Between 1945 and 1970 over 600,000 men and women left Ireland for destinations across the globe. About three-quarters went to Great Britain and one-eighth to the United States. Among them were many traditional musicians and singers who carried their culture with them, giving it continued relevance in their new communities. Voices of Irish Music & Migration presents some of the music and memories that members of the post-war migrant generation shared with me for my research.
As part of several different projects from 2008 to 2014 I conducted over forty original oral histories. These include interviews with first-generation migrant musicians as well as second-generation and non-Irish people who participated in the Irish music scene in the post-war era. The twelve interviews presented as part of this digital archive are those I had permission to put online and for which the audio was of sufficient quality. These appear largely in their original form, though occasionally personal information has been edited out to respect the wishes of the interviewee and their privacy. Some of the interviewees have also generously provided photographs and allowed me to record them singing or playing tunes.
I encourage you to listen to the interviews themselves, and to make it easier, I created time-coded indexes using the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS). Click on the “listen to the interview” link in the item, and it will open the audio player (pictured at right). You can choose to listen to the whole interview from start to finish, navigate to any part identified in the index, or search the index by keyword.
This site was originally created in 2015 as part of my Ph.D. in History / Digital Arts & Humanities at University College Cork. A book based on my research is in progress. In the meantime, I have decided to make the interviews and related materials accessible. They may be used for educational purposes with appropriate attribution; they are not for commercial use. Please contact me with any questions.
Fiddler Danny Meehan was born in 1940 and grew up in Drimalost, in the Blue Stack Mountains of south Donegal, in a family and local area with a rich musical heritage. At age sixteen he migrated first to Selby in Yorkshire. He worked in many places across Britain, finally settling in London in 1963 where he established a career as a self-employed stonemason. He also met and played with many great musicians in pubs, folk clubs, and concert halls in London. He appears on the album Paddy in the Smoke, with the group Le Chéile, and has two solo albums. He returned to live in Donegal in 2007. In 2012 TG4 honored him with the Gradam Saoil (Lifetime Achievement Award).
However, that biography doesn’t do him justice. He is a larger than life character – humorous, generous, self-effacing, and, as he says himself, still a bit wild. Those traits come through in his music as well – his clever variations on traditional tunes, his unwillingness to put his own name to original compositions, and, having lived through what he calls a “dark age” for music, an appreciation for the young musicians of today. His is a music shaped by his roots in Donegal, his 50 years in England, and the many musicians he heard and played with along the way.
Huge thanks, of course, to Danny for sharing his stories and music. Thanks to Aidan O’Donnell for initially helping me get in touch with him. Danny’s nephew John Daly kindly provided additional information on the Meehan family history and the family photographs. Thanks to Clare O’Halloran and The Irish Review for supporting the publication.
Before I met Kevin Henry in April 2013 what I knew about him primarily rested on his reputation as a musician and raconteur. He comes from the same area on the Sligo-Mayo border as Roger Sherlock and Brendan Tonra, both of whom I’d interviewed and Brendan I had the pleasure of playing tunes with during my time in Boston. I knew also that Kevin had been a mainstay of the Chicago Irish music scene for decades. What I was unprepared for was the fascinating story of his circuitous journey from Ireland to Chicago and the aplomb with which he related it.
Kevin was born in 1929, the eighth of eleven children. Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, he left Ireland for England in 1947. He traveled up and down the country working as a seasonal agricultural laborer, coal miner, and construction worker. In 1953 he decided to seek his fortune across the Atlantic and booked passage to Canada, though his ultimate goal was America. He worked his way from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Toronto and finally across the border to New York, where other siblings lived. There, he worked digging tunnels and waiting tables before deciding to head for Florida’s sunnier climes. Unimpressed with the low wages paid laying pipes in the Everglades or working on the construction of a hotel, he moved north again, this time to Chicago. Apart from a four-month stint mining copper in Butte, Montana, he has remained in Chicago ever since. He spent 37 years as an iron worker, a career that included work on the iconic Hancock Tower. Throughout his life traditional music has remained a touchstone for his identity. Now 87, Kevin continues to work to sustain the culture of his native land and the legacy of music collector Francis O’Neill in his adopted home.
