Jim Walsh on the achievements of Geography at Maynooth

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Anniversary Essays – Forty Years of Geography at Maynooth, 2 volumes

Remarks by Professor Jim Walsh, Vice President for Strategy and Quality and former Head of Geography Department (1995-2005) at launch of Anniversary Essays and closure of anniversary celebrations, Friday 7 December 2012.

Several months ago Alistair invited me to nominate some papers that might be included in a collection of 40 essays he was planning to compile as a contribution to the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the Geography department. Later I was delighted to receive an email that I was to be included as a contributor. A few weeks ago Jan asked to say a few words at this launch which I am delighted and honoured to do.

The two volumes provide some remarkable insights into the research of the department, even though what we have here is but a tiny faction of the hundreds of publications over the years. Without commenting on individual contributions I would like to make a few general points.

1. One is immediately struck by the breadth of Maynooth geography and the depth and quality of the scholarship of the department staff, current and retired. The papers range across a wide spectrum that includes the role of estates in historical landscape formation, and code in the functioning of modern landscapes, community development, climate change, water management, various dimensions of economic, social, cultural, political, medical geographies, poverty, information society, and geography education. This breadth of research interests contributed to much enriched teaching programmes at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels which have attracted very considerable numbers down the years.

2. The breadth of research is matched by depth as evidenced by the quality of the publication outlets – the top ranked international journals and book publishers. These publications are complemented by equally top class papers published in Irish journals, especially Irish Geography which members of the department have strongly supported down the years. Another lesser known journal in which some seminal papers were published was the Maynooth Review. Local engagement and global connectedness in many formats have been a constant source of enrichment of the research produced by members of the department.

3. The research exemplified by the selection of papers in these two volumes is also notable for the extent of inter-disciplinarily and foresight in regard to what are nowadays described as grand societal themes – these include health; water management; climate change; the knowledge society and economy; culture and heritage – real, imagined and memorised; ideology, peace and conflict; institutions, the citizen and society; place and space in neoliberalism; territorial planning; and spatial information systems. The trans-disciplinarity approach to the research is not always evident in the authorship of papers – rather it is manifested more deeply in the wide range of reference material consulted by the researchers, and the outlets chosen for publishing their research findings.

4. The direct scholarly publications are bolstered by outstanding contributions by many members of the department to the wider academy through editorship of journals, launching of new journals, the joint editorship and contributions to the multi volume encyclopaedia of human geography, and leadership roles at all levels nationally and internationally.

These achievements are the product of a particular context. Over the forty years the department grew from very humble beginnings to its current status as a leading department of international standing. The distinctive journey has been marked by:

• an unencumbered birth devoid of the clericalism that was a feature of most departments in Maynooth in their early years,
• a team culture that consistently places the collective interest of the department ahead of individual interests,
• active international and inter-disciplinary networking by all staff,
• a steadfast commitment to excellent education of students guided by the sustained research endeavour of all staff which was always tolerant and respectful of critical scholarly engagement with a plurality of orthodoxies and heterodoxies.

Journeys can be interesting but not always successful or memorable. I have been reflecting on what has made the Maynooth geography journey such a success. There are three necessary ingredients for success in my view:

• An abundance of talent and commitment among the staff and other researchers in the department. The department and the university have been fortunate in the calibre of the staff recruited at different stages. Over the past month we have had two of the highest confirmations of the talent in the department – the publication of a paper in Nature co-authored by Conor Murphy and John Sweeney with others, and the uniquely prestigious ERC award to Rob Kitchin. It is indeed fitting that the timing of these accolades coincides with the conclusion of this celebratory year.

• A capacity to make the best use of the available resources, and more importantly the ability to compete successfully for resources. Maynooth Geographers have an outstanding record in winning resources. One can think immediately of putting on new programmes to capture skills funding for postgraduates in areas such as GIS and Remote Sensing, and separately in Cultural Tourism, large equipment grants to support the Geophysical Analysis Unit, and research funding from every funding agency in Ireland complemented by large grants for European and other projects. Since 2005 I estimate Maynooth geographers have secured grants worth close on €25m, the second largest amount among the disciplines in the university – in what other university does geography rank no. 2 in success in winning research grants?

• The third ingredient is vision and strategic leadership, especially the capacity to identify opportunities and to put in place appropriate structures. Geography has this in abundance – one thinks of initiatives such as the inter-disciplinary Centre for Local and Regional Development in the early 1990s which led on to NIRSA, and from there to NCG, ICLRD and AIRO – a unique collection of established brand names. In parallel the department has spawned ICARUS, the Centre for Geophysical Analysis and the Centre for Health Geoinformatics. Leadership operates in various contexts. Over the forty years seven individuals have at times been Head of the department. I am delighted all are present this evening: Paddy Duffy, Willie Smyth, Seamus Smyth (first Professor of Geography and later President of the University), Dennis Pringle, Mark Boyle and Jan Rigby. I occupied the middle position between the first and second triumvirates. Each in their own way brought a particular vision and style of leadership. But, to borrow some key words from the title of one of the earliest department publications, there has been much Continuity and Change.

The three ingredients just described are necessary but not sufficient conditions to provide the milieu needed to support such a rich and sustained outpouring of excellent research.

The final essential factor is a collegial culture – it is the glue. It has been there from the beginning. Collegial is not to be misinterpreted as cosy. The collegial culture is built upon and has thrived on mutual respect, openness, the capacity to constructively challenge one another, and the willingness to cooperate, innovate and adapt for the best interests of the department, especially for the thousands of students that have taken geography. Together these attributes, shared among the academics and with the administrative and technical support colleagues, have provided an inspirational milieu for all associated with the department over the forty years.

The department has entered a new phase over recent times. Most of the founding members have retired from teaching but happily not from scholarship. Mark is taking is taking a well earned sabbatical and Jan has just started in her role as Head. There is much to build upon and to look forward to. I congratulate Alistair for compiling the two volumes as a fitting exhibition of the treasure of knowledge created over the past forty years. I look forward to the next ten years and reassembling to mark fifty years. I conclude by congratulating all who have participated in the outstanding scholarly contribution of the last forty years, and I wish Jan and her colleagues every success in the future.

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