Irish Students at Glasgow in the Early Twentieth Century

In a break from Baton Relay posts, Club21 volunteer, James Bell, tells us of his project that combined the International Story with the period around the First World War:

When I started this project I decided to concentrate on Irish students who studied medicine in the early part of the twentieth century, with special focus on the years around the First World War. This was interesting to me because I am from Northern Ireland and wanted to find out more about the students who studied in Glasgow before me. I also wanted to explore why so many of the students from Ireland decided to study medicine and what impact the First World War had on their lives.

There is a strong historical link between Ireland and Scotland. In 1609 the first lowland Scots arrived as part of the Plantation of Ulster and migration continued sporadically over the rest of the century despite intermittent war. After a major influx in the 1690s because of a famine in Scotland, Scots became the dominant population in the province of Ulster. Because of the Irish Potato Famine in the mid nineteenth century migration began to take place in reverse with many people settling on the west coast of Scotland. This had an important impact on the language and culture of the region and created a strong sense of community between the north of Ireland and Scotland. The University’s archives overseas database as well as my own research reflects this; I found out that the vast majority of Irish students around the turn of the twentieth century came from the counties of Ulster.

This closer relationship also lead to stronger educational ties. For the sons and (later) daughters of wealthy Irish families Scotland became the obvious place for them to receive an education. This is due in part to the cultural affiliation that many Irish people felt towards Scotland, but can also be explained by the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Based around the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, figures such as Adam Smith, James Boswell, Robert Burns, Thomas Carlyle, David Hume and Sir Walter Scott made great strides in the study of economics, philosophy, the sciences and literature. Scotland was fast becoming a European intellectual powerhouse and presented educational opportunities on a large scale for the first time.

This trend continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But why did so many students choose to study medicine? Based on my own work in the archives I believe that it had a lot to do with the social status of the students’ families. Many of their fathers are listed as farmers or tradesmen: these were professions that would have made a decent living, certainly enough to send their children to university in another part of the country. Sending their children to study medicine, usually with the view that they will return to their hometowns to practice as the local doctor, ensured not only that they could give back to their communities, but also advanced their social positions. Studying medicine seems to have been viewed as a worthwhile investment in the family as well as the local area.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 interrupted studies for many students. In the examples I looked at, however, none of the students were affected as conscription was never introduced in Ireland (which was part of the United Kingdom at the time). However two of the students I concentrated on served in the army after graduation: Josiah Stranaghan Harbinson graduated MBChB in 1908 and became a lieutenant in the medical branch;

G H Dundon in Engineering & Naval Architecture 1913-1914 (Accn173/11/7/1b)

G H Dundon, Engineering & Naval Architecture 1913-1914 (Accn173/11/7/1b)

and George Hewitt Dundon graduated BSc in Engineering in 1914 and signed up, joining the 5th Field Company in the Reserve Battalion. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and in 1918 was awarded the Military Cross for  “conspicuous gallantry -and devotion to duty” when repairing a bridge under heavy fire.

These two experiences may be considered typical of Irish citizens who chose to take part in the First World War. Despite the political affiliations that characterise modern Ireland, both nationalists and unionists generally supported the war effort, with 200,000 fighting over the course of four years. The war did not interrupt studies as much as I had previously believed, but the extent to which students voluntarily enlisted after graduating underlines the historically close relationship between the people of Ulster and Scotland.

Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular has therefore had an important role to play both culturally and educationally in Ireland. In many ways, the impact of these historical ties are still being felt today. The story of Ireland’s link to Glasgow is still being written- please get in contact if you can contribute anything.

James Bell, MSc Russian, Central and East European Studies.


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Filed under Commonwealth of Nations, Europe

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