The last two days (28-29 Sept. 2012) I attended the Oral History Network of Ireland conference in Ennis, Co. Clare. The organization was set up about two years ago and aims to bring together all sorts of individuals and groups across Ireland who work with oral history. In this way it was somewhat unusual for a conference as a large part of the audience came from outside academia, but there were many interesting presentations and discussions.
On the first day three different workshops were offered and I attended the one given by Maura Cronin on ‘using and interpreting oral sources.’ Issues covered included interviewing techniques, organizing collected material, transcription, and the interviewer/interviewee relationship. She also discussed the challenges of teaching oral history to undergraduates and having them collect material. However, these experiences seem to have negatively impacted her opinion of students’ capabilities and she continually referred to ‘young people’ in a somewhat derogatory fashion, which frustrated me. Yes, I agree that unfortunately undergraduates often have little motivation or interest in the subjects they study and sometimes they may not fully comprehend the stories told to them by elderly informants, whereas someone closer in age might pick up on ‘cues’ or ask better questions. However, in my own case I have found that being ‘young’ (or often at least 40 years younger than most of my informants) can have advantages. The interviewees do not assume I know what they are talking about and therefore are more likely to explain what life in the past was like and how it differed from today. I am not saying that either a smaller or larger age gap between interviewee and interviewer is necessarily good or bad, but that in either case it can have an impact on the social relationship and narrative that should be recognized. As historians we would not gather oral history interviews if we knew everything about the past already – we go out to talk to people because the subjects have something we want to learn about that is often inaccessible by other means.
On Friday evening Alessandro Portelli, a giant in the world of oral history, gave a wonderful keynote address, ‘They Say in Harlan County’, based on his recent book of that title. He framed his speech with his own experience of research in Harlan County and the relationship between oral historians and subjects – when he decided to go there first a former girlfriend told him not to because ‘they kill sociologists there’, but he went anyway. He found a community frustrated with being over ‘sociologized’ and ‘folklorized’, one that ‘is both a real place and a place of imagination’ because it has come to symbolize so much in the history of labour relations in the US. He said, ‘what I bring to the conversation is my ignorance’: he went to learn about the place, its history, and its people, not with preexisting notions of what it meant or what he would find. In return, he formed many valuable relationships and friendships with the people he met during many visits over more than 30 years. This mutual respect definitely shone through in his speech. I am looking forward to reading the book!
Two other papers particularly stand out in my mind, not so much because of content, but because of a very similar special respect and relationship expressed between the authors and interviewees. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire spoke about his research on Dublin’s restaurants and culinary history, which was motivated initially by stories he heard from a teacher and mentor and the realization that no one else had or would collect those stories. His passion for the people, food, and material culture was palpable. (His PhD dissertation is available online and he is involved in the Gastronomy Archive at DIT.) The other presentation that stood out was Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin’s on arranged marriages in Corca Dhuibhne, using film footage from her documentary work. These clips were very personal and many quite humorous. She came to the conclusion that arranged marriages can work if they are accepted and supported by the society. Of the examples she showed, some women entered into them and were happy, while others chose to emigrate rather than face that situation. She also wins the award for best quote of the conference: when asked by a colleague about a particular story, ‘is it true?’, she responded ‘it’s in the parish of truth!’
Many common themes also emerged from the presentations: gender, migration, work, religion, and conflict. And common questions: What is ‘true’? Is memory individual or collective? What do people remember and why? How and for what purpose does the researcher ask them to remember? What do we hear? What ‘duty of care’ does the researcher have for the interviewee and his or her memories? There are no obvious answers to any of these, but it was refreshing to hear that all oral historians of all ages and levels of experience raise and struggle with them.