Research Radar – Keelan Harkin

Dr. Keelan Harkin is Course Lecturer in Irish Literature at Concordia University’s School of Irish Studies and will begin a SSHRC postdoctoral position at Trinity College Dublin in January 2022.

Who is your favourite academic?

Clair Wills is one of the best in the business when it comes to twentieth-century Irish literature and culture – That Neutral Island was really influential for me when I was starting my PhD. In this book, Wills interrogates assumptions about Irish neutrality during the Second World War, especially that it led to a purely isolationist culture. She portrays a sweeping and complex view of cultural production around this time by deploying a vast array references, including film advertisements, the Michael Scott-designed Irish pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Elizabeth Bowen’s work with the British government, and Louis MacNeice’s BBC Radio productions. In literary studies more generally I have been enjoying some of the work on political formalism that has recently come out, such as Anna Kornbluh’s The Order of Forms. Allan Hepburn, who was my doctoral supervisor at McGill, has had a great influence on my own writing, especially in terms of style. He is an expert on Elizabeth Bowen and has recently published work on mid-century British writing and questions of diplomacy and faith.

What are you reading for work and/or for leisure these days?

I unfortunately do not have much time for leisurely reading these days, although I recently read and enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – equal parts funny, beautiful, and devastating.

Work is a different story. This summer I re-read Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, Bram Stoker’s Dracula,and Anna Burns’ Milkman in preparation for the two upcoming courses that I will be teaching during the fall term at Concordia: “Highlights of Irish Literature” and “Contemporary Irish Literature.” Whether its 1800 or 2018, disaster and social comedy are seemingly inseparable bedfellows in Irish writing.

In the new year I will be travelling to Ireland as a SSHRC Postdoctoral fellow to study how Irish novelists engaged with the construction of statehood in the 1930s. At a time when the Irish Free State was attempting to consolidate its authority both within the nation and on the international stage, questions swirled about the nature and the direction of that authority. Issues such as the use of emergency powers, the role of the Catholic Church, and Irish participation in the Spanish Civil War were major political and public debates in the decade and these debates circulate, both implicitly and explicitly, in the novels of the period. A lot of my work-related reading for the past year has centred on this research. Two examples that stand out are Norah Hoult’s Holy Ireland and Molly Keane’s The Rising Tide. Hoult’s novel was published two years after the 1932 Eucharistic Congress that was held in Dublin and offers a feminist critique of religious bigotry while stylistically toeing the line between nineteenth-century realism and modernist experimentations with narrating interiority. The Rising Tide, written under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell,is a hilarious and scathing indictment of the Anglo-Irish class in decline – it rivals Evelyn Waugh’s writing of the 1930s when it comes to mean satire. A lot of the novels of this period are currently out of print, so hopefully I can change that!

What podcast do you recommend?

One podcast that I try to catch whenever I have a chance is Censored, hosted by Aoife Bhreatnach. Censored explores the long history of zealous censorship in Ireland and features weekly guests who are usually academics that publish on whatever text and/or author is being discussed in that episode. It’s a really entertaining foray into a broad and multi-faceted topic and has had some great episodes on writers such as Kate O’Brien and John McGahern.

What is your favourite archive or library?

I had an excellent time a few years ago while visiting the rare books collection in the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame. I travelled to the library on a grant from the Keough-Naughton Institute and was looking at an unpublished novel by the socialist writer Tom O’Flaherty, who was the somewhat jealous brother of the far more famous Liam O’Flaherty. Notre Dame has a beautiful and sprawling campus and the rare books staff were really wonderful and insightful. Aedín Clements is the Irish Studies librarian and Curator of Irish Collections at Hesburgh and she is a well of knowledge. She gave me a number of leads that helped expand some of the political angles to my research.

I am really excited to be travelling to Ireland where I will essentially get to live out of different libraries for a year, including the Trinity College Long Room and the National Library of Ireland. I will hopefully be visiting the British Library in London at some point as well, so ask me again in a year!

What book or movie changed your life?

James Joyce’s Ulysses seems like such a cliche answer, but it was a novel that changed what I thought fiction could do. As much as it is vaunted as an obtuse ‘masterpiece’ of modernist literature, the novel is so fundamentally drawn to human questions; the book is a panoply of scatalogical humour, personal anxieties, and a genuine curiosity about social networks. From Leopold Bloom imagining what it must be like to live like a cat to Molly Bloom remembering her first loves, Ulysses is full of these quiet passages of beauty. I think that human insight, more than difficulty or experimentation, is why the novel has remained so revered.

When it comes to the way I approach literature now, though, I think Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and the work of Canadian poet P. K. Page has had a lasting effect on the type of scholar that I want to be. The way these writers speak through the precision of language to a world that is so often occluded or erased is something that I find endlessly fascinating and rewarding.

Do you play music while you work?  If so, what?

YES. All the time. I have a pretty eclectic mix of what I listen to depending on what I am doing. Recently I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens, Kamasi Washington, black midi, Amen Dunes, Phoebe Bridgers, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Max Richter, and Do Make Say Think.

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career/degree?

Make friends with the librarians at your institution. They know all.

What is your favourite way to de-stress?

I’ve played soccer all my life, so usually that, at least when there is less than 10 cm of snow on the ground. I also like to play video games or head down to the pub with a book.

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