In conjunction with that article, I have put my oral history interview with Kevin Henry, photographs, and recordings of his music on my PhD project website Voices of Irish Music & Migration. More material will be coming soon – stay tuned!
A huge thank you to Kevin and his wife Pauline for sharing their time and their stories with me!
I was saddened by the news that flute player Roger Sherlock passed away last week. He kindly welcomed me into his home in Bettystown, Co. Meath in May 2011 and shared stories about his life and music.
Roger was born in 1932 in Cloonfeightrin, Co. Mayo on the Sligo border and grew up surrounded by music: his grandfather played flute and whistle, his father sang, and his mother played melodeon. It was also a musical region: he went to the same school as fiddler and composer Brendan Tonra (late of Boston) and flute player Kevin Henry (now of Chicago) grew up about two miles away. While all these musicians were born on the Mayo side of the border, the region’s proximity to south Sligo and its famous fiddle players has led them to be associated with that tradition.
It was also an area with a high rate of emigration: Roger went to London in 1952 where the first musician he encountered was west Limerick flute player Paddy Taylor. During the mid-1950s he shared a flat and played music with Clare piper Willie Clancy. He led bands in the Irish dance halls and played with the Thatch Céilí Band when they won the All-Ireland title in 1986 and 1987. He also played regularly in the city’s many Irish pub sessions. Roger and his wife, Mona, returned to Ireland and settled in Bettystown, Co. Meath in 1994.
As a fellow flute player, one of the many things Roger and I discussed were flutes. He had a large collection, including some rather unique instruments. One of them is the beautiful ivory flute made in 1779 that he is pictured playing on the cover of his 1972 album, Memories of Sligo. In honour of Roger and the other men and women who have done so much to keep Irish music alive over the years, here is his story of how it came into his possession:
Did you ever hear tell of the White Hart in Fulham Broadway? I played there for twelve years. We used to play there three nights a week and Sunday morning. There was this gentleman from Killasser in County Mayo, he used to come in every Sunday morning. He was a contractor; he was a plasterer. He used to play the war pipes, you know the pipes with the drones on the shoulders, he used to play those and he used to play the flute. He had an accident at work with a mixer, you know them mixers? He got his arm caught in the mixer and it pulled his arm from here out, so that finished his playing. This Sunday morning, he was very dedicated to the music, this Sunday morning anyway he came in and he something wrapped up in paper under his arm. He came up to the stage to me and he said ‘Roger, I want you to have this.’ I said, ‘what is it?’ He said, ‘it’s something I want to give to you ‘cause I cannot play it anymore.’ So he said, ‘you keep it.’ That was it… Wasn’t it a lovely present? Tom Kenny [Hennigan] was his name. He’s dead now, years. I could never forget, of course never will forget him. Until someday I hope I never will [sell the flute].
Most of my oral history interviewees are male and the experiences they discuss are therefore also predominantly masculine. Consequently, at conferences I am often asked ‘what about gender?’ What this really means is ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what are you (a woman) doing studying men?’ I have yet to attend a presentation on women’s history where the speaker was asked ‘what about men?’ Gender history, though based on exploring ‘the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history,’ is all too often synonymous with women’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: considering gender is not the same thing as writing about women. In fact, to focus only on women is just as biased as to focus only on men. In order to write gender into history we need to consider both.
Despite the fact that most of my interviewees are men, in my dissertation I’ve made a conscious effort to address how and why their experiences differ from those of their female contemporaries, relying on extant sources to supplement my own interviews. In terms of employment among post-war Irish migrants, workplaces tended to be gendered spaces. Irishmen worked predominantly in trades and manual labor (traditionally male occupations), while women moved into more traditionally feminine roles including nursing and clerical work. They came together in their social lives, meeting at church events, county associations, and dance halls. However, gendered experiences persisted. Men and women started the night on separate sides of the dance floor and a man generally had to ask a woman to dance. Some men may have wanted to get married or settle down, but felt tongue-tied even trying to approach a girl to ask her to dance. An inability to communicate well appears as a theme in discussions of loneliness and isolation among Irishmen. Others justified the fact that they remained single by saying they didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, in the words of one interviewee. Men were (and are) constrained by the expectation that they do ‘manly’ work and provide for a family and women were (and are) by the expectation that they bear and raise children. The latter has received far more attention in historical scholarship.
