Professor Jane Ohlmeyer: Queen of the Humanities

By David Barrett

Jane Ohlmeyer is a lovely person. Genuinely. Her office is filled with mugs from different universities that she has visited and even gave this writer tea when he came in (in a mug from the University of Krakow for the curious) but there is no doubting that she means business.

Ohlmeyer grew up in Belfast before studying for her undergrad in St. Andrews, Masters in Illinois and PhD right here in Trinity. Following that was an intense academic career in Irish History, which included a time as a lecturer in Yale and Head of the History department in Aberdeen University before becoming the Erasmus Smith Chair of Modern History in Trinity in 2003 – a position that she still holds.

However, despite her extremely impressive resume and tremendous scholarly output Ohlmeyer is perhaps best known for her extensive involvement in the 1641 Depositions project, which digitalised the accounts of Irish Protestants in the 1641 massacres and was opened on Friday 22 October by none other than the President and Ian Paisley. Ohlmeyer explained that the idea came to her in 2003 that it would be fantastic to digitalise the 1641 Depositions, which had hitherto been gathering dust in the archives and had barely been seen in years.

What followed was a relentless effort to bring this project to fruition, an effort that now sees Ohlmeyer representing Ireland and the humanities at a European level – most notably as the Irish representative on Dariah (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities). Ohlmeyer explained that involvement at this kind of level was essential for 1641: “The Internet is quite fragile and we wanted 1641 to still be there in one hundred years. Three years ago the infrastructure just was not there for this kind of project”.

Ohlmeyer is quick to credit her colleagues both in Trinity and elsewhere for the success of 1641 but there can be little doubt that her drive and obvious enthusiasm and passion for the project was one of the driving forces. While her description of the process made this writer’s head spin with its complexity what struck me most of all was the diversity of business, governments and universities that were brought on board – everyone from IBM to the EU were involved at some stage in the process. Ohlmeyer said that this arrangement was “mutually beneficial. We were the perfect guinea-pigs as complete computer illiterates in a big technical project.” Ohlmeyer’s strong conviction in using business to help achieve scholarly goals comes through constantly: “The likes of Google, IBM, Microsoft and Intel would not to deal with Trinity if we were not already among the best in our field. If business can help us achieve our scholarly and teaching goals I think that’s all for the good.”

Ohlmeyer is a huge believer in the idea of Trinity as a learning centre and is convinced that the quality of both students and staff ranks up there with the best she has ever been in (a mightily high compliment from someone who once lectured in Yale). Her commitment to personally teaching the tutorial groups of her undergraduate courses is quite remarkable – and has earned her a large following among history students. She is full of praise for her colleagues: “Trinity could not be further from an ivory tower. Teaching and research is our core mission as academics and the commitment that my colleagues have to this goal is incredible.” High praise indeed.

What of the future? While Ohlmeyer refused to be drawn into speculation regarding the upcoming Provost election it is hard not to see how she would be a formidable candidate. Ohlmeyer possesses a strong academic record and has shown – repeatedly – an ability to get things done with a marked skill at bringing together disparate groups to achieve academic goals (and, just as importantly, contribute money to them). Combined with a personality that made this writer feel like Ohlmeyer had personally baked him a batch of cookies after five minutes of conversation she will undoubtedly be a contender to be Trinity’s first ever female Provost.

The question is however: In a time when all the talk is on the “smart economy”, would Trinity be daring enough to let a historian take the helm?