Research beyond borders

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Notes from the Huntington Library, California

headshotJoan Redmond is a History PhD student from Dublin, studying seventeenth-century Irish history at University of Cambridge. From July to October 2013, Joan was researching at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, as part of the AHRC International Placement Scheme.

While I was packing up my College room and getting ready for a four month research trip to California, the question I was asked most often was, ‘Why are you going to California for research?!’. Yes, Los Angeles may seem like an odd destination for a student of seventeenth century Ireland and its religious changes, but I was bound for the Huntington Library, a semi-hidden treasure of rare books and manuscripts, located in the rarefied surroundings of San Marino, a prosperous city just north of LA in the San Gabriel Valley.

My research focuses on the period 1641-1660 in Ireland. It was a time of great rebellion, religious division and civil war across Ireland, England and Scotland. Pretty exciting stuff for a historian, right? And from July, I was bringing my warring Irish subjects to southern California, and to the Huntington.

Japanese_GardenThe Huntington actually consists not just of the library, but of an extensive art collection and acres of beautiful, themed gardens: thus there is the famous Japanese Garden, the strange and creepy Desert Garden, and the multitudinous varieties of roses in the Rose Garden (my particular favourites being the Anne Boleyn, Dolly Parton, and of course the St Patrick roses). The Huntington provides a unique environment for scholars, ranging from the compulsory 11.45-1pm lunch break, to free coffee and biscuits on Tuesday afternoons.

Huntington_LibraryThe Huntington was founded when railway tycoon Henry E. Huntington decided to build a winter house for himself and his wife Arabella in sunny California; after their deaths, the house and gardens were left in trust, as well as the extensive rare book and manuscript collections that Henry had gathered across his lifetime, and Arabella’s art collection. Together, these form the academic paradise that is the Huntington, one visited by thousands of tourists every year, but also catering for several hundred Readers, there to consult the scholarly materials, and top up their Vitamin D.

1641_rebellionThe major collection for my work was the Hastings Irish Papers, a vast collection spanning from the late sixteenth into the eighteenth century. These papers are a treasure trove of information about seventeenth-century Ireland, with glimpses into everyday life and high politics. Personal highlights included a disputed marriage case involving a recently widowed, conveniently wealthy woman, in which one of the chief witnesses was a little boy ‘hiding in the chimney-piece’; what happened subsequently we unfortunately do not know, as a response to the letter describing this case does not survive.

Grand_CanyonMy four months at the Huntington also provided ample opportunity to experience American life, and to partake of that great US tradition, the roadtrip. I attended two baseball games, one on each coast, and now have my loyalties divided between the LA Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox. Los Angeles and southern California is also home to a huge diversity of cuisines, with Mexican and all varieties of Asian being especially well represented; I consider it a particular achievement that I did not come home about 10 stones heavier! I saw the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite, and San Francisco, all fantastic in their own way, and each contributing to a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Dodger_StadiumDespite the impression of non-stop fun and holidays, I can assure you (and my supervisor!) that there was also work done: the documents I found and the information gathered have provided some critical context for my PhD. I am very grateful to the AHRC for the opportunity to go to the Huntington, and to everyone who looked after me while I was there. It has been an incredible experience on many different fronts, and one I will genuinely never forget.

The AHRC’s annual International Placement Scheme (IPS) provides funded research fellowships of up to 6 months at world-leading international research institutions such as The Huntington Library, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Applications for IPS fellowships are invited until 15th January 2014.

Talk to current IPS fellows and AHRC staff in a Twitter chat from 2-3pm on Wed 11th December @ahrcpress, #AHRCchat.