But the questions I am asked at conferences are not only about my subject of study; they are about my right to study it. Oral historians are taught to reflect on the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship: Did they know each other before the interview? Are they of the same sex? The same race? The same age? The same generation? The same political outlook? How do these factors affect the interview? While these are important questions, they give the impression that there is a right or a wrong type of relationship. They suggest, for example, that a man could never get ‘the best’ interviews with feminist activists or that (in the words of someone who ran a training course I attended) ‘young people’ don’t understand their elderly interviewees. While undoubtedly a man’s experience is different from a woman’s and a teenager’s from an eighty-year-old’s, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Oral history is about listening, about capturing untold stories or hearing familiar ones in new ways. Though my interviewees and I have a common interest (Irish music), I am a different gender, a different generation, and a different ethnicity to most of them. This can lead to enlightening moments: descriptions of how people charged radio batteries in the days before rural electrification or of styles of dress in the 1950s. Because of the differences, they feel the need to explain what life was like and to reflect on why. Where tacit, mutual assumptions exist between interviewer and interviewee, stories may remain unspoken.
Last year Emma Watson launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign. In her speech, she reclaims the term feminism from its negative connotations and defines it as the support for equal rights and opportunities. It is therefore a men’s issue too, because they ‘don’t have the benefits of equality either’. She argues that gender inequality will not end if it is seen as an issue concerning only half the population: everyone needs to participate in the conversation and be part of the change. The same is true for academia: in Ireland, female students outnumber their male counterparts in third-level institutions, but women constitute only 29 percent of senior academic staff. Ending gender inequality is about more than closing the achievement gap; it’s about changing attitudes. As historians, we need to extend the same courtesy to each other and to the past. Women’s history should not only be about, by, and for women; nor should history be only about elite white men. Gender in history – like class or ethnicity – needs the whole population in the picture for it to make sense.
This year’s crop of students have added their interviews to the class website, Oral History @UCC.
Lieutenant Colonel Tom Quirke of the Irish Defense Forces spoke to Adam Mangan about his experiences as part of the UN Peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. He felt the Irish made particularly good peacekeepers: ‘I have often heard of situations where there would be conflict in a sort of a check point and… everyone would be shouting at each other. Suddenly the commander would come in and say to the fellow, the leader of the opposition and he would say, “hey, would you like a cup of tea?”‘
Two students focused on local sports in which they have a vested interest: Jason Abbott interviewed fellow Cobh soccer players David Curran and John Flanagan about relatively recent history. They discussed the relationship between the League of Ireland club Cobh Ramblers and the youth club, Springfield Ramblers and the sport’s strong community support. Curran recalls going to matches when he was young and says, ‘I’ll always remember how the stadium was full and everyone singing on one side of the ground. There was a great buzz about the place.’ Darren Collins, a graduate of Presentation Brothers College in Cork, interviewed three people involved in rugby union at the school. Denis Hegarty attended Pres in the 1960s and came back as a teacher and rugby coach in 1991 and felt a great camaraderie existed between everyone involved in the sport: ‘Winning wasn’t the be all and end all. You wanted to win something, but you just wanted the lads to enjoy their sport.’
Another common theme was migration: Eve Millett-Trimble interviewed her mother, Carmel, who was born in Nottingham and moved back to Fethard, Co. Tipperary with her family at age twelve. She remembers the move through the eyes of a child: ‘The actual move of going to Ireland I was quite excited about. We’d always heard the stories about Ireland growing up. My father was a very good storyteller, raconteur, and all we ever heard about was how nice it was… We thought we were going back to this sort of wonderland the way dad described it.’ As an adult she re-migrated to England in the 1980s and then returned to Ireland with her family in 2000.
Conor Long interviewed Con Griffin, who migrated to England in the early 1960s and became a successful plasterer, running his own business. He returned to Ireland in 1990 and when asked if he felt Ireland was ‘home’ (at 9 minutes into the interview part linked) he said: ‘Yes, but it didn’t matter to me where, because I had left when I was a kid and really, when I come to think of it, my real home was probably London. You know, because I could get a little bit excited when there was a hurling match on and when Tipperary are playing Cork, just for the hell of it I might put out a flag and get all excited about Tipperary, but that would be only a one-day-wonder, ‘twould never last two days. I haven’t got that kind of, you know, thing about place or anything like that.’
