This post was originally published in the Queen’s University Belfast ‘AHSS Research Funding’ sway from Friday 12th February.

Acts of Union: Mixed Marriage in Modern Ireland’ is a fascinating research programme that will investigate the phenomenon of marriages that cross religious and political divides in Ireland (North and South) over the past 200 years. Can you tell us more?

Marrying across political and/or religious divides has often been a contentious issue; especially in Ireland, where the stakes of these allegiances are high. Despite the relative prevalence of the phenomenon and the vital insight that studying these marriage patterns could give us into an extraordinarily turbulent period in Irish and British history, there has been very limited research on this subject. Taking an interdisciplinary approach that draws together historical, cultural and literary research, this project will produce the first sustained engagement with ‘mixed marriage’, or ‘love across the divide’ across the island of Ireland. It will help us understand how the narratives told about Irish culture, politics and society intersect with the lived experience of Irish people. I will be engaging with multiple cultural institutions and organisations across the island, including the Belfast-based theatre company Kabosh, and the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI), based in Dublin, to help bring my research findings to life.

How much does this new fellowship draw upon your previous work and how much is it a new direction for your research?

My background is in literary and cultural studies. My first book, The Literary Afterlives of Roger Casement, 1899-2016 (Liverpool University Press, 2020), explored the legacy of the Irish nationalist and humanitarian Roger Casement (1864-1916), across a selection of twentieth and twenty-first century literary and cultural texts. Before starting my UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, I was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow here at Queen’s University Belfast working on a project exploring ‘love across the divide’ in the North from 1968 to the present. Where my previous scholarship examined such fictional narratives in ‘Troubles’ literature and culture, my new research is an interdisciplinary step-change that will explore similar themes and topics but through different methodological perspectives, different sources and across a much more significant time frame.

This project is interdisciplinary, bringing together a range of methodological and disciplinary approaches, how will you manage the challenges this brings?

I do have some experience of authoring, and co-authoring, interdisciplinary work as well as running inter- and multi-disciplinary teams. So, while the scale of the project will be an exciting challenge, working on collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship isn’t entirely new to me. I also have access to various training programmes and an outstanding team of support at Queen’s. This includes my Co-I, Professor Diane Urquhart – a truly world-leading authority on Irish and gender history – and my mentor, Professor Fran Brearton, another world-leading scholar and expert on modern Irish literature. In addition to this, I’ll have support from an excellent advisory panel including Professor Peter Gray, Professor Sean O’Connell, Dr. Paula Devine, Dr. Alan Fernihough and Anna Liesching, Curator of Art, National Museums Northern Ireland.

What support did you avail of to assist with the development of this project and what, if any, recommendations or advice would you have for others?

I recently found a folder on ‘Romance across the Divide’ on my computer that I’d created in 2013, during my PhD, so I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I always knew I wanted to apply for a big grant to put together a team to explore the phenomenon and, during the first year of my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, I spoke to lots of people in various departments about my ideas. I was finally encouraged to apply for the Fellowship by Professor Mark Burnett and Professor Diane Urquhart; even though I was pretty much working full time at the BBC by this point (on a secondment) and, after (seemingly endless!) rejections, was feeling pretty despondent about my chances. 

At different stages during the application process, I got incredibly helpful advice and support from various peers and colleagues, especially from Professor Sean O’Connell and Dr. Paula Devine. The support and advice I got from Peter Stephenson, AHSS Faculty Research Development Manager, was absolutely fantastic. I believe he fed back on every single part of the application form (impressive, given that mine sits at 42 pages!), with great detail and insight.

The practice interviews were enormously helpful. Everyone who took part in a practice interview with me offered invaluable support and feedback, on both interview technique but also quite specific insight as to how to shape and develop the project. I would recommend, however, to applicants going forward who don’t have a permanent job and so might not have much experience with interviews, public speaking or working with very senior academics, that they do as many practice interviews as they possibly can. I think I did, in additional to the two organised by Peter, an additional five practice interviews with obliging family and friends as well as extensively practicing answers to the particular questions I knew I struggled with. My imposter syndrome led me to over prepare because I absolutely didn’t want to let this amazing opportunity slip through my fingers!

I actually asked other UKRI Future Leaders Fellows what advice they would have for future applicants and put together a resource pack with some suggestions. You can have a look at that here.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have created a resource with extra information for those applying for FLFs that might fall under their remits. You can take a look at that here.

What was the most challenging aspect of the application process?

Very few awards are made to scholars from an arts and humanities background, so it was challenging to work out what a successful project ‘looked like’ from this perspective, especially because only 2 Rounds had been awarded when I submitted my application. This made it slightly tricky to map out the project and to write the Expression of Interest. But, honestly, the most challenging thing was summoning the energy to apply! Despite having a good track record of success with funding and fellowships, I hadn’t been shortlisted for a lectureship position in over 5 years and, after years of working on fixed-term fellowships and the relentlessly competitive nature of ECR life, I doubted whether I had the energy to put together a proposal of the size and scope necessary for this scheme. I was really beginning to question my future in academia. Queen’s ran an internal competition for the scheme and, after peer review, I was selected as a candidate by a panel of Queen’s academics. Knowing that this panel had faith in me gave me the confidence to go for it.

What is next for you and your research?

I am thrilled to have secured this Fellowship and my future at Queen’s. The Fellowship will allow me to build upon the career trajectory I have charted so far, where I have placed significant emphasis on interdisciplinarity and sought to embed engagement and impact into my scholarship, while also developing a programme of vital research. I’ll be recruiting my postdoctoral research assistant and PhD student in the next few months and am delighted to be creating new positions during this difficult time. I really can’t wait to get started on the new project; I’m just so fascinated by how big national narratives relate to the intimate, everyday realities of people’s lives and the stories we tell about this.