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Delving into the sociology of Potter mania

LAST week’s conference at UL exploring the cultural influence of Harry Potter had a major Clare influence – Sixmilebridge woman Gráinne O’Brien was one of the organisers.


Organisers Dr Luigina Ciolfi, Gráinne O’Brien and Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey at the Magic is Might 2012 Conference at the University of Limerick. Abbot Hederman, a keen Harry Potter fan, delivered a keynote speech entitled Harry Potter: Archetype of the Child as our Future in the 21st Century. Photograph by Sean Curtin/Press 22Earlier this year, the 25-year-old graduated from UL with a Masters in Sociology. Her love of the Harry Potter series is illustrated by the fact that a major part of her MA was examining one character from it.

“I did my thesis on Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and argued that he was a victim. I did a psychoanalysis reading of his character from a sociology point of view and just basically turned the story around and made him look like a victim. It was a lot of fun, actually.”

While hundreds of thousands of Irish people have read the books and watched the films, it was the first time a conference on Harry Potter was held in this country.

Gráinne said she was thrilled to have been involved in setting it up. “It was incredibly unique, I mean, conferences go on in universities all the time but when we decided to do the Harry Potter theme everyone noticed and it worked out really, really well. That it focussed on a series of books that are so popular was very important. I’m delighted thatwe got to be the first ones to do it in Ireland. They’ve done it in England alright but we were the first ones to do it here.”
While some may look on Harry Potter as simple escapism for children, she says the importance of it shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly given its reach and the influence it has had on millions worldwide.

“I think it’s incredibly significant. If you’re looking at the theme of the conference it was about the cultural influences of these texts. No one can deny that it has almost defined an entire generation of young people in reading and changed how we look at reading for children and adults, it kind of built a bridge between adult and child fiction that I don’t think any text had before. I think it’s really opened the way to other things like Twilight and The Hunger Games and you’re seeing more and more of these phenomenon and I think it’s all as a result of this Harry Potter mania.

“I think it’s kind of brought children back to reading in a time when the internet and computer games were becoming more dominant. I think the Harry Potter books are kind of unique in that they’ve kind of merged the internet and computer games and reading into one thing. The online Harry Potter community is as big as any online community, all stemming from the books and Rowling has used the internet really cleverly to promote her books and get in contact with her fans. I think it’s kind of bringing kids back to reading and I think as well it’s kind of encouraging the publication of these fantasy books, like the Twilights. It’s shown that women can write fiction as well as men can. You hear the stories of JK Rowling being told that they couldn’t publish under Joanne Rowling because they wanted boys to read it.”

Now 25, Harry Potter has been a huge part of Gráinne’s life since a young age. Even though she wrote a thesis on one of the characters, she still reads the books for fun.

“I think I was 11 or 12 when I first started reading them. I’ve been a huge fan, I’ve read them all, queued up for the midnight launches, went to all the movies. Yeah, I would have been a big fan. I’ve a tattoo on my side that’s a quote from one of the books, ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’.

“I always go back to them; every single year I go back to them and read them two or three times. Even with the academic work on it, I still want to read them and I still want to go back to them. I still love the characters and love the story and every time I read it, I see something different that I haven’t seen before.”

There probably haven’t been many theses written about Harry Potter characters but she said Lord Voldemort is quite a complex figure.

“He’s portrayed in these books as a really damaged child, who grew up in a world that couldn’t accept him, couldn’t love him and he turned around, started to kill a load of people and everyone was surprised. I just read it and I was like ‘Really?’ There’s so many different issues, there’s child abuse, child abandonment, there’s pathologically damaged children, what do they grow up to? You parallel that with a child that was forced to live under the stairs and yet grew up completely normal because the people around him loved him.”

She says JK Rowling’s imagination is shaping the technology of the future. “At the moment, in England, Microsoft are working on a GPS way of tracking family members. It’s just a prototype but it’s inspired by the Come and Go Clock in the Weasley’s House in Harry Potter.”

Her own study of the phenomenon isn’t over yet either. “There’s definitely a PhD in my future and it’ll definitely be research on Harry Potter, there’s no way I’m going to break away from it now.”

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