Feel free too leave comments or questions about the interviews here or on the website.
Over the last several months I read two books that approach the twentieth-century folk revival(s) through the medium of oral history: Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals by David King Dunaway and Molly Beer (Oxford University Press, 2010) and Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs by J.P. Bean (Faber & Faber, 2014). Both use oral history to great effect, adopting a similar format whereby the authors arrange interview quotations in dialogue in chronological and thematic sections. Dunaway and Beer’s book is based on interviews collected over more than thirty years, as well as additional sources, and historical narrative is interspersed with the voices of the participants. Bean’s work is somewhat more limited, being based only on his own recent interviews, thereby excluding singers who passed away in the intervening years (though many are discussed in absentia by their contemporaries). Taken together, they paint a broad picture of the trans-Atlantic folk scene in the twentieth century through the stories of its movers and shakers.
As I read these books, I realized that I was spending a considerable amount of time delving through my iTunes collection and the vast realms of YouTube listening to recordings of songs and singers mentioned in the texts. Neither book came with a CD or playlist, so I’ve created my own. These five songs receive prominent mention and encapsulate the development of the British and American folk revivals and the links between them across space and time.
1) Barbara Allen
The song ‘Barbara Allen’ originated in England or Scotland at least three hundred years ago. It appears as number 84 in Francis J. Child’s multi-volume collection from the late nineteenth century, English and Scottish Ballads. This work contains variations of 305 songs comprising a ‘canon’ found on both sides of the Atlantic, including two versions of ‘Barbara Allen’ (though dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of versions of the song exist). Jean Ritchie was born into a family of singers in Kentucky and rose to prominence on the folk scene from the late 1940s. She and her husband George Pickow received a Fulbright grant to travel to Britain and Ireland where they collected music and photographs. There they followed in Child’s footsteps by tracing links between the British, Irish, and American traditions, but unlike him they collected primarily from living people. This shift from collecting static, often edited, words on a page to live performance (enabled by improved recording technology), represents a key shift from the earliest folk collectors to the post-war revival.
2) Goodnight Irene
John and Alan Lomax found singer and twelve-string guitar player Huddie Leadbetter (‘Lead Belly’) at a prison in Louisiana. They recorded him for the Library of Congress and in 1936 published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. Though they parted company shortly thereafter, his songs and style had an enduring legacy. The Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Ry Cooder, and many others covered his song ‘Goodnight Irene’ over the years. As is apparent from this video, Lead Belly always dressed well when performing. Tom Paley recalls, ‘even at his house when it was just a gathering of other performers, he would be dressed to the nines. He would have a waistcoat on and a bow-tie, everything clean and trousers knife-edged. And when he did a number he would introduce it as he did on stage. It was a whole performance, a very formal kind of thing.’
3) Tom Dooley
‘Tom Dooley’ is a ballad based on the life and death of Tom Dula, who was hanged for murder in 1868 in North Carolina. It was first recorded in 1929 and published by Alan Lomax in 1947, but The Kingston Trio brought it into the mainstream with their 1958 recording that hit #1 on the Billboard charts. They credit singer Frank Proffitt’s version as their inspiration. Dunaway and Beer call groups like the Kingston Trio ‘musical translators’ for their role in introducing a wider audience to folk song. As singer-songwriter Si Kahn says, ‘for everyone who sings “lay down your head Tom Dooley” the way the Kingston Trio did it, there is probably as many who went back and found Frank Proffitt, as far as we know, the earliest version recorded, and sing it exactly the way he does. So revivalism circles back to the roots and my guess is the music will survive all this.’
4) Shoals of Herring
Across the Atlantic, the British folk revival was in full swing and people and songs went back and forth. Two of the most influential participants on the British side were Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, whose marriage in itself signifies the ties that crossed the ocean. While MacColl is sometimes disparaged for his purist tendencies and role in the conservative Critics Group, he was a powerful force within the movement and also wrote some very fine songs. ‘Shoals of Herring’ was written for the BBC Radio BalladSinging the Fishing (broadcast in 1962) and has since entered the folk tradition.
