Interview with “Historian of Memory” Guy Beiner, New BC Irish Studies Director

As frequent readers of our blog may know, Burns Library holds the most comprehensive collections pertaining to modern Irish history, literature and culture outside the island of Ireland, and we enjoy working with Irish Studies scholars from around the world. For this week’s post, we are pleased that Boston College’s newly appointed director of Irish Studies, Professor Guy Beiner, has kindly talked with us about his work as a historian and his perspectives on libraries and archives, including Burns Library.

Portrait of Guy Beiner, newly appointed Professor (with tenure) and the holder of the Sullivan Chair of Irish Studies. Photo by Lee Pellegrini, Boston College

Following an international search, Boston College announced Beiner’s appointment as the Craig and Maureen Sullivan Millennium Professor in Irish Studies earlier this month. Beiner will also serve as director of Boston College’s interdisciplinary Irish Studies program, one of the leading programs in the United States and one of the first, founded in 1978. 

An Israeli native, Beiner previously served as professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He earned his doctorate at University College Dublin and was a Government of Ireland Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. Among other visiting fellowships, he was the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College during the 2019-2020 academic year.

As a Burns Scholar, Beiner taught courses on the memorialization of the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Northern Ireland and the “memory boom” in contemporary Ireland characterized by intensive commemoration of key events in the last century. He also lectured on unexpected lessons gleaned from his study of the works of 19th-century amateur Irish historians held in Burns Library.

You have been called a “historian of memory.” Is that an appropriate description of your work?

Beiner’s 2018 book won four major international awards

I have indeed specialized in the historical study of social and cultural remembrance in the late-modern period (as apparent in my first book, Remembering the Year of the French). In recent years, I have tried to “rebrand” myself as a historian of forgetting, only to realize that this is another side of the same coin (a conclusion that is evident in my recent book, Forgetful Remembrance). Apart from my investigations of how events were remembered and forgotten by local communities in Ireland from the eighteenth century to present times, the dialectics of remembering and forgetting have also informed my research on other topics, such as the history of terrorism or the legacy of the so-called “Spanish” Flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

There has been a trend in recent years to refer to libraries, archives, and museums as “memory institutions.” What do you think of this practice?

With the rapid pace of technological innovation that seems to sweep away traditional forms of sustaining knowledge, modern societies have become more aware of the imperative for maintaining institutions that preserve our communal memory. In this sense, libraries, archives, museums, and galleries serve as repositories of cultural memory (though this was the case from antiquity onwards). There are, however, also many other public bodies that host memory and offer platforms for its performance, such as television and cinema, theatre, radio and of course the internet. Once we become aware of them, we can realize that interactions with memory are ubiquitous.

What roles have libraries and archives played in your work as a scholar?

Libraries and archives are at the heart of my work as a historian, which is often based on eclectic reading of large volumes of texts in pursuit of themes that require a critical rethinking of the ways in which we approach knowledge about the past. I have an appreciation of vernacular practices through which historical narratives have been recounted by local communities. I am therefore keenly interested in finding in archives and specialist library collections traces of oral traditions that were recorded and documented by folklorists and ethnographers and have too often been neglected in historical research.

What other kinds of services would you like libraries and archives to offer?

Increasingly, libraries and archives need to take on board the possibilities opened by digitalization and the internet revolution. The emerging field of digital humanities has become the “new frontier” of research, and this development requires investment in databases and software, as well as experimentation with new forms of presentation, such as augmented reality.

How did you engage with Burns Library resources during your residence as a Burns Visiting Scholar?

Among its many treasures, Burns Library has remarkable Irish Studies collections. During my year as a Burns Scholar, I was engaged in reading rare nineteenth-century antiquarian, historical and literary books. For my teaching, I also availed of pamphlets from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which allowed me to present students with unique primary sources through which they could get a sense of how the eruption of violence was perceived by the people who were eye-witnesses to the historical events. In addition, as a historian who recognizes the importance of songs and ballads for understanding Irish popular culture, I found interest in the library’s traditional music collections.

Guy Beiner in Burns Library’s Irish Room. Photo by Peter Julian, Boston College.

As the new director of Irish Studies at Boston College, how do you envision Burns Library supporting curricular and other initiatives?

Burns Library is a great asset for the Irish Studies program at Boston College. It provides faculty and students with the essential bibliographical resources of a world-class specialist library, which can facilitate research projects at undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels. It is also a stunning venue for hosting high profile events, and a magnet for attracting leading scholars from around the world.

We congratulate Professor Beiner on his recent appointment and look forward to continuing our close collaboration with him and colleagues in BC’s Irish Studies program.

-Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian

Further Reading:

Guy Beiner named Sullivan Chair in Irish Studies
BC News article on Beiner’s appointment as BC Irish Studies program director

“Forgetful Remembrance”
BC News article on Beiner’s appointment as 2019-2020 Burns Visiting Scholar

Burns Visiting Scholar Program

Guy Beiner’s Burns Visiting Scholar page (includes link to recorded lecture)

Guy Beiner’s BC faculty page

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