. A project such as this one, which examines culture across space, necessitates a variety of expertise, and is more compelling for it.

Royal Museums Greenwich. The New Harbour of Refuge at Holyhead, http___collections_rmg_co_uk_collections_objects_105392, date unknown. Accessed 29 Dec. 2020.

Connolly commenced the talk by introducing the aims of the project. Firstly, PPP wants to encourage port communities to engage with the heritage of their surroundings. The project also aims to generate tourism in these port towns, which are often dismissed as places to be passed through in order to reach locations deemed more culturally significant. Thirdly, the project intends to “put research to work” (Connolly). In other words, rather than remaining latent, the research will serve an economic purpose by boosting tourism. For Connolly, elements of the project can also be read conceptually. The water over which people travelled between Ireland and England due to colonialism forms Irish culture. In the same way, infrastructure plays a formal role in culture, shaping the land out of which a culture grows. Like the other sections of the talk, Connolly’s exemplifies the benefits of interdisciplinary projects such as this one. Her background in English literature is evident from her mention of the many writers who made the journey from Britain to Ireland and back by way of the ports. John Keats, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth and Jonathan Swift all crossed the Irish Sea Basin, and the Ports, Past and Present website includes accounts of the lived experience of Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth and Swift during their travels.

Dowling spoke about her managerial duties, as part of which she is responsible for the project’s strong online presence. Having an online presence is crucial in the context of COVID-19. The pandemic has made site work impossible, thus necessitating a move to digital. The team spoke about their plans to record a Ports, Past and Present podcast, through which they can continue to collect stories from port communities orally, in spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic. Most recently, the team established an online Slack network. Those living in port communities, or who have an interest in ports heritage and tourism, can partake in discussions with one another through the forum. Borrowing from his experience in the digital humanities, Smith is currently creating an app for the port communities.

PPP also has a newsletter. Click on the tweet above to sign up.

With Britain and the EU finally coming to a trade deal agreement on Christmas Eve, the question of what effect Brexit will have on projects such as this one, not to mention the port communities with which it engages, is pertinent. Evershed, who deals mainly with the “Present” element of the project, touched on the impact of Brexit on the ports in his section of the talk. He noted how, compared to the considerable attention paid to the land border during Brexit discussions, insufficient heed had been paid to the relationship between the ports. Evershed anticipated that ports were likely to suffer economically as a result of Brexit. Indeed, following the arrival at a trade deal last week, Minister for the Marine Charlie McConalogue remarked that the pact will effect Ireland’s fishing sector negatively (Horgan-Jones and Staunton). Moreover, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar predicts “disruption” and delays in the ports, on both sides of the water, over the coming weeks (Halpin). In the last couple of days, the BBC reported that increased traffic is expected at Rosslare due to delays at Fishguard, although the Irish port will need to improve its infrastructure in order to meet this demand (Harrison). While speaking to us back in October, Evershed explained how economic consequences such as these meant that Brexit cast a foreboding shadow over the team’s conversations with port communities throughout the year.

Joanes, Roger. Rosslare Harbour. 183 with a Train for Limerick. 1.8.91,, 1991. Accessed 29 Dec. 2020.
“Rosslare Harbour. 183 with a train for Limerick. 1.8.91” by Roger Joanes is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps this is why projects such as Ports, Past and Present are so crucial. By anchoring itself in the port communities, which are often overlooked in favour of a country’s larger, urban hubs, the project foregrounds the ports as central to the ties between Ireland and the UK. The project hopes to have a positive economic effect on the communities, too. Smith spoke about the recent increase of blue tourism, where more people are opting to holiday along the coastline. Indeed, one advantage of COVID-19 is the phenomenon of the ‘staycation’, which saw thousands of Irish citizens holidaying at home, particularly along the Western coast or ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. The Ports, Past and Present team hopes to generate similar touristic enthusiasm around the ports by increasing awareness of their cultural heritage and creating tourism networks between them. In its in augural year, the project has evidently overcome the challenges posed by Brexit and the pandemic in order to promote knowledge around the ports. Over the course of its next three years, I expect that Ports, Past and Present will continue to bridge gaps in both knowledge and in distance.

You can visit the Ports, Past and Present website here.

Works Cited

Connolly, Dowling, et al. “Ports, Past and Present: Cultural Research, Community Engagement and Impact.” Department of English Research Seminar Series, 7 Oct. 2020, University College Cork.

Halpin, Hayley. “EU Member States Give Green Light for Post-Brexit Deal to Come Into Effect on 1 January.” The Journal, 28 Dec. 2020, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.

Harrison, Shane. “Brexit: The Irish Port of Rosslare is Hoping to Benefit.” BBC News, 26 Dec. 2020, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.

Horgan-Jones, Jack and Denis Staunton. “Cabinet to Discuss Brexit Deal as Sectors of Economy Face Disruption.” The Irish Times, 28 Dec. 2020, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.

Ports, Past and Present . Ports, Past and Present Project, Accessed 28 Dec. 2020.

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