5) Blowin’ in the Wind
The one person who gets the most space in both books is undoubtedly Bob Dylan. He went from being a kid who hung around Greenwich Village to a major force on an international stage. While still relatively little-known, he visited London for four weeks from 1962-3 and appeared in a few folk clubs, to a mixed reception according to Bean’s interviewees. However, his skill in penning lyrics was widely acknowledged and American folk musician Happy Traum recalled of first hearing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘it blew us away. I can visualize the moment’. As one final link between oral history and the folk revival, listen to Studs Terkel interview a young Bob Dylan in 1963; he sings six songs, including ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
Dylan is, I think, a final key in understanding the transformation wrought by the folk revival: it moved along a bumpy road from the collection of ‘authentic’ versions of songs, written in print, to recording of living traditional singers, to refashioning those old songs, to adapting the melodies and ideas into new songs, and bringing those and the whole tradition behind them to a popular audience. Some disliked the way Dylan ‘borrowed’ or used songs he got from others without acknowledging them and others disliked the fact that he ‘went electric’, but if even one out of ten Dylan fans moved from his music to interest in its roots, then the folk revival was a success. Folk music can only be folk music if it is a living tradition to which each generation gives new meaning.
Last year I was delighted to be given the opportunity to design and teach my own undergraduate course in Oral History at UCC, the first time such a course has ever been offered. The course is centred around individual research projects, so each student gets to choose his or her topic and the readings and in-class discussions provide methodological and interpretive guidance. The first group of students – all of whom were in second- or third-year and pursuing major or single honours degrees in history – also agreed to participate in an experiment with me: putting their interviews online. I set up a website using the open-source content management system Omeka and the educational service Reclaim Hosting and in the last two weeks of the term we turned the class into a workshop (aka crash course) in digital archives. The result is Oral History @UCC.
Some favourite moments from the students’ interviews:
Growing up in inner city Dublin, Maura Kenny remembers that one evening a week her mother would go out and ‘my father’d look after us and we used to have kind of a party every Friday night when she was gone!’
Jackie ‘The Farmer’ O’Sullivan was born in 1912 in rural Co. Kerry and tells Deirdre Kerins about how life was different in his youth: ‘when I left school I was sent out to a farmer working when I was sixteen years: milking cows, digging potatoes, cutting turf…’
Retired Garda sergeant Donal O’Donovan starts off this interview sounding exactly like you’d expect a garda sergeant to sound.
Joan O’Regan from Co. Limerick remembers the day of her first Holy Communion particularly because, as she says, ‘I think it was the first time I ever tasted a chocolate biscuit’.
Grace O’Callaghan of Cork City talks to her nephew Matthew about her work in O’Donovan’s butchers and recalls the shop’s importance to the local population: ‘You’d often hear them say “If I went anywhere else but Donovan’s my mother would kill me!”‘
Interviews by this year’s group of students should be on the site by early December.
Last weekend (12-13 Sept.) I attended the second conference of the Oral History Network of Ireland, held in Kilkenny. Founded in 2010, OHNI has held a number of events to bring together oral history practitioners and to further develop the field across the nation. One of the unique characteristics of this conference, and indeed of the network, is the encouragement of participation by those working outside third-level education. Though I did hear one complaint that it still feels dominated by academics, it is much less so than most events of this type. The workshops, sessions, and discussions over the course of two days covered a wide range of topics and themes including ethics, interviewing, communities, digital media, heritage, and history (the full programme and abstracts are available here). Lots could be said about all of these, but I will briefly touch on issues of community and access that I heard raised at multiple points during the weekend.
