For James Kelly, the John J. Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College this semester, history is best observed at ground level, rather than through sweeping narratives of landmark events and high-profile personalities.

Kelly’s lenses for examining Irish history include sport, dueling, gender relations, the practice of medicine, food rioting, and satirical writing and imagery; in recent years, he also has taken an interest in climate- and environment-related aspects. Such is the toolkit for a scholar of social history, he said.

“Social history allows you to get a sense of the construction of the world that people lived in, in ways that focusing purely on political or intellectual history cannot,” explained Kelly, a professor of history at Dublin City University, and until recently the head of its School of History and Geography. “The study and teaching of history has, for many generations, been concerned with ‘the national story,’ but that ignores other stories that are equally fascinating and revealing. Through social history, we can engage in all sorts of inquiry and investigations that give us an often far more meaningful picture of lives in the past.”

On March 17, Kelly will present the Burns Lecture, “Satirical Fun: Irish Single Sheet Caricature in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” at 5:30 p.m. in the Burns Library Thompson Room. His talk will be preceded by a 4:30 p.m. reception. Both are free and open to the public.

The caricatures to be presented by Kelly, produced in Dublin between the late 1770s and late 1820s, were mostly Irish copies of images developed in London by famed caricaturists like James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. But they offer a unique perspective on what people living in Ireland found humorous and are revealing of the politics and society of the era, according to Kelly.  

“These caricatures interest me because they convey what visually appealed to people then, and what they found satire-worthy—the pomposity of soldiers and their colorful uniforms, for instance—in everything from high fashion to politics,” he said.  “The period in question begins a few decades after the death of Jonathan Swift, one of Ireland’s great authors, who demonstrated the capacity of satire to cast a critical eye on people and events.”

Social history can help illuminate or even correct our understanding of past events, behaviors, and mores.
burns visiting scholar in irish studies james kelly

Since 1991, BC has invited distinguished academics, writers, artists, journalists, librarians, and notable public figures who have made significant contributions to Irish cultural and intellectual life to serve as Burns Scholars. Appointees teach courses, offer public lectures, and use the University’s John J. Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors related to Irish history, art, and culture.

Kelly concentrates his research on the years 1660 to 1860, a period when Ireland made the transformation from “Early Modern” to “Modern,” he explained: “In the 1660s, Ireland was still very inward looking, and only beginning to find its place in the Atlantic world; its people had access to a limited diet and were susceptible to famine and disease. But this was also the beginnings of what would become the Enlightenment, when humans began seeking to identify solutions to the problems they faced, rather than simply accepting them as beyond their control. The danger in doing so, as they sometimes found, is that the answers can generate new problems.”

During his tenure at BC, Kelly is delving into several Burns collections, including nine volumes of pamphlets assembled by renowned 19th-century Irish Catholic political leader Daniel O’Connell—who sought to repeal the Act of Union that incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom—and another of correspondence between Irish immigrants and family members back home around the time of the Great Famine.

“These and other materials in Burns provide interesting insights into how people—whether O’Connell or others less prominent—saw what was happening around them, and how they expressed their views on what it meant,” said Kelly, who also is teaching a seminar which explores the exercise of Protestant power in Ireland and the challenges to it by, among others, O’Connell.

Social history can help illuminate or even correct our understanding of past events, behaviors, and mores, said Kelly, such as in his study of dueling (That Damn’d Thing called Honour: Dueling in Ireland, 1750-1860). “We tend to think of dueling as an indulgence of man’s violent impulse, but it was not without an underlying rationale. Male society of that age was an honor-based society; without honor, a man lost his place in society. Dueling was, as one contemporary wrote, a necessary piece of a young man’s education.”

Kelly’s research on food rioting in Ireland, meanwhile, contradicts the impression that Irish people did not take action in the face of food scarcity, including during earlier crises preceding the Great Famine. In fact, he found there had been more than 280 food riots—in which protestors targeted ships, barges, and carts transporting foodstuffs, then sought to make it available to the public at an affordable price—from the early 18th century through the beginning of the famine in 1845.  

“The people who rioted weren’t hungry: It was the threat and fear of hunger, and the availability of food, which drove it,” he said. “People were in fact very active early in the Great Famine. But after that they were too exhausted or ill to do anything.”  

Kelly’s favorable impressions of Boston College and the Burns Library were first fueled by the experiences of friends and colleagues who served as Burns Scholars, and later by his 2018 visit to the University to take part in a book launch—walking around the campus, he recalled, “I was struck by its elegance.”

Having been here now for almost two months, he said, “I am full of admiration for BC. The Burns Scholar position has great status and prestige in academia, and I welcome this opportunity to be among those fortunate to have held it.”  

An active member of various historical societies and bodies, Kelly has served as president of the Irish Historical Society, the Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society, and, most recently, of the Irish Economic and Social History Society.


Sean Smith | University Communications | March 2022