Professor Ruth Barton (autumn 2023)

I was honoured and excited to be invited to take up the remaining two weeks of this newly established research chair following TCD’s Eoin McNamee’s earlier stay in summer of 2023. The Chair sits in the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR)  at the University of Western Cape and, given the warm relationship between the Trinity Long Room Hub and several of the scholars at CHR, I was particularly looking forward to seeing the centre for myself and to meet the other staff and researchers housed there. The long flight (via Doha – so half way round the world and then back in the other direction) gave me the opportunity to read most of former director of CHR, Premesh Lalu’s recent, highly regarded monograph, Undoing Apartheid (Polity Press, 2022). Lalu’s thoughtful manifesto for an aesthetic education as the only solution for undoing apartheid is rooted in time spent in Ireland and his own work as founding director of CHR.

Ruth Barton at the University of the Western Cape

I was particularly looking forward, therefore, to visiting the centre that had given rise to so much of this work. It is an inspirational building. The first sight that greets you on entry are two larger-than-life puppets sitting on the steps, each with a suitcase in her hand. On the left is Charlotte Maxeke (1874-1939), the pioneering African educationalist and political activist who shares her name with that of Mary Robinson on the research chair. The puppets are the creation of the Ukwanda Puppets and Designs Art Collective which has its home in the basement of CHR. Their work is central to the creative intersection between CHR and the Laboratory of Kinetic Objects (LoKO) and to Lalu’s ideal of an aesthetic education. When I was there they were putting the finishing touches on their new giant leopard and there is something intensely stimulating both intellectually and bodily, to seeing this beautiful animal arising out of a mesh of wire and cloth (and operated by bicycle components).

The Centre director, Heidi Grunebaum, was a fantastic host and all too frequent chauffeur as I battled with my Uber app. It’s a lucky thing that we are in virtually the same time zone as Cape Town as on Day Two I was slated to conduct two workshops. I’d volunteered two topics – one to show and discuss David Blake Knox’s recent documentary, Face Down: The Disappearance of Thomas Niedermayer, and another on environmental activism on film, focused on the documentary, The Pipe, of 2010. It’s interesting to me that in discussions around the failure to find a mechanism to address the historical legacies of the Troubles, we are so often reminded of the success of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it was useful to have a discussion around that. We found much common ground around the challenges facing filmmakers in making activist films that address environmental issues, particularly on how to engage audiences, and finding a way of advocating for the possibility of action. My final public engagement was as part of a panel hosted by the Documentary Filmmakers of South Africa where I gave a talk titled, ’Gender in Documentary – increasing female participation. Lessons learnt from the Irish film industry’. A vigorous discussion took place afterwards about our shared concerns around women’s participation and progression in the film industry generally, and in documentary-making specifically. As we all agreed, it isn’t enough to put in place measures (welcome as they are) to support a more diverse filmmaking workplace but we need to change the culture of filmmaking to make it more a hospitable place for women to fashion a career. The importance of networking, mentorship and paid internships all played a big part in our discussions.


As productive as these public engagements were, of equal value were the mutual exchanges and encounters with the research staff and friends of CHR. The catch-ups with colleagues and friends at the University and the Irish Embassy all cemented our friendship and reminded us of how much we have in common even as we work on other sides of the globe. On my own I visited Robben Island and took the Hop-on Hop-Off bus around the city. I am so grateful to Valmont Layne for my insider tour of District Six and to Laurine Platzky for showing us the brand new Innovation Hub, and to all my hosts at CHR for enabling me to cram in a full itinerary of intellectual exchanges. All I hope now is that we can keep these exchanges going.

Professor Eoin McNamee (summer 2023)

I was honoured to take up the inaugural Charlotte Maxeke/Mary Robinson Chair and to attend the Winter School at the UWC Centre for Humanities Research at Greatmore. My keynote for the Winter School concerned borders, both the internal border in Ireland and borders between Europe and countries to the south, between Native American reservations and the rest of the US. It ranged over modern slavery, children’s teeth, and topiary, and found many points of connection with academics visiting from across Africa, the US and India. It seemed that the personal and observed history of the lecture resonated with the political and historical themes of the Winter School but also tilted proceedings away from purely academic discussion towards an engagement with art.

Eoin McNamee

A meeting with Justice Albie Sachs enabled me to engage with major figure in the fight against apartheid and in the development of the new South African constitution. This had real meaning for me. Kadar Asmal was one of my law lecturers at Trinity when I was an undergraduate, and Justice Sachs drew up the South Africa Bill of Rights at Kadar’s kitchen table in Dublin. I’m now looking at ways to further address the connections between Trinity and these towering figures of twentieth century law, literature and politics. I also enjoyed meeting students from across South Africa. The writing workshops that I led both in UWC and at the University of Johannesburg were extremely successful, and the students – even those for whom English was a third or fourth language – showed a remarkable degree of perception and ability. Some of their stories of life in refugee camps on the Rwandan border still haunt me.


It left me thoughtful, inclined to reassess much of my own thinking on colonialism, but most in all -- in a way I can barely explain -- it left me moved..
Prof Eoin McNamee


The four weeks that I spent in South Africa as part of the Chair have only scratched the surface of what is possible. Since returning, I’ve put the Trinity Translation Centre in touch with counterparts in UWC, and I hope this will open up possibilities for the future. I’m also in the process of requesting that the Creative Writing MPhil from the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre be recognised as an eligible course for the purposes of the Kadar Asmal scholarship. Correspondences keep arising and there will be further opportunities for engagement. The CHR at Greatmore gives witness to the urgency and relevance of Humanities research and it was wonderful to see the continuing support from the Irish Embassy in South Africa and the Department of Foreign Affairs, with the affinities between our country and South Africa given recognition and support.

You don’t get to come to judgement on a city, never mind a country, on a brief visit. Cape Town comes to you in fragments. The towering beauty of the coastline. Nightfall at Seapoint. A yellowed page of prose by Alex La Guma, sellotaped to a wall, evoking the lost streets of District 6. Grandeur and pity. Brilliant minds and kindly intentions. Sunday morning at Kalk Bay. Theatre in Johannesburg, puppetry at Greatmore. I’ve been to places which leave me awestruck, energised, depressed. South Africa was different. It left me thoughtful, inclined to reassess much of my own thinking on colonialism, but most in all -- in a way I can barely explain -- it left me moved.   

The Charlotte Maxeke – Mary Robinson Research Chair emerges out of a longstanding collaboration between the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) at UWC and the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute at Trinity College Dublin that has focused on colonialism, partition, postcoloniality and race. The Charlotte Maxeke-Mary Robinson Research Chair inaugurates, through the Humanities, a broader and reciprocal collaboration between Ireland and South Africa which engages our complex inheritance of colonialism, empire, partition and apartheid, and how to overcome this legacy. The Charlotte Maxeke-Mary Robinson Research Chair was launched in March 2023, by H.E. Fionnuala Gilsenan, former Ambassador of Ireland to South Africa and with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs.