Abstracts for ‘Moments in Oral History’

‘Moments in Oral History’

Panel Abstracts

Kilkenny, Saturday 13 September 2014

These panels are designed to present snapshots of Oral History practitioners’ experiences in the field, and to discuss their reflections and the ways in which ‘doing Oral History’ has affected them and those around them. They reflect the diversity of experience in the Oral History community, and also the ways in which we share many core experiences.

9.15 – 10.45 am Moments in Oral History

Convenor: Clíona O’Carroll

Panel 1: Dimensions of the interview: Discovery

Speakers: (Marina Ní Dhubháin, Áine NicAodha, Adrian Roche, Melanie Brown, Lyndsey Anderson and Kelly Fitzgerald)

10.45 – 11am
Tea/Coffee Break

11am – 12.30 pm Moments in Oral History

Convenor: Clíona O’Carroll

Panel 2: You, me and ‘the audience’

Speakers: (Fiona Byrne, Mae Leonard, Edmund Lynch, Brendan Smith, Eimir O’Brien)


Panel 1: Dimensions of the interview: Discovery

Marina Ní Dhubháin: Oral History and Folklore.

I am in my first year of PhD studies at NUI Galway where I am researching the performative potential of oral history as verbatim theatre. Previously, over many years, I have worked as a journalist doing broadcast interviews and as an amateur folklorist doing folklore-based interviews. I began to study Oral History as part of a Masters in Writing degree which I took in NUI Galway in 2012/2013. I expected the oral history interview to be easiest part of the course, considering my previous experience with various interviewing styles and techniques. The shambolic outcome of my first oral history interview was a sharp jolt to my complacency. The experience has encouraged me to reflect on distinctive aspects of the oral history interview, and in particular to consider how it may differ from the folklore interview.

Áine NicAodha: Cromwell invades Ormond.

Áine NicAodha is a history enthusiast based in Dublin. She is interested in the human and social aspects of history, and how daily life was lived in Ireland in generations past. For the last five years she has been piecing together the story of her mother’s Tipperary family, using mainly oral sources. One particularly exciting moment in her venture as historian-detective is described in her presentation, Cromwell invades Ormond.

In 1985, my sister and I spent the October bank holiday weekend with a cousin, an elderly farmer in Tipperary. For generations my Dublin family had spent their summers on this farm: our mother sent her teenage daughters to continue the tradition. By the fireside, my cousin told us that he was a King, the direct descendent of the Clan Chieftain. He also told us how his family came to live on this farm: a general was sent by Cromwell to kill the Chieftain and seize his land. This general, recognising the Irish Chieftain from studies in the Sorbonne, spared his life but took his castle, annexing him to a remote part of his land, where he was instructed to live quietly.

Fast forward to 2010: stuck indoors with a broken leg, I decide to investigate the family story, transcribed on the back on an envelope during that fireside chat 25 years previously. Initial online searches yielded more than expected, and when the leg was better I continued my work using libraries, archives and geographical information systems. When a satellite image of my target area showed a suspect brown blob, armed with Ordinance Survey map and an adventurous spirit, I advanced to Tipperary…. What happened next will be described in my presentation.

Adrian Roche: A Way of Working Life Now Gone

Historical researcher, writer, and oral historian based in west Cork. I am currently involved in a couple of heritage projects here in county Cork, and also working on setting up a volunteer group of oral historians in the area.

A few years ago, I completed an oral history project interviewing men and women who had lived and worked on the Cork Docklands, mainly from the 1950s to the 1980s. These included stevedores and dock workers, a family who owned a local pub, and a woman who ran a tea shop on the docks.

One of the most immediate things that struck me in the interviews was the amount of hard physical labour these men endured on a daily basis, and how much this changed within the space of a generation. In the earlier years there was little or no mechanisation, and nearly everything was done laboriously by hand, sometimes working a six-day week. Health and safety was non-existent, and the availability of work depended on the amount of shipping and goods entering the port. As they worked hard, they also played hard in the local pubs, but they had other pursuits on their days off as well. Several interviewees grew up in the tenements in Cork before those buildings were finally swept away. It is difficult for us now to imagine a way of life that has since disappeared in the space of a couple of generations, yet despite the hardships most spoke of the sense of community and camaraderie that provided an abiding memory in virtually all of the interviews.

