My academic studies over the last eight years have proved a great learning curve for me, both academically and personally. I have changed and grown so much in both aspects that describing it is somehow difficult. One very important aspect though is the fact that writing and walking go hand in hand for me and have for some time now. During my undergraduate degree in social sciences I walked a lot with my dog at the time, Lady. Then in 2020-21 I completed a Higher Diploma in English at UCC and I always found that walking helped with my writing. It cleared my head and allowed for new thinking; sometimes to think outside the box, so to speak. It was essential during Covid and those dreadful lockdowns. Walking helped greatly during the previous four great years studying social sciences. All through this time my faithful companion and best friend, Lady, was by my side. Her little sister, Gracie, took over when she passed away. Of course, Gracie being a puppy needed lots of walking! So now Gracie and I walk the paths, beaches and woods that once Lady and I did. This has been so important for my personal and academic lives. Mental health and physical well-being are as vital to each other as life and the air we breathe. So in turn it helps with my academic studies and writing.
I have learnt more about my strengths and weaknesses during my studies. For example, poetry was never a strong point for me; I never really gave it much thought. It just seemed too difficult to comprehend. That is until I studied the Higher Diploma in English. I completed two poetry modules, Poetry of the Vikings and What a Literary War. Both opened my eyes to a different way of writing, and understanding the content in them. Poetry can tell us so much; it’s not just the feelings, emotions and ideas of the author, it also tells us so much about history, the cultural and societal aspects of the time and the lives of people. Take Poetry of the Vikings for example. The poems, chants and writings, originally written in Old Norse, tell us about the mythology, beliefs, battles and lives of the Vikings. The collection of poems in the Poetic Edda by Carolyne Carrington is well worth taking the time to read. The original manuscript, known as the Codex Regius is kept very safely and contains 31 anonymous poems. It was written during the 13th century. Also worth reading alongside the poems is Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda which is a text book rather than poems. It helps readers understand the poems and the stories behind them. This is actually a very difficult form of poetry to understand, but I welcomed the challenge and enjoyed it immensely.
Two of my more favourite poems are about “the story of the creation, and indeed destruction, of the world as written in the Vǫluspá, told by a Seeress, a female Shaman, who has access to the world of sprits, both good and evil. Hávamál , although a didactic poem giving ethical advice about human relations and social behaviour, warms men about women, particularly ones who refuse to be controlled. But the poem also goes on to recount Óðinn’s own bad behaviour in the seduction of giantess Gunnlod” (Farley 1).
The module What a Literary War was also very interesting. It gives a harrowing account of the destruction of World War 1.I especially liked the poetry by Vera Brittain. She not only recounted the horrors and traumas of the First World War from her own experiences as a VAD nurse but also from the experiences of her own brother, two friends and fiancée, Roland Leighton. They all died during the war, and left her very badly affected. The poems also are very emotional, and tell a love story developing between Brittain and Leighton. “Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917 (1981) was based on Brittain’s diary and is maybe one of the most accurate writings she has published. This diary was written from childhood on a regular basis, throughout the war, and contains vivid information about the experiences she went through, her reactions to them and her feelings and emotions at the time. Letters From a Lost Generation (1998) contains letters written during the First World War between herself, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their two friends, Victor and Geoffrey. Both of these accounts are important as they give, perhaps, a more accurate account of her experiences rather than her autobiography Testament of Youth (1933)” (Farley). I read them alongside each other, and it all gives a great understanding of the First World War, how people’s lives were shattered and the conditions of the time. The descriptions of the trenches in France and the human suffering feel as real now as it actually was at the time; her poetry is very vivid.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a moving poem titled My Boy Jack. Many believed it was about his son who went missing in action while serving with the Irish Guards in the Battle of Loos during World War 1 after only 3 weeks in France in 1915. His body was never found: he was just 18. Kipling had great difficulty accepting his son’s death. However, it is not actually about his own private grief. It is about a 16 year old boy called Jack Cornwall, the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, who stayed at his post on board ship during the Battle of Jutland.
Have you news of my boy Jack? ”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!
My Boy Jack. Poetry by Heart
Well, after completing all those English essays, I went on to complete a Post Graduate Diploma in Philosophy, also at UCC. This was also a great experience. I read some fantastic texts and studied the ideas and thoughts of some of the great philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaiah Berlin, Jeremy Bentham, Plato, Aristotle and Descartes. Initially, I had to re-think my essay style and writing; philosophy essays are very different from other essays. So after many years writing in one style, I had to change the way I was writing. It was challenging to start, I was busy attempting to follow instructions and learn from reading other philosophy essays. I actually really enjoyed writing them; it was an opportunity to really give my own strong opinion about an issue and therefore make a strong argument about it. Coming from a social care background, and working with people in difficult circumstances it was good to discuss a few things that I have come across, and that are important to me. Human rights were a big one. I wrote an essay discussing the issue of human rights regarding mental health. Another discussed liberty and the lockdowns we faced during Covid. This aimed at the political side, governments and law. I found Hobbes’s ideas of natural law fascinating. He believed that one could do whatever to survive and defend oneself, even kill, in a state of nature. He suggests that we imaging a state of nature, a hypothetical situation without any political authority. He states “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 91-92). So man must do what is necessary to survive. He states in Leviathan “hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is war; and such a war is of every man against every man” (Hobbes 91-92). So with no authority, law or government anything goes for your own survival, which is pretty bleak really. Locke comes in here with his notion of law. He declares that an authority is required to maintain social order, law and state-building.
