Research Radar – Cian T. McMahon

Cian T. McMahon is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and Honors College at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He specialises in the transnational dimensions of modern Ireland and the Irish diaspora with emphases on migration, identity, and maritime social history. He has written two books, the most recent being The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine (NYU Press, 2021). He also recently published an article in the American Historical Review (2022) calling for more studies of the maritime dimensions of human migration. You can contact him via Twitter @CianTMcMahon.

Who (academic or not) has shaped your critical thinking the most and why? 

The answer to this question is less “who” and more “where.” After finishing my MA at University College Dublin in 2002, I knew I wanted to do a PhD in Irish history but I decided to pursue it in North America precisely because I knew that the comprehensive exams process would expose me to a wide range of books and ideas outside of Irish history. I had grown up in Ireland and gone to high school and undergraduate in Canada so the United States seemed like an exotic destination and I was delighted when I was offered the chance to study under David W. Miller at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It turned out to be just as exciting and challenging as I’d hope it would be. I read philosophers from Marx to Foucault, anthropologists from Mary Douglas to Marshall Sahlins, and American historians I’d never heard of, including Eric Foner and Drew Gilpin Faust. Reading all of these writers and digesting their arguments enabled me to come back to the history of Ireland and the Irish with a fresh, open mind.

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

I know a lot of historians really dislike (or, at least, are deeply suspicious of) historical fiction but I love it and it’s definitely my go-to when I have time and space for leisure reading. I’m currently finishing Cormac James’ The Surfacing. Next up is Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Crossing followed (probably) by Ian McGuire’s The Abstainer. But it’s not all boys and their various historical toys; I got a lot of out reading all of Sally Rooney’s novels during the pandemic and really enjoyed a roundtable at the 2022 American Conference for Irish Studies annual meeting that teased apart her themes and ideas.

What podcast(s) do you recommend?

I know, it’s terrible, I’m sorry (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa) but I have yet to get into the swing of podcasts. I cannot tell you why. I absolutely loved Bad Bridget and my wife is constantly telling me about various great shows she enjoys but I’d much prefer rocking out to Black Sabbath or The War on Drugs while driving home than listening to a podcast.

What is your favourite archive or library? / What is your fondest research memory?

The National Library of Ireland obviously has a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. I remember walking past it when I was a kid and thinking “Why would anyone want to spend their time off (let alone work) in a library?” Then, when I was cutting my teeth in archival and microfilm research during my MA in the early 2000s, I found myself thinking “Why isn’t everyone spending their time off in this library?” A big thrill (this is very nerdy!) was quickly skimming the sign-in sheet on the main desk to see who else was reading there that day. Luke Gibbons! Mary Daly! Those were fun afternoons.

What book changed your life?

Not long after emigrating with my family to Winnipeg in Canada, and being a sullen teenager, I was unimpressed when my uncle insisted I try reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a historical novel about Michelangelo Buonarroti. I had never expressed any interest in painting, sculpture, or the Renaissance. What could this book possibly have to offer me? But I soon found myself vicariously living the day-to-day life of a struggling artist in fifteenth-century Italy and absolutely loved it. I suppose that kick-started my love for reading “grown-up” books and especially historical fiction.

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

I realize I’m going to undermine by hard rock street cred when I say this but I actually listened to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida on repeat when I pounding out the paragraphs of my PhD dissertation (and then revising it into my first book, The Global Dimensions of Irish Identity). My wife and I had two kids while simultaneously researching and writing our own dissertations so I was mostly working in a coffee shop where there were a fair number of distractions. But that album was just like a kind of sonic comfort blanket that just sounded nice and drowned out nearby conversations. I tried listening to white noise but actually found Coldplay less distracting.

What is your favourite way to de-stress? / What habits or hobbies support your research practice and/or allow you to destress?

Walking is hugely important to me and even though I don’t go for a walk every single day, it is a cornerstone of my physical and mental well-being. So are hot cups of Lyons tea. Moreover, my wife and I are blessed with four lovely, healthy, funny children so just managing them (not to mention dragging them out for walks) offers a daily break from my scholarship and teaching. I also took up playing the piano again during the pandemic, which was fun. And I enjoy watching discrete scenes from favorite movies such as The Godfather, The Master, The Power of the Dog, etc. I love zeroing in on the writing, the acting, the set design, the costumes. Knowing a movie inside out frees you up to go back and enjoy it in new ways, especially when you’re just watching one scene at a time (in between thumping out paragraphs on the laptop).

