As a historian, I attend many historical lectures, book readings and walking tours, but notice that sadly few young people seem to be interested in the past. That is why the success of Kilkenny’s Fin Dwyer’s podcasts with people of all ages is even more impressive.
I recently heard Fin speak to a packed house at the American Irish Historical Society as part of the ongoing “How Did I Get Here” talks for young professionals. Dwyer is a 37-year old published author and creator of one of Ireland’s most popular podcasts. Since starting the Irish History Podcast in 2010 he has brought Irish history to new audiences by presenting Ireland’s past in engaging accessible narratives. He has attracted a worldwide fan base of more than 20,000 listeners.
The series started in 2010 with the story of the Irish High kings and the impact of the Viking attacks. Subsequent series have looked at the Norman Invasion of Ireland, the notorious Ma’amtrasna Murders and over the last two years Dwyer has focused on the Great Famine. His success is all the more remarkable because it is accidental in a way.
Up until 2008, Dwyer worked as an archaeologist in Dublin when he was diagnosed with a chronic illness that prevented him from working. He started the podcast just as a way to keep himself busy, but since then it has grown from strength to strength and now in spite of his adversities his podcast success is a personal dream come true. I asked Dwyer to speculate on the popularity of his podcasts, and he said, “I would like to think part of the success related to the structure of each podcast. I try to focus on the stories of people rather than endless dates. Many people think they dislike history because they can’t remember dates."
History has very little to do with dates. It’s more about what ordinary people, like you or me would do in extraordinary situations.” At his lecture in New York, Dwyer had a very interesting insight into the difference in viewpoints between Irish and Irish-Americans on The Famine. He stated: In Ireland the attitude to The Famine is very strange. Despite the fact it is the most important event in our history, public understanding of The Famine is limited. People are less interested in The Great Famine than the 1916 Rising. In the U.S., it seems people acknowledge the importance of The Famine."
I think there are understandable reasons for this. People who survived the Great Hunger and remained in Ireland lived in a country that was utterly decimated, surrounded by memories of a deeply traumatizing event. They did not want to remember. Conversely, in the United States, for emigrants it was a foundation story so it could be remembered – in fact it was (an) important (event) for emigrants to remember.
Though his podcasts on The Famine have won him a wide listenership, Dwyer is moving on to a new topic: 1916. Early next year, he will start a new series based on the Irish War of Independence, focusing on eight individuals who played pivotal roles in this conflict. He hopes this structure will allow listeners not only to understand the complexity of the war, but also make it engaging.
Finally, Dwyer is a Kilkenny man, and I asked him how his roots there affected his sense of history. He said that in growing up in Kilkenny he was surrounded by history and spent a lot of time as a kid playing in the ruins of medieval castle and abbeys, which gave him a natural curiosity about The Famine. Also, his home town, Castlecomer, has an unusual but fascinating history – it was a coal-mining town, which meant he was surrounded by a very rich and fascinating community history, which he covered in the series "Secret Societies, Communism and Coal – Life in the Castlecomer Coalfields."
If you are a fan of Irish history, or merely great Irish storytelling, give Dwyer a listen. His podcasts are free. You can listen to endless hours of fascinating history by searching for Irish History Podcast in iTunes, Spotify, Youtube and Irishhistorypodcast.ie