Dr Melanie Brown: Disclosures and their Impact Arising from Oral History Interviews

The Dublin Jewish Oral History Project was conceived by the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland in 2010, as a response to an imperative to capture life-stories of members of the aging and rapidly diminishing Jewish community of Dublin. I was invited to co-ordinate this project on a voluntary basis in 2011, since when over forty interviews have been conducted, mainly in Dublin, but also in the UK, the USA, Canada and Israel. Among the themes which have emerged are Jewish communal, religious and secular life in Dublin; education; emigration; philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism in Ireland.

The present discussion is based on revelations by two participants in the project, one male and one female. When the usual tropes of a Dublin Jewish upbringing in the first half of the twentieth century were exhausted during guided conversations, more harrowing life-story episodes unfolded, inconsistent with the more typical narratives previously encountered.

Out of all the interviews in the Dublin Jewish Oral History Project, these impacted most strongly on others more removed from the interview process. In the first case, this was apparent in the extent to which my assistants (who mainly observed proceedings) were shocked by the tragic circumstances which were described, while in the second, it was reflected in the rage with which other family members expressed when hearing a previously withheld childhood memory. Such reactions indicate that, when many portraits of parallel lives are drawn, it is not possible to predict a sequence of events or an emotional reaction, given the uniqueness of everybody’s life experiences. 

Lyndsey Anderson and Dr Kelly Fitzgerald: Third level and community partnerships in collecting folklore and oral histories.

Lyndsey Anderson is Project Officer, St. Teresa’s Gardens Regeneration Board, and Dr Kelly Fitzgerald lectures in Folklore in UCD.

As part of St Teresa’s Gardens Social Regeneration Plan 2014-2015 the National Folklore Collection, UCD will lead a pilot scheme on collecting oral history and folklore. The aim of this project is to ensure that the history and memory of the flats is collected and retained as a matter of public interest, for the local community and national history. This project will be led by UCD and will provide training to community members. Training residents will allow for a more organic folklore experience where people are exchanging and recalling stories and experiences with one another.

The Pilot Programme in 2014 will act as the foundation for future growth and expansion in order to involve a larger percentage of the community. The scheme will allow the students from UCD to engage with future research and over time a particular dialogue of reflection on the life of the individual will develop within the community. The hands on practical skills acquired in fieldwork are advantageous to both students and community members alike. Studying and engaging with a living history can have an immense impact, intellectually and emotionally.

One aim of the scheme is to demystify the academic process involved in oral history and social enquiry interviewing. We want to equip community leaders and students, interested or already involved in oral history projects, with the necessary skills and self-confidence to engage with the past in an ethical manner. This scheme demonstrates the immense value of combining community engagement with academic research. It provides an opportunity for UCD students to work alongside those who have gained their knowledge from living in the community and other life experiences.


Panel 2: You, me and ‘the audience’

Fiona Byrne: Remembering St. Davnet’s Mental Hospital.

Fiona Byrne is currently working with Stair: An Irish Public History Company as their project manager. She also is heading up the oral portion of their current project. Her background is in visual arts. After graduating from NCAD she worked in various jobs before returning to college to expand her skills set by completing the MA in Cultural Policy and Arts Management at UCD. She will begin her PhD in September at the World Academy of Music and Dance in UL, focusing on evaluation of visual arts experiences.

Growing up on the farm

Terry grew up in St. Davnet’s; his father was the Land Steward during the time that St. Davnet’s was Cavan Monaghan District Mental Hospital, serving almost 1,000 patients. In a recent interview, I asked him about his early childhood and what life was like growing up at the asylum.

He had many wonderful stories to tell me, from stealing tomatoes from the garden of the Resident Medical Superintendent, to speaking with the animals on the farm. Their home in the grounds of St. Davnet’s afforded the family free coal and ample meat and vegetables. He also had a more sorrowful side to his story, as a young boy he witnessed the discovery of a patient who had died by suicide. Terry’s is an extreme example of the highs and lows of living in the former asylum, however this fluctuation of experience is echoed through many accounts of the institution.

Over all, the views of people I have interviewed are of a positive place of care, a good home and a good place to work. This short presentation will ask how we might avoid stereotyping while attempting to reconcile the predominantly positive narrative with the stories of sadness and hardship which punctuate it.

Mae Leonard: Highs and Lows of Interviewing.

