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Profile: Dr Karol Mullaney-Dignam

Dr Karol Mullaney-Dignam, Department of History, University of Limerick

I am a cultural historian who researches social, economic and political aspects of Irish music history, 1700s-1900s, historic houses and heritage narratives. I currently lecture in History at the University of Limerick, having previously lectured at Maynooth University. Inter-disciplinarity is an important aspect of my research – and something I encourage among History students at UL. History and Music were my BA degree subjects and I combined these interests in my postgraduate research; my PhD thesis centred on music and nation-building in the Irish state after 1922. Questions of culture and identity formation underpinned this work and have informed my research ever since.

I have been fortunate to receive a number of competitive grants to conduct interdisciplinary research on the social and musical culture of Irish country houses and estates: Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship (2010-12); Royal Irish Academy Charlemont Grant (2015); Irish Research Council New Foundations Award (2016). I am (to my knowledge) the only scholar in Ireland working on this area but this has forced me to be creative and to engage with scholars and scholarship in disciplines other than History including musicological, architectural and gender studies.

While international networking is a significant aspect of life for any academic, it is vital for those who work across disciplines. I am a member of the newly-established EAERN, a Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded Eighteenth-century Arts Education Research Network, based at the University of Glasgow, and Sound Heritage, an AHRC-funded network based at the University of Southampton. I also lead the Irish Research Council-funded Sound Heritage Ireland project, an inter-sectoral forum for communication and collaboration on issues concerning the ‘sounding’ of Irish heritage properties – with a focus on music in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century country houses.

Viewing History through a cultural prism reveals much about everyday lives, social networks and musical milieus. Musical activity among the British and Irish landowning elites, for example, embodied notions of propriety, promoted positive interactions with peers, supporters, servants and tenants, and informed the design and decoration of spaces within their homes. Thus, the study of music in the context of the country house offers perspectives on the place of landowners and their families in their local communities but it also sheds light on the social and familial relationships fostered by activities like music-making.

For women of, or aspiring to, rank and fortune, music-making was one of a number of requisite social ‘accomplishments’ and young ladies took lessons as part of their social instruction. The ability to sing or play music, dance, speak French or Italian and draw or paint indicated that an investment had been made in a girl’s refinement and in her preparation for her future roles as wife, mother and hostess. Music was a significant agent in the formation and expression of female identity and music-making an appropriate means of display, facilitating courtship. As such, it was more than an amusement to alleviate idleness and enliven domestic life – it was a commodity in the marriage market!

There are undoubtedly misconceptions about my work; because my public lectures and publications seem to appeal more to women (who are also Jane Austen and/or Downton Abbey fans), it might be considered ‘lightweight’. Because I research the lives and times of the former landed elite, aristocrats and titled people, it might be considered ‘elitist’. Because I focus on music and culture, it might not be considered ‘serious’. So, how is my work important?

Alongside its intrinsic academic merits, my research offers more rounded perspectives to students of History and demonstrates that there are alternative investigative pathways into the past. It helps to retrieve women from historical obscurity, restoring them to male-dominated historical narratives of power, prestige and patronage. Above all, it provides new, relevant and reliable information (often laboriously gleaned from fragmentary historical records) for the interpretation, presentation and promotion of Ireland’s cultural heritage. The key to realising the heritage potential of cultural sites, including historic houses, and to enhancing public appreciation, is judicious academic research that produces a wide range of data that can, in turn, be redeployed in a variety of useful ways.

This underlines the crucial value of sustained collaboration between academic researchers, cultural practitioners and heritage custodians who continually strive to offer fresh forms of interpretation to meet heightening visitor expectations. It also points to the practical ways in which scholarly research that retrieves information and reconstructs narratives of the past can function in modern Irish society. The adoption of cultural, musical, and women’s histories might deter the habitual presentation of historic properties as hollow, lifeless monuments and encourage more nuanced interpretations of these as resonant spaces, lived and living. Thus, it is incumbent on scholars of history, heritage, and historically informed practices to do more collaborative research on how culture and the arts were consumed in the past. Only then can we work more productively with curators, conservators and visitor experience professionals from the heritage sector, to enhance interpretive and consumption practices in the future.

My research on historic properties includes public history and heritage projects with the Office of Public Works (OPW), from historical photography exhibitions at Dublin Castle and the Main Guard, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary (2014) to the conservation and presentation of Bryce House, Garinish Island/Ilnacullin, Co. Cork (2015). I have also appeared on local and national radio and television, featuring on TV3’s ‘The Big House’ documentary series in 2013.  I have been privileged to work with inspirational, visionary and hardworking women in Ireland and further afield who are open and encouraging – and who get things done! It is important for women in academia to have good role models, both male and female, who inspire them to realise their professional potential while living balanced and fulfilled lives. It is important too that we are honest with and supportive of each other.

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