So after all of this, here I am completing a Masters Degree in English at UCC. First module, Theories of Modernity, was great. I read some great texts, and we looked at the theories behind the literature. Two I found interesting were Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Andrew Ure’s1835 article The Philosophy of Manufacturers. Ure argues that technology, manufacturing and the factory system that developed in England were good for workers. “The principle of the factory system then, is to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or graduation of labour among artisans. On the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled was usually the most expensive element of production…. but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere over lookers of machines” as stated by Ure. So human man power becomes less, and the machines take over. That is, of course, exactly what happened. Technology and machines have taken over so much of life that once was done by human hand.
Darwin discusses how any certain species can change over time; a new species can actually come from one that already exists. All of the species will share a common ancestor; however, different traits will be passed on from parent to offspring. Every type of species will have its own unique genetic differences, which will take a long time to develop. Darwin called this natural selection. The good qualities passed down enable offspring to adapt to new environments and thrive. He makes a significant link between variety and how a particular species survives and thrives. However, he further goes on to explain that any one species cannot become over populated due to the availability of resources such as water, shelter, food and many other required resources. Geography and not having enough room also play a part. So an infinite number cannot survive. This, in turn, creates species fighting with not only each other, but the environment in which they live. Here we have natural selection. Darwin maintains that any species with better, or more advantageous, traits will be better equipped to survive and adapt to their environment than those with less such attributes. So it will go on over time. Those less well adapted may well become extinct.
If we relate both of these readings to humans it becomes even more interesting. Humans who are better equipped with inherited traits will no doubt do better in life. If we add in availability of resources, education, health and living conditions a bigger picture about human life evolves. Those who are well educated, healthy, with good living conditions and a good income will thrive. The weaker, uneducated and those living in poorer conditions will not do so well. The worker who has enough skill to work in Ure’s idea of the factory system will get a job, and therefore, a better standard of life. Those who cannot work technology or machines will be left behind. Also Ure suggests that children and women can be employed to save a lot of money as they are a lot cheaper! Not really such a great system. The younger male with good skill to work the machines will fare better.
So I wrote an essay based on these two readings, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Andrew Ure’sThe Philosophy of Manufacturers. I attempted to demonstrate the negative side of technology on humans, as it may relate to Darwin and his idea of survival of the fittest. Humans also compete for resources to survive; the better equipped usually does better that those more marginalised and disadvantaged. I attempted to bring in some of the philosophy style to make my points. However, attempting to combine these two writings styles did not go so well. I seem to write too much about the issue of poorer humans being left behind, rather than analyse the texts. In social care studies, this was necessary, but English essays are different in that respect. This is something I make a mistake about too often, and is a point I need to reflect and improve on going forward with my MA English essays and dissertation.
I attended two great seminars. The first, Dun Emer Press, “Spreading the News: Publicity, Networks and the Dun Emer Press” by Dr. Caoifhionn Ní Bheacháin was very interesting. It was great to discover that not only was Irish publishing taking place, but that it was being done by female workers at a time when they were really not supported in such a profession. Not only was great Irish literature able to be published in Dublin, but young women were being trained, educated and paid to work in the profession. There was a great archive kept, with material being stored for future reference, which provides opportunity for future explorations into the Dun Emer Press and the work they published.
The second was a webinar by Illuminations at the University of California titled, “500 years of looking for Richard III”. The speakers were author and Harvard lecturer Jeffery Wilson along with actor and writer Thomas Varga. This was inspirational in two ways. Firstly, the introduction by Thomas in truly Shakespearean form was great – a fantastic voice that can carry for miles! The knowledge about King Richard III by Jeffrey Wilson regarding Richard’s disability was outstanding and a thought provoking experience. It helps shed light on how disability has been viewed in the past, but also how society comes to see disability in the present. It is a view that has truly been transported through time. There is a lot of information regarding this on my blog.
So now I already had two great ideas for my MA dissertation, from the poetry modules regarding the First World War or Darwin and survival of the fittest. Nonetheless, reading on with further modules one particular area of interest was rekindled for me.
I loved Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. If we think about the most viscous, humiliating and degrading human rights violations of all times throughout history it has to that of slavery. Yet it went on for hundreds of years supported by people, communities, governments and laws. Just looking back at my module on human rights during philosophy, it is the worst violation on liberty that has ever existed. Oksala states that Hobbes insisted “all men are born equal and free” (43). But in fact they were not; many were rounded up, shackled and transported to a foreign land and worked to the death as slaves. Many more were born into slavery. Many more slave women were raped and bore children to their white masters. Such children also became slaves; a free form of slaves the owners did not even have to buy. Hobbes advocated that Aristotle was wrong when he claimed that humans have a natural hierarchy, where some are superior (Oksala 43). But this hierarchy is implemented by human beings, those that are more fortunate and able to dominate others. The poor slaves did not stand a chance against the might of the British Empire. A lack of education and literacy amongst slaves did not help them. The state powers only worsen their plight; laws were brought in to legalize slavery for a very long time. This so called hierarchy can only be achieved by implementing a state power. He states in Leviathan “hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is war; and such a war is of every man against every man” (Hobbes 91-92). What a terrible state the great British Empire was for slaves.
