Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Caitlin White is currently undertaking a PhD in Public History in the School of Histories and Humanities

How has my research changed me?

Has my research changed me?

My research looks at expressions of social identity after the foundation of the two Irish states. Who we are as a society and who we think we are as a society are very different concepts, and I study the latter – people’s perceptions of themselves, and what they put forward to be remembered. Recently, my research has grown to investigate the effects that a deeper engagement with history has on the public.

Using my own town as one of my case studies has given me access to private archives and interviews that reveal more than official records ever could, but my search has led me to places that forced me to confront my own sense of self. Identity is fluid and is constantly evolving, but engaging more with public expressions of an identity I had grown up with required me to re-evaluate my relationship to them.

It has opened my eyes to realities. The idea I had growing up, that I had always accepted as truth, of all Irish men and women as being ‘good’, heroic and on the right side of history and all those who related to, or fought under, a British flag as ‘bad’, malicious and outright evil was exposed for the lie that it was. Complicating the narrative and multiperspectivity are the keys to understanding history. Life, as they say, is not black and white.

This engagement with my own history and identity made me more aware and empathetic to social groups other than my own. So much so, that sometimes I think my parents regret my pursuit of a PhD because they can no longer vent about a grievance with a relative or neighbour without my patronising encouragement to consider the situation from their point of view. Even Hitler, I remind them, was the ‘good guy’ of his own story.

My research has created another identity for me, one that doesn’t sit well with my previous one. I’m not sure if this happens to all those who research their own history, but it has erected a barrier between conflicting senses of self. I have nostalgia for the certainties I used to have. I can no longer fully immerse myself in the rebel ballads being sung at the end of a party or my Nanny’s stories about her childhood without contextualising what I’m hearing. On Tipperary All-Ireland Final days I find myself at the Sean Treacy commemoration on Talbot Street, seemingly belonging decked out in blue and gold, but observing, taking mental notes, and never able to fully give myself over to the prayers and renditions of ‘Slievenamon’ that those around me are immersed in without thinking about the effects that linking the place of death of a young Tipperary IRA Volunteer with the county’s hurling success might have.

Undertaking a PhD has made me acutely aware of my own position in life. A PhD is not a measure of intelligence, but rather of your commitment, the strength of your mental health and your own privilege. In this way, I suppose, I have shaped my research rather than the other way around. As a first-generation college student, I wasn’t raised in the Ivory Tower, and I’m determined to bring it to the outside world as much as possible. The research I’m doing on the effects that a deeper engagement with history can have will, I hope, in time serve to encourage creative dissemination of academic research and help in the breaking down of the walls of our towers.

Most of all, my research has made me cynical of anyone or anything claiming to be the ‘truth’. It has made me critical and untrusting, an annoyance. But it has also made me aware. Aware of the myths and ‘untruths’ of our sense of selfhood, those same myths that some people are willing to die and kill for. Aware of the ‘silent’ histories of ordinary people, struggling to put food on the table. And aware of a public historian’s responsibility to engage as many communities with their past as possible. To make knowledge available for everyone with an interest, not just those who can afford it.

But I believe that the future of this island is a shared one, as its past has been, and perhaps in order to build a future together, some of the simplistic certainties that we have created and held on to need to go.

How has my research changed me? For the better. It allows me to look past the man behind the curtain, and towards an undefined, but hopeful, future for us all.

Caitlin White

Caitlin White is currently undertaking a PhD in Public History at Trinity College with Dr. Anne Dolan. She holds a B.A. degree in English, History and Theatre & Performance Studies from NUI Galway and an M.Phil. in Public History from Trinity College. She works in public history as a tour guide and in education. Hailing from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, she is interested in creating accessible informal education, using art to explore history, and politics. She has a forthcoming chapter in The Public in Public History in 2021, published by Routledge.