Making history accessible to all

Cork County Council has appointed an inaugural historian-in-residence. COLETTE SHERIDAN catches up with the man who has assumed the post, Tony Harpur
Making history accessible to all

Tony Harpur, the new Historian in Residence, at Cork County Council. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

TONY Harpur, Cork County Council’s inaugural historian-in-residence, says that if he was put on a beach in the Canary Islands for two weeks, he would “possibly have to be put into a mental hospital at the end of it”.

Such is his love of history that Tony has always used his holidays from work to follow up on historical projects or investigations, taking him to the U.S and Europe.

Now, his enthusiasm for the past is being acknowledged with his new role. The residency, funded by Creative Ireland, will enable Tony to creatively connect with communities in County Cork through research, discussions, events, activities and virtual gatherings.

The historian-in-residence, in consultation with the library, arts and heritage services, will create a research and engagement programme that will account for various aspects of social life, history and heritage in County Cork. The programme will be delivered online and in-person.

Tony, a native of Midleton, doesn’t have “a full academic background”. For years, he worked for Dell in Limerick, ending up as production line lead. While in Limerick, he volunteered at the Hunt Museum in the city at the weekends, where he conducted guided tours of the permanent collection and of the summer exhibitions. He also facilitated museum workshops for schools and he gave public lectures.

“When Dell decided to close down its operation in Limerick, I applied to UL (University of Limerick) to do a Masters. You could actually do an MA there if you had a bit of a background in a particular topic.”

Tony’s dissertation was on Bishop O’Dea’s mitre and crozier. “They are two of the greatest and least known medieval art treasures from Ireland. They belong to the diocese of Limerick and are on display in the Hunt Museum. They were made in 1418. I think I may know who the artist is but I need to do a bit more investigation. I did my dissertation on them because, basically, nobody had done a full academic study of this art treasure.”

Tony Harpur. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Tony Harpur. Picture: Denis Minihane.

There’s nothing Tony enjoys more than using his free time to trace the provenance of art works, travelling abroad to do so, if necessary. Thanks to this pioneering spirit, he was able to “definitively prove” that a piece art at the Hunt Museum was by Bernhard Strigel, “a relatively minor German artist. But it was the bigger of his two paintings in Ireland.”

At the Hunt Museum, Tony met a German art historian who suggested to him the name of the artist behind the work. Tony went to Germany to see if he could trace a link between the artist mentioned and the painting. Later, he came across an item in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. It was a photograph of figures very similar to the figures in the art work concerned at the Hunt Museum.

“This was too good to miss so I went back to Germany to find out what happened to Strigel.”

Tony’s curiosity led him to Switzerland where he met Dr Konrad, the German art historian again, having kept in touch with him. They did a tour together and came across the painting that Tony had seen in a book in the Boston museum. The painting was behind an iron grille, inside a chapel in a small town in Switzerland.

“The priest there very kindly opened the chapel so I could see the piece close up.”

Dr Konrad took Tony to a nuclear bunker.

“The Swiss have all these nuclear bunkers in mountains which are like Swiss cheese. Inside one, I found another painting, a feature of which was exactly the same as what I found in the Hunt Museum.

“After that, I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrischschafen in Germany. There was a final detail in a painting there that absolutely nailed the painting in the Hunt Museum as being by Bernhard Strigel. That was my holiday! It was fun. I like investigating. One little discovery encourages me to go and follow up on it. It’s very interesting.”

Just before last Christmas, Tony was asked to give a lecture in the Hunt Museum about the Bernhard Strigel painting. But he wasn’t going to give a dry academic talk.

“I decided to tell people the detective story about what I did. I put (the painting) up on a screen but wouldn’t point out the relevant detail in it. I let the audience figure it out themselves. The reaction was ‘Oh my God, tell us the story.’ That’s what history is really about. You’re telling a story. And you have to analyse it.”

Tony realises that as a historian, “you’re never going to have everything. With what you have, you decide how you’re going to pitch it. I could write about what I know very academically but people would read it and say they didn’t understand it. That’s a complaint I’ve heard about some publications. I want to write at a level that everybody can understand.

“Academic historians have their own language and, depending on the period, the language can be quite obscure to the ordinary man and woman on the street. 

"I believe that popular history should be told in language that is clear, unambiguous and explains technical terms.”

Tony is currently trying to pull together the history of Midleton into one book. He is involved in producing events for Midleton Heritage Week. He has also conducted tours of Midleton and has developed a Midleton Great Famine Tour.

In the autumn, he will be presenting a night course on the local history of East Cork at St Colman’s College in Midleton. No doubt, this enthusiastic historian will unearth little known facts about his neck of the woods.

MORE ABOUT THE NEW POST

Tony is Cork County Council’s first Historian in Residence. The new residency, funded by Creative Ireland, will enable history specialists to creatively connect with communities in Cork County through co-created research, discussions, events, activities and virtual gatherings. The Historian in Residence, in consultation with Library, Arts and Heritage services, will create a research and engagement programme that will account for various aspects of social life, history and heritage in County Cork. The programme will be delivered through online and in-person activities.

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