Reflections on (Extra)Ordinary Lives

Reflections on (Extra)Ordinary Lives

I confess, I am allergic to biographies of the famous and exceptional. My dad gave me some prime specimens when I was younger – the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Bird among others – and recently he even tried to interest me in new books about Abraham Lincoln. But I simply cannot finish one. Why? Some subjects perhaps seem anointed from the start, the products of circumstances far removed from the realities of my life and the lives of others around me. Others may have had the benefit of living in interesting times, but I never did finish Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography either, as much as I like his historical work.

Yet I find myself drawn to read and write the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people, those whose experiences many judge unremarkable. Historian Richard White’s mother told him ‘half jokingly, but only half, that her life was more interesting than my latest book. Why didn’t I write a book about her? I told her, not joking at all, that I would.’[1] The result is my favorite history book, Remembering Ahanagran. Its subject, Sara Walsh, would have remained anonymous outside her immediate circle of friends and family had her son not become a distinguished historian and taken up her challenge. I take the book off the shelf repeatedly and never get bored. In the space between history and memory White reveals much about life, the ways we tell our stories, and how, through them, we come to understand ourselves.

As I worked on my Ph.D. I started a collection of memoirs by Irish migrants – Angeline Kearns Blain, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Anna May Mangan, Seán Ó Ciaráin, any many more – picking up stories from the boxes and shelves of secondhand booksellers. If history remembers their names it is because they took up the pen. Many who did not still have stories to tell. As an oral historian, that realization motivates my work. Some of those I’ve interviewed are household names (at least in traditional music households); others are not, but that does not make their words or memories any less meaningful. Their stories have taught me about the human experience: what it means to be a migrant, why people hold onto their cultures, and what it felt like to live in the foreign country that was the past. In biographies of the famous, perhaps some of those fundamentals get lost amidst the action.


[1] Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (Hill and Wang, New York, 1998), p.4.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on (Extra)Ordinary Lives

  1. Dear Sara,
    while I enjoy reading some biographies, like you, I find the memories of ordinary people of special interest. Over the years I have read many published and unpublished memoirs, auto-biographies and biographies. As you know, I am especially interested in migration and I find that letters “home” are another fabulous source of information about the lives of ordinary people. Some letters have been collected in anthologies–though one has to be careful about any editing and, worse, incomplete letters–and many are only available in manuscript form in private collections or public archives. I think you have dipped into some of those letters and hope you continue to do so. Happy reading.


    Dr. Nok.

  2. This completely resonates with me. I have found that one of the most interesting and challenging parts of researching nineteenth-century landed estates communities has been trying to gain some understanding of the people whose lives are largely undocumented – particularly agricultural labourers and their families. They all had stories to tell and experiences to share but left few of these behind, making it difficult to gain more than a superficial overview of their experiences. The work that you and other oral historians are undertaking is so valuable because it preserves the details of ‘ordinary’ lives (many of which are in their own way extraordinary) for future generations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *