Autumn is my favourite season. I love the golden colour of the sunlight, the changing tones of the leaves, the crisp smoky smell in the air…
Autumn is also grant-writing season for many academics. It is a burst of intense concentration – planning, budgeting, justifying, arguing – followed by a very odd post-submission feeling of emptiness. Any chance to catch one’s breath is then swiftly taken away by the rush of the fall semester in full swing.
The GMM Project came about because of a grant proposal: a 2019 Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which is the main federal granting agency for academics in Canada. There is an art to grant writing (just ask Diana Gabaldon); it is a different form of composition from almost anything else that professors and researchers create. It takes a different set of skills.
Having just finished two grant applications earlier this month, I’ve come out the other side and now feel very grateful for what can happen because of grant-writing season: a solid road-map for where the research needs to go next. Gathering sources and ideas for the original GMM Project gave me an opportunity to see – and then explain in great detail – where something had been overlooked or not-yet-covered in the historiography of the Irish in Canada and the wider diaspora. Sometimes, grant proposals refer to this as “a lacuna in the literature,” or words to that effect. It means the same thing: the hole that your research hopes to help to fill.
While there had been amazing work done for the past three decades on the role of lunatic asylums in Canadian society – both before and after Confederation in 1867 – the gendered Irish element was missing. Equally, while the confinement of the Irish in asylums had been studied to great effect in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and America, the same focus had not occurred with the Canadian asylums, particularly for the years before, during, and after the Great Irish Famine. Why was that?
For one of this autumn’s proposals, the grant application evolved directly from the research we have already been doing since 2019. The quantitative and qualitative data we’ve collected has revealed a significant gap in the established histories of Irish migration, hospitalization, institutionalization, and settlement in Canada. What was the role of motherhood for arriving immigrants to colonial Canada? What kinds of medical and civic care were given to mothers, expectant mothers, and the mothers of deceased children once they were admitted to hospitals and asylums after their journeys across the Atlantic? While our archival research so far has focused only on the Irish-born who were institutionalized at Rockwood, Beauport, and Toronto’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum, these broader maternal themes obviously affected arriving immigrants and their families regardless of their point of origin, particularly in times of cholera and typhus when medical care in Canadian hospitals and asylums was at a premium.
Grant proposals involve long justifications of what has been written already, what sources need to be consulted (and where), and how new research can add to our understanding of the past. A certain funding body might want to see how the lessons of history can help our decisions in the future; another might want to know how knowledge gained through the academy can be shared with the general public; yet another might want assurances that the training of students in field work, archival research, and scholarly writing are central to a given project. Sometimes they want all of those things and more. Writing a grant proposal takes time, energy, many drafts, good proofreading (hence the many drafts), and can involve months of planning, consulting potential collaborators, and coming up with new strategies to share research results. But the benefits of a good grant proposal can go well beyond the actual funding of an envisioned project. It can, quite often, hone the instincts and bring real excitement to the craft of researching the past.
So, even though I’m mentally and physically spent this autumn from creating new applications, I also feel quite grateful – because I know where I want this project to go next.