I am a poet, a writer and an enthusiastic amateur historian.  On embarking on oral history interviewing, I had a couple of interviewees in mind when my turn came to record their particular stories/memories. One was a gentleman who remembered Punchestown Festival as a young boy and I recorded his memories of “swinging boats” – three card trick men – being happy to picnic on bread and jam and a bottle of water – and putting a few pence bet on a local horse. I spent three hours with him and was delighted with his flow of speech.  I knew I had something wonderful on my recorder. However, when it came to signing the form for copyright he looked askance at me and after a pregnant pause refused to sign.  Three hours for nothing.
Next story was with a retired schoolteacher, as Gaeilge. He told of coming to Dublin from Sliabh Luchra – of his scholarship to Drumcondra Teacher Training College – of the people who supported him along the way – of being allowed to jump over the stile into Croke Park. Then he told, in the most wonderful Irish, of how came to Naas to teach and the hardships he endured in a two-roomed school. In glorious Irish he spoke, with a far-away look in his eyes, of meeting the love of his life at Lawlors Ballroom (both long gone now). And what happened? Something went wrong with the recorder and I lost every bit of it. Can you imagine having to go back to him and ask for a repeat? He was scathing about my incompetence. He did agree a repeat but the interview didn’t have the same spark at all and I was very disappointed. On top of that, it was late for the CD we made.  Such are the pitfalls faced by a novice interviewer.

Edmund Lynch: LBGT Recollections

It was on a cold October evening in 1973 ten individuals met in Building No 5, Front Square, Trinity College, Dublin and formed the Sexual Liberation Movement and so The First Wave for the rights of homosexual, lesbians in other words LGBT people was born in Ireland. My name is Edmund Lynch and I was one of the founder members.

What was the law in Ireland?The Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland inherited British laws. Lesbianism was never the focus of the law. Both male and female homosexuality were however, strictly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.The Laws operating on the island of Ireland were: –

Offences Against the Person Act 1861

The act abolished the death penalty for such acts, which had been law up to this point.

Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885

The penalty was a maximum of two years imprisonment. The most famous person to be convicted under this act was Oscar Wilde. The law did not apply to women.

After much political and legal work, President Mary Robinson signed into law the first step of the Road to Freedom for Ireland’s LGBT Community on the 7th July 1993.

In 2012, I became convinced that it would be important to record for Oral History how IGBT people in Ireland remember the time and problems they faced of becoming a respected human being in Irish Society. Since the 9th February 2013 I have been recording, on DVD LGBT, personal stories of 120 individuals and to date I have recorded almost a half million words. No interview is ever undertaken without a Release form been signed by the interviewee with the knowledge that their interview will be available to all on the WWW. A legal person has cleared all transcripts.

Brendan Smith: From Another Planet.

I am Education and Outreach Officer of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway, recognised as a world leader in web science research. In my professional capacity I have worked extensively with a wide range of communities and educational groups to engage and empower them in exploiting the potential of digital technologies for learning, cultural, heritage, social and economic purposes.

As part of the schools-based BEO digital heritage archive project, I have helped children record interviews of older people as they reminisce about their lives in days gone by. What fascinated me most about these stories was that so much of ordinary everyday daily life in Ireland has changed beyond recognition in such a short period of time. Thanks to ongoing development of technologies, we are experiencing the greatest change of lifestyles in the history of humanity. The tales told seemed to come from a different planet, bearing little relationship to the experiences of today’s children. In just a few decades, Ireland has gone from the Age of the Candle to the Age of the Internet. My presentation will comprise extracts from these BEO podcasts.

Eimir O’Brien: Wider Relationships and the Interview.

PhD student, Visual Culture, National College of Art and Design / Museum Educator, National Museum of Ireland.

The experiences I am drawing on for the panel stem from a series of eight Life Story interviews produced as part of my PhD research ( Eight Irish based artists took part in the project. Alongside maintaining successful secular practises, these artists have been producing work for Churches since the 1960s and most of them are practising Catholics.

During the interviews I became very aware of the complicity, or, perhaps more accurately, the considered intent, behind aspects of the narratives being produced. Many of the group had strong opinions in terms of how their religious work has been perceived within the artistic community and were keen to locate themselves in relation to particular groups. Or, on the other hand, to distance themselves from stereotypes they saw as less than desirable.

This has got me thinking, not only about the relationships within the artistic community in Ireland, but also about the interviewee/interviewer relationship. I am revisiting questions such as, where might the balance of power lie, depending on the community or individuals that the interviews are being produced with.

It has also led me to reflect on how Oral History or Life Stories are used as source material and how they might be interpreted with or without the relevant cultural and social contexts. Including insights into the position of, not only the interviewer, but the interviewee.

I would like to explore these issues of further along aside others working in this area.


You can download the abstracts from Moments – Abstracts.