Is there a research initiative that you would like to use this platform to highlight?

I sat on the American Conference for Irish Studies’ “Donald Murphy Prize for Distinguished First Book” award committee for three years and was blown away by the broad range of high-quality scholarship being published across multiple disciplines in Irish Studies these days. The ACIS also gives awards for the best dissertation, the best Irish language book, etc. etc. I suppose I would encourage folks within and without academia to check out the ACIS awards web page https://acisweb.org/book-and-dissertation-prizes every summer to see what’s new and cool in Irish Studies.

What are your essential research tools/supplies and why?
I do international research, which involves travelling great distances to far-flung archives. My time in these places is often extremely limited. When researching my most recent book, The Coffin Ship, I only had five days in London, five days in Sydney, four days in Philadelphia, that kind of thing. And each trip also cost a lot of money for a historian on a shoestring budget. As a result, I learned to exploit technological advances by taking digital photos of letters and diaries that in the old days I used to have to read on site. I definitely agree that you lose something when you conduct these kinds of smash-and-grab visits. And I do spend time reading bits and pieces of the material I am collecting; I don’t just blindly take photographs from open to close. But my iPhone and apps like GeniusScan definitely enable me to make the most of my limited time and resources. I also make a point every evening of organizing, labelling, and filing away in my hard-drive everything I collect on that day so that I don’t return to a huge, undifferentiated, digital pile of photos with names like “IMG_2874.”

How has the pandemic affected your research practice?

The pandemic came at an interesting time for me because I was just finishing up writing The Coffin Ship. So, for the first year or so of the pandemic, I was really editing and preparing the manuscript for production. That’s the last ten to fifteen percent of any book project that they don’t tell you about in grad school and that is hard for non-book writers to fully grasp. It’s another reason why (pardon me while I climb up onto my soapbox for a second) I personally believe that one should write one’s own book before sitting on a book prize committee. That’s strictly IMHO, as they say on Twitter. There’s this weird, final stage (after the book is “written”) where you need to re-double your efforts to hone it into a sharp, marketable thing suitable for bookshelves. It’s a phase one needs to experience to fully appreciate. Anyway, that was what I was working on for the first year of COVID. In the second year, I started working in earnest on my next research project on Saint Patrick’s Day but because I know relatively little about the subject, I have been mostly reading books and journal articles (available online or through my university library) and microfilmed, historical newspapers (available through inter-library loan). I had scheduled a trip to Canada but the Omicron variant had other plans…

Favourite form of procrastination?

When I need a “brain break” (as my kids used to call time away from their laptop when slogging through pandemic online learning) I’ll often read the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of Liverpool Football Club (I’ve been a supporter since boyhood). I also like to watch CR’s Video Vaults on YouTube, which features rare and vintage Irish video-recordings, mostly from the 1960s onwards. Patrick McDonagh has just published an important book on gay activism in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s and I look forward to reading it. But I also learn so much, for example, from watching a video of (incredibly brave) gay folks talking about being gay in Ireland during the same time period.

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

Like many of my colleagues in the humanities, I bounced around for a few years after earning my PhD before finding a full-time, permanent position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It was an emotionally difficult, intellectually challenging period in my life. I suppose I would say this to those considering or beginning (or ending!) a PhD and aiming for a career in academics: having sat on the other side of the hiring table multiple times over the past several years now, I have come to realize that the-job-you-applied-for-but-didn’t-get was not necessarily scooped up by someone who was smarter or edgier or harder-working than you. They got the job because their infinitesimally unique characteristics (as a job seeker) fit the infinitesimally unique characteristics of the department you both applied to.

The problem is that this means that you will not necessarily get a tenure-track position in academics simply because you are the smartest or edgiest or hardest-working person in your cohort. And I suppose I wish I knew this going into it. I think I would have spent more time (while working on my PhD) thinking about ways in which the degree could allow me to find a fulfilling career outside of academics. And I say that as someone who has found a fulfilling career in academics. The truth is that working your backside off for seven plus years just so you can stake it all on an infinitesimally-complicated crap shoot is… risky. Even here in Vegas.

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