However, Hobbes declared that in a state of natural law it is ok to do what is needed to survive, even kill. Is it any surprise that slaves made every attempt to escape and the abolitionist movement strived ahead? They had to fight to survive. Hobbes asks us to imagine a state of nature; a hypothetical situation without any political authority (Oksala 46). He suggests “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 91-92). This was definitely so for slaves. In contrast Locke argued that a state of nature is not intolerable and people are generally good. If we look at slavery, many were not; they participated in a dreadful practice. Locke states that we must all actively consent to live in a certain way. He argues that by giving tactic consent meaning implied consent we agree to a power influencing and controlling us (Parvin and Chambers 120). However, slaves never had this option.
This brings me back to my latest essay and Mansfield Park. I discussed the issue of slavery regarding Mansfield Park. “One of the most interesting aspects, regarding Mansfield Park, is the reference Austen makes with her title of the novel. Lord Mansfield, or William Murray, actually came from an aristocratic family and became a lawyer. After positions of Solicitor-General, Attorney-General, and chief Justice of the King’s Bench he became a private councillor advising the king. He often spoke in the House of Lords, and became a very “influential and powerful Man” (Kelly 173). It is also important to note that the character of Sir Bertram is also a member of parliament. Unlike Sir Bertram, however, Lord Mansfield made a very notable and perhaps ground-breaking verdict in a court case; the case of the slave James Somerset. He was brought by his master from America to England in 1769 where he was later abducted and shackled to a slave ship. The intention was to transport him to Virginia where he could be sold. A habeas corpus was obtained by anti-slavery activists and he appeared in court. Lord Mansfield was reluctant to make a judgement; nonetheless he did rule that “contract for the sale of a slave is good here”. In contrast, he also declared that “the person of the slave himself is immediately the object of inquiry” and ruled that the imprisonment was illegal (Kelly 176/7). His intention was not to outlaw slavery; nonetheless it was a celebration for abolitionists. However, even with this, according to Bundock “what the law said” and how people actually behaved were entirely different (61). By Austen using his name as the title of the novel, she forms a link between it and the de-humanising practice of slavery that England accepted” (Farley). 2907
I discussed the issue of slavery in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I mentioned the ground breaking case Lord Mansfield ruled over regarding the slave James Somerset. Another important case he ruled over was the Zong case. The Zong was a ship bound for Jamaica in 1781 when 133 slaves were thrown overbroad. It seemed they were worth more in an insurance claim under British law. However, the insurers brought as legal case against the ships’ owners. This was murder after all. Lord Mansfield heard the case. When abolitionist Granville Sharp found out, he tried to have the ship’s captain tried for murder. Lord Mansfield ordered a re-trail, but the trail never took place. The massacre was shocking and disgusting to the public; it was a turning point in the campaign to end slavery.
Watch the full movie here
One other important matter was that of Francis Barber who became the heir to Samual Johnson. Barber died on 13th January 1801 and was buried in Stafford. He started his life as a slave in Jamaica and was brought to England by Samual Johnson until Johnson died in 1784. He left Barber £70 pounds a year (that’s like £9,000 now !) which he opened a drapers shop with and married a local women. A very unusual outcome for a salve indeed. One of the happier endings, but I don’t think it takes away from the dreadful practice that was slavery.
My MA dissertation has been inspired by one of the most interesting and inspiring authors I have come across to date, Frederick Douglass. He was a slave who escaped from Maryland to New York and became a public speaker, advocate for women’s rights, author, editor, abolitionist and civil servant. His three autobiographies give a harrowing account of his time in slavery and his later life as a civil servant and author. He campaigned extensively for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. I have become so extremely interested in his life and writings that I have decided to base my MA dissertation on him. I have titled it Frederick Douglass and Human Rights Violations against Women.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 2020.
Farley, Michelle. If Mansfield Park stands for England, then England as it is represented in Austen’s novel is decadent and in need of reform.” 2022.
Farley, Michelle. “Stories about Norse goddesses may have been supressed in the transmission of the poetry, but accounts of female figures that survive still complicate our notion of women’s roles in early medieval society.” 2020.
Farley, Michelle. “Vera Brittain makes use of various genres to articulate her personal experience of the First World War”. 2021.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Pp. 91-92/261-2; slightly modernized. Penguin Classics. 1651.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Pp. 91-92/261-2; slightly modernized. Penguin Classics. 1651.
Kipling, Rudyard. My Boy Jack. Poetry by Heart
Oksala, Johanna. All That Matters Political Philosophy. . Hodder and Stroughton. 2013.
Parvin, Phil and Chambers, Clare. Political Philosophy: A Complete Introduction. Hodder and Stroughton. 2012.