In recent years, research on Irish modern history has paid increasing attention to the role of leisure activities in the formation of Irish identities. This anthology is a response to this movement, gathering contributions based on papers presented at the conference of the Society for the Study of Nineteenth-Century Ireland in 2012. The chapters all address various aspects of the cultural history of leisure in the nineteenth century and are packaged as reactions to a recent move towards the role of leisure in research on Fenianism (mainly the contributions by R.V. Comerford) and Irish sports associations (mainly the Gaelic Athletic Association). The concise but illuminating introductory chapter by editors Leeann Lane and William Murphy highlights the way sports historians more and more consider the wider culture of leisure in their work, and the role of associations and various disciplining institutions (including the temperance movement) in supporting ‘de-Anglicised’ Irish identities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ensuing twelve chapters may not always reflect quite the same perspectives and lines of inquiry, ranging from studies of cycling and tourism to photography and children’s playgrounds, but the theme of leisure is emphasised throughout and the quality of the chapters is consistently high. However, there is a danger in compiling anthologies where the rough common denominator of the contributions risks becoming merely a superficial classification of chapters that are in actual fact additions to various research topics. Can the research mode described in the introduction be applied to all chapters? Unfortunately, the research on sports and civic society focused on in the introductory chapter mainly applies to those chapters dealing with better-researched associations, such as association football, the brass band movement and the development of municipal libraries. The chapters dealing with these topics are at the forefront of their respective research modes, and their inclusion serves the purpose of holding together an anthology that might otherwise have risked becoming too sprawling. But the gems of this collection are the chapters dealing with less communal or conventional phenomena, and their microhistorical, decentred character should not be obscured by more easily categorised pieces. There are several chapters of this latter kind worth mentioning. Kevan O’Rourke’s sensitive consideration of fighting as recreational violence in the fictions of William Carleton is a pleasurable read, exemplifying the virtues of enlisting literary analysis in the study of popular culture. Philip McEvansoneya’s engaging microhistory of a travelling Irish businessman in the 1840s, making much of the unpublished travel journal he left behind, contains perceptive reflections on the role of national identity in the context of early tourism. Although an anthology based on conference papers must rely on the work of the participants at hand, one would have welcomed more contributions on female activities in an anthology devoted to leisure. The background in sports history is perhaps a reason for the relative dominance of sports and athleticism in research on leisure history, but surely there is much to uncover in domains such as interior decoration, sewing or fashion that could have added nuances to the picture emerging here. The two final chapters of the book represent women’s history, and luckily they do so with bravura. Maeve O’Riordan’s survey of how wealthy Irish women entertained guests at their country houses is insightful and well researched, and Rachel Murphy inventively compiles statistics on how many dinner parties, balls and so on the diary-keeping Lady Charlotte Stopford attended during the 1870s. Murphy’s approach is especially engrossing—allowing us to see, in an unusually concrete way, how the daily lives of the elite were divided between various venues and types of activities, how the wealthy dealt with time and how their activities differed from those of the lower classes (who had to economise with their time in different ways). Her example thus serves to demonstrate how the division between work and pleasure was not always apparent, as illustrated by the social obligations of the elite. The observations of these chapters provide other types of knowledge than the more conventional research on collective and organised identity-making recounted in the introduction. Their inclusion is most welcome, as this type of chapter adds another dimension to the study of leisure. This dimension is perhaps less palpable and not as easily characterised, thus making it hard for editors to bundle them into a comprehensive and concise narrative of a historical process. But they certainly deserve a place in such volumes. They make this one worthwhile, and more of these kinds of case-studies should appear in edited collections—it would make them more fragmented, but perhaps fragmentation would make a nice change from forced amalgamation. In conclusion, this is a well-edited and exciting volume that certainly demonstrates the current state of English-language research on nineteenth-century popular culture, with one foot in the more traditional study of civic society and one foot in the innovative search for new angles and decentred perspectives. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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