The arts and humanities are widely acknowledged as encouraging creativity and critical thinking, challenging orthodoxy, promoting self-expression and understanding the human condition. Despite this, there seems to be an ‘obsession that in order to survive the global war on talent, our graduates must be herded in ever-greater numbers towards science, technology, engineering and maths subjects’ (The Irish Times, 2016).

The arts and humanities are widely acknowledged as encouraging creativity and critical thinking, challenging orthodoxy, promoting self-expression and understanding the human condition. Despite this, there seems to be an ‘obsession that in order to survive the global war on talent, our graduates must be herded in ever-greater numbers towards science, technology, engineering and maths subjects’ (The Irish Times, 2016). However, the chair of the Irish Research Council, Jane Ohlmeyer warns that neglecting the arts and the humanities will put us on a dangerously narrow path. This emphasis on STEM research is even evident with stakeholders and funding bodies. In 2014, the European Commission’s primary funding programme, Horizon 2020, allocated only 6% of its funding to the arts and humanities. More dramatically in Japan, more than fifty universities closed or downsized their humanities departments. This followed education minister Hakuban Shimomura’s urge to promote a ‘more practical and vocational education to meet the needs of society’ (The Guardian, 2015). Although the situation has not reached this level in Ireland, it is important that we take time to re-examine how we are doing research in the humanities, while, as Ohlmeyer argues, ‘selling our humanities research more effectively’.
As a researcher in this country, I take comfort in knowing that the humanities in Ireland has historically had an impact. Take for example the case of UCD postgraduate student Jim Duffy in 1990. During this period, Ireland was about to go to the polls and decide who would take up residence in Áras an Úachtaráin and become the country’s next president. Brian Lenihan, who was then the Táinaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister, had thrown his hat in the race, and was polling far ahead of competitors Mary Robinson and Austin Currie, at 49%.

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1990 Presidential Candidates Mary Robinson and Brian Lenihan, and postgraduate student Jim Duffy

In May 1990, a few months prior to the election, Jim Duffy was collecting qualitative data for his thesis and was interviewing senior politicians, among which included Táinaiste Brian Lenihan. In these interviews, Lenihan revealed that he had made several telephone calls to President Patrick Hillery in 1982, in an attempt to persuade him to not dissolve the Dáil. Constiutionally, the Irish president has the power to both summon and dissolve Dáil Éireann. At this time, the Fine Gael government had just been defeated on their proposed budget and the leader of the party and Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, requested that President Hillery dissolve the government and allow for a general election to take place. However, Lenihan and Fianna Fáil party leader Charles Haughey, attempted to sway the head of the Irish state to refuse a dissolution of the government. Subsequently, this would have allowed them both to form an alternative government and take power.

 

Brian Lenihan and Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey

Brian Lenihan and Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey

At this time, The Irish Times were running a series of articles on the Presidency, in which parts of Duffy’s interview with Lenihan were used in a piece. When these revelations regarding the phone calls to President Hillery came to light in the media, Lenihan came under scrutiny as he began to deny the claims. As the media frenzy reached fever pitch, Duffy released his thesis data and played a portion of the tape at an Irish Times press conference on October 25th, 1990. As the Master’s student asked Lenihan about the calls, the tape revealed Lenihan saying: ‘Oh yeah, I got through to him, I remember talking to him and he wanted us to lay off’. Following this, Lenihan’s campaign was destroyed and he was dismissed from the government by President Hillery, while also failing to win the presidency. Not only then did Jim Duffy’s humanities research change the Irish political landscape in 1990, but it also enabled Mary Robinson to become the first woman to take up the presidency.

 

Mary Robinson makes her acceptance speech, with a defeated Brian Lenihan behind, accompanied by Charles Haughey

Mary Robinson makes her acceptance speech, with a defeated Brian Lenihan behind, accompanied by Charles Haughey

This is just one example, but an important one, that emphsises how humanities research can serve wider society, even to the extent of radically changing the political landscape in such a short space of time. It is important that as researchers in the humanities, we take note of the effect our wider community has had on society, particularly when being met with so many obstacles. Looking back at cases like this let’s us know that we not only have a place within the academic landscape, but have a much larger role to play in society.