Rob Perks bravely gave both a workshop and a keynote address on Friday afternoon. The former, ‘Archiving oral history recordings’, drew extensively on his work as lead curator of Oral History at the British Library and summarized workflow processes and best practices. After a short break for the wine reception, Rob was back for his keynote, ‘The development of community oral history in the UK: reflecting on the issues and challenges’. It took a broad view of the discipline, beginning with nineteenth-century social investigators, dialect studies, and folklore, and moving on to George Ewart Evans and the BBC Radio Ballads in the post-Second World War period. The main part of his address focused on two waves of community oral history in the UK: the 1970s to ‘80s and from the 1990s on. The first was characterized by local activist groups and publications and through this many of the current generation of oral historians, including Rob himself, immersed themselves in the field. The second wave has been characterized by the availability of Heritage Lottery funding as well as broadening definitions of ‘community’. These trends raise questions and issues that apply beyond the UK context:
‘Celebratory impulse’: Who or what is the community? Asking this question involves taking risks, but is necessary to delve beneath the surface.
‘Shared authority’: This is definitely a laudable goal, but is it achievable?
Avoiding ‘one source history’: How can we compare and contrast oral testimony with other forms of primary sources and place local history in a wider context?
Re-use of community oral history for purposes not initially foreseen: What documentation is kept? Who has control over the sources? Who will have access?
Overall the trend in the UK has been from community oral history to oral histories of elites, whereas US work has primarily followed the opposite trajectory, but these questions can apply to all projects in different types of ‘communities’.
The issue of who or what constitutes a community also arose in the discussion at the end of the panel ‘working-class communities, trade unions, and politics’ (with presentations from Mary Muldowney, Liam Cullinane, and John Gibbons). How are communities constituted – by geographical area, by the way in which their members speak of them, or by exclusion? Oral histories of working-class communities often focus on social networks, mutual assistance, and a sense of solidarity, and while the reality of these attributes is undoubted, panel attendees also highlighted the existence of people in the same geographical proximity or industry who either chose to separate themselves or were deliberately excluded. The former case included families who felt they had dropped in social status and wanted to maintain an outward ‘respectability’, and the latter case included strikebreakers. In addition, the study of an urban working-class neighbourhood in the 1930s, for example, might include those who had since geographically or economically moved out of that community. But while these types of people should be part of the historical narrative, their experiences can prove difficult to capture, because they themselves may decline to be interviewed and others within the community may avoid mentioning or questioning these divisions.
Presentations in the final panel of the conference ‘the place of oral history in the Irish heritage landscape’ addressed two main issues: funding and the place of oral history within definitions (legal and otherwise) of heritage in Ireland. The latter arguably influences the ability to gain the former. However, overall the panel seemed based on the assumptions that oral histories are collected by local community groups tied to distinct geographical areas that therefore fall under the remit of a county council heritage officer. This evidenced a general failure to acknowledge, reflect on, or respond to the broader definitions of community raised by Rob Perks and others during the course of the conference. What if an oral history project centres on a community at a national or international level? My own work extends across the Irish diaspora, so where does it fit? If funding is seen as coming primarily from local sources, this severely limits projects with a broader scope.
The final point I would like to make relates to preservation and access: one commentator at the end of the panel suggested that OHNI might ensure that individuals or groups applying for or receiving funding adhere to standards and best practices. The network also has a role to play in ensuring that policies exist for archiving and access at local and national level. In a 1997 report on oral archives historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote that ‘haphazard, incomplete and inconsistent are the words that spring to mind concerning attitudes and practices relating to the collection and preservation of oral archival material’ in Ireland. Sadly, this remains the case, as no national institution has taken on a role in collecting or disseminating oral sources equivalent to that of the British Library in the UK. OHNI lists as one of its key objectives, ‘to be actively involved in archiving initiatives by promoting best practice and long term sustainability of voice archives’, but much remains to be done in this area. I have high hopes for the future!
 Linda Shopes, ‘Oral History and the Study of Communities: Problems, Paradoxes, and Possibilities’, Journal of American History, vol.89, no.2 (Sept. 2002), pp.588-98.
 Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (SUNY Press, 1990).
 An earlier conference panel suggested some possible remedies: Ultan Cowley discussed a group who feel excluded from Ireland – Irishmen who spent their lives working as navvies in England – and the problematic relationship they have with their homeland; while the GAA Oral History Project focused primarily on those who maintained involvement in the organization, Alan Noonan tackled its darker side in examining an event in the 1950s that had a bitter and alienating effect for many local players involved.
 Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Oral Archives in Ireland: A Preliminary Report’, Irish Economic & Social History, vol.25 (1998), p.91.
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.