School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Staff Profile

Dr Shane McCorristine

Lecturer in Modern British History

Background

I am an interdisciplinary historian with interests in the 'night side' of modern experience - namely social attitudes toward death, crime, dreams, ghosts, and the supernatural. My research argues that these aspects of life were central in making people (especially in western societies) feel modern. In looking at these topics I draw on a variety of approaches and literatures from cultural history, medical humanities, and literary studies. 

Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, I was educated at University College Dublin where I received my PhD in History in 2008. I then held research fellowships in the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, at LMU Munich, and at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. In 2010 I was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to work on the cultural history of Arctic exploration at Maynooth University and the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. In 2013 I joined a team at the University of Leicester working on the large-scale Wellcome project 'Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse'.  I am Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and joined the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University in 2018. 

Postgraduate supervision

I welcome proposals from postgraduate students who are interested in topics related to my research, as well as topics around imperial exploration, medical history, the history of crime, and environmental history.

Postdoctoral supervision

Potential applicants for British Academy, Leverhulme, or Marie Curie funding schemes are welcome to approach me to discuss their research plans. 

Office hours

Tuesday 3-6pm

Qualifications

  • BA in Mode 1 History, University College Dublin (2003)
  • MA in Cultural History, University College Dublin (2004)
  • PhD in History, University College Dublin (2008)

Previous positions

  • Research Assistant, Trinity College Dublin (2008)
  • Research Assistant, University College Dublin (2009)
  • Research Fellow, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, LMU Munich (2010)
  • Irish Research Council CARA/Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, Maynooth University and Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge (2010-13)
  • Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Leicester (2013-15)
  • Director of Studies for Geography, Downing College, University of Cambridge (2013-15)
  • Senior Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge (2016) 

Memberships

  • Fellow of Royal Historical Society (2011- )
  • Member of the British Society for the History of Science
  • Member of the British Association for Victorian Studies

Google scholar: Click here.

Research

I am interested in the 'night side' of human experience, in the role that dreams, ghosts, and hallucinations play in our everyday lives and histories. My key research questions are: how do people deal with disappearance and missing, or ghosted, people? What were the particular histories that led us to lose our belief in the authority of dreams and ghosts? And, how does the past stick around and haunt the present through landscapes, memories, bodies, and objects? Although trained as a cultural historian, I believe that uncovering the 'spectral' origins of western modernity demands a thoroughly interdisciplinary approach that uses concepts and arguments from human geography, environmental humanities, and medical humanities. I have applied these interests and approaches in several research projects.  

I am also interested in the history and historical geographies of exploration in the modern world, particularly polar exploration. To this end, I have researched and published on the British history of Arctic exploration and the legacies of colonial exploration more generally.


1. Spectres of the Self

This project emerged from my PhD research at University College Dublin. My core question was, how has the idea of ghost-seeing changed over time and why do we now associate ghosts with psychological disturbance? In my research I argued that since the Enlightenment in Europe, ghosts came to be internalised as 'spectres of the self' by cultural elites, who began to think of supernatural apparitions as self-generated projections of the mind.  As seemingly sane, rational, and intellectual people continued to see ghosts, thinkers in Britain especially had to devise new scientific concepts to prove that ghosts were seen, but that these visions were hallucinations. In my book Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-seeing in England, 1750-1920 (2010) I argued that the Society for Psychical Research, with their concept of telepathy, reflected the tension between scientific naturalism and data which suggested the existence of ghosts.


2. The Spectral Arctic

People from western cultures who visit the Arctic enter places that have been traditionally imagined as being 'magical' or 'unearthly'. This strangeness particularly fascinated audiences in nineteenth-century Britain when the idea of the heroic polar explorer voyaging through unmapped zones reached its zenith. Yet scholars have tended to downplay the recurring senses of ghostliness and dreaminess that run through narratives of polar exploration. The Ghostly Arctic was a project I undertook while I was a Marie Curie Fellow at Maynooth University and the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge (2010-13).  In contrast to oft-told tales of deering-do and disaster, I wanted to reveal the hidden stories of dreaming and haunted explorers, of rescue balloons and visits to Inuit shamans, and of the entranced female clairvoyants who travelled to the Arctic in search of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. My revisionist historical account - The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration (UCL Press, 2018) - allows us to make sense of current cultural and political concerns in the Canadian Arctic about the disappearance and reappearance of the Franklin expedition.


3. The History of Irish Science

In 2009 I undertook a research project at University College Dublin's Irish Virtual Research Library and Archive on the history of the Royal College of Science for Ireland (1867-1926). The RCScI was an innovative centre for the training of generations of geologists, physicists, and engineers and formed the basis of scientific education in twentieth-century Ireland. However, it suffered from low student enrollment and a lack of engagement from middle class nationalists in Dublin and this resulted in its amalgamation with UCD in 1926. Its grand headquarters on Merrion Street, designed by Sir Aston Webb, are now Government Buildings. My research entailed work in the archives and library of the RCScI which UCD inherited; contextualising the impact of the RCScI in the history of higher education in Ireland; and a case study of Sir William Fletcher Barrett, an English physicist of international renown who lectured and lived in Dublin for some time. Barrett was interesting as a Home Ruler and supporter of suffragism, but he was also a leading light in the Society for Psychical Research and many of his best-known writings on telepathy, spiritualism, and the divining rod emerged from his time in Dublin. 


4. The Criminal Corpse in Pieces

From 2013 to 2015 I was a member of an interdisciplinary team at the University of Leicester which was funded by the Wellcome Trust. Our project - 'Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse' - looked at what happened to criminals after they were executed - their journeys through postmortem legal punishment, medical anatomy, relic-hunting, gibbeting, museum display, and magical dismemberment. This led us to several important conclusions: there were many forms and timelines of death in capital punishment, and legal death by hanging was only one form; criminal bodies were believed to contain an aura, or glamour. Those who hovered around the body after death included medical students who wanted to investigate the effects of strangulation, and collectors, witches, or thieves who wanted criminal body parts as mementos or magical objects. In my research I have looked at the fascination people have with fragmenting and owning pieces of criminal corpses. I focused in particular on the case of William Corder who was hung, anatomised, galvanised, broken up, and displayed after his execution in 1828. Following this I turned to an examination of the 'hand of glory' - an ancient folk-belief that possessing the severed hand of a hanged man could assist criminals in housebreaking and offer the owner access to hidden treasures. This belief migrated from folklore and social history into gothic literature throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. This research offers insight into the postmortem lives of executed criminals but also shows how current unethical and violent body or organ 'trades' have a long history. 


Teaching

Undergraduate teaching

Stage 1: HIS1029 - Varieties of History

Stage 2: HIS2247 - Northern Encounters: European Expansion into the Arctic from the Vikings to the Cold War (2018/19)

Stage 3: HIS3030 - History and Society

Stage 3: HIS3336 - Punishing the Criminal Dead: Crime, Culture, and Corpses in Modern Britain (2018/19)


Postgraduate teaching

HIS8104 - Ideas and Influences in British History


Office Hours

Tuesdays 3-6pm (Room 1.26)

Publications