Teesside University has recently appointed Tim Ellis as a Graduate Tutor for History. We asked him to tell us about his past and future research.
I am originally from and now live in Sunderland (just 40 minutes away from Middlesborough), but in the past five years, I have spent time in Oxford (where I did my BA at St Hugh’s College) and Belfast (where I completed by my MA at Queens University). I first became fascinated with Irish history at Oxford where I had the great privilege of being taught by Prof. Roy Foster, Dr Senia Paseta and Dr Guy Beiner in my second and third years. On their advice (after taking some time out to backpack around China and teach English in the Amazon rainforest) I spent a year in Belfast, studying a specialist MA in Irish History, under the supervision of such great names as Dr Fearghal McGarry, Prof. Mary O’Dowd, Dr Marie Coleman and Prof. Sean Connolly. During my year at Belfast I became particularly interested in the Irish Free State, 1922-1939. My dissertation examined the role of political cartoons in the political culture of the Free State.
I spent much of my year in Ireland pouring over books in the McClay library and searching through printed cartoons in the National Library in Dublin. Time spent in Belfast City Cemetery, off the Falls Road, cataloguing gravestones as part of Public History internship proved to be a useful counterbalance to time spent in the library. One of my more memorable research trips was to Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, to visit a remote country house owned by the UK’s first female MP, Constance Markievicz, a renowned Irish republican, socialist and feminist. She is less well known for her incisive political cartoons, produced during the Irish Civil War, 1922-3.
During the course of researching my dissertation, it became apparent that political cartoons were rarely just an innocuous diversion to serious textual discussions in newspapers. They frequently touched on many controversial subjects: such as anti-imperialism, feminism, race and class. During the authoritarian years of the Civil War the political cartoon rarely caught the censor’s attention. Gender was an almost constant theme in Irish political cartoons: whether it was through subtle critiques of the new Irish state’s attitude towards women, or less subtle denigrations of politicians’ masculinity.
My masters’ research got me interested in visual sources in Irish history. Historians, especially those who study Ireland, often neglect visual sources, yet they provide much insight into how the voting public ‘see’ their political leaders. They are vital in fashioning politicians’ public image. In the 1920s and 1930s, democratic and authoritarian leaders across Europe carefully set about using the new media of photography and cinema to promote political support and, in some cases, ultimately build personality cults. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini’s use of visual culture to project a triumphant self-image is well-established. All three figures enjoyed thriving personality cults, which nonetheless lasted no more than three decades.
There was one leader in Europe whose personality cult was far more enduring than any of the dictators. This leader exerted a magnetic hold on his nation’s politics from 1916 to 1975. He enjoyed a personality cult which lasted longer than that of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin or Franco. He created a political party which came first in every general election held between 1932-2007 (inclusive). Surprisingly, this leader was not the leader of a totalitarian dictatorship, but rather one of the most democratic nations in the world: Eamon de Valera, the central figure of twentieth-century Ireland.
Little research has been done on the creation, maintenance and operation of the de Valera cult. However, I am convinced the use of visual media played a part. De Valera owned and operated a newspaper which was very sympathetic to him and his party (the Irish Press), which frequently featured large front page images of himself. De Valera had a talent for the theatrical; for choreographed public spectacle, appearing conspicuously with the Papal legate at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. He famously conducted late-night visits to Irish villages, on horseback, wrapped in a black cloak, accompanied by torch-bearing followers.
His political rivals were equally conscious of the importance of the visual in creating electoral support. William Cosgrave (de Valera’s predecessor as head of government) was the first Irish leader to speak to the electorate on film, and his party (Cumman na nGaedheal) commissioned slick election posters, produced with the help of Ireland’s new advertising agencies. Eoin O’Duffy, the leader of Ireland’s ‘Fascist’ movement, ‘the Blueshirts’, was equally a manipulator of the visual and the theatrical, staging rallies and appearing (more unusually) in photo-shoots with Hollywood film stars.
My PhD examines the role of the visual in Irish political culture, 1922-39. It will firstly examine the changing nature of image control by politicians: comparing and contrasting the censorship of images in newspapers during the Civil War, with de Valera’s careful management of the Irish Press in the 1930s. It will then ask the more complex question: ‘how did the Irish public view images of their politicians?’ looking at complex role of symbolism played in a politician’s self-presentation at public events. As my MA dissertation has already shown, images of politicians frequently intersected with contemporary discourses of class, race and masculinity in Irish society. Something as simple as an item of clothing carried several loaded meanings. Headgear was particularly controversial.
I am carrying out this research thanks to generous support from Teesside University who have generously appointed me to the new position of Graduate Tutor, where I will be funded to carry out both research and teaching. I currently teach European history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to first years, an experience which I am finding so far to be both enjoyable and stimulating. I am also supported intellectually by my supervisor, Dr Roisin Higgins, who is a key part of a burgeoning Irish history research community in the North East of England. Her research interests in the political use of spectacle by the Irish government make her an ideal supervisor for this thesis. She is joined by Professor Nigel Copsey whose research and expertise on Fascism will no doubt allow him to offer sound advice on the wider European context to this study, and on the role of the Fascist-leaning Eoin O’Duffy. Dr Linsey Robb will also be able to offer supervision and advice on all aspects of this thesis concerning the visual representation of masculinity: a research interest which will be carried over from my MA dissertation.
I am also excited to be joined by a fellow PhD student, Sean Donnelly, who is currently examining the role of Cumman na nGaedheal in the early years of the Irish state, from a new theoretical angle, that of post-colonialism. Irish historiography has traditionally been rather intellectually conservative: suspicious of new theoretical angles and restrictive in the sources it often employs, though this is now beginning to change. The recent centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising has injected much new international attention into Irish history. Irish historians are now increasingly beginning to employ transnational and gendered perspectives in their work, and are also turning to material and visual sources to provide new insight on key events in Irish history. Both Dr Higgins and many of the academic staff at Queens University Belfast who taught me have played a key role in this regard. As a community, Irish historians now find themselves in a very exciting time for their discipline.