Reflections from Northern Ireland

In the course of the last year I have provided advice and assistance to numerous oral history groups and individual researchers, including a number who were applying for HLF funding for the first time. I have also contributed to the work of broader oral history networks and have devoted considerable time and energy to ongoing debates on the role of oral history in the government’s new proposals to address the legacy of our conflicted past(www.dealingwiththepastni.com)

Some Examples of New, Ongoing and Recently Completed Oral History Projects

  • The National Museums of Northern Ireland (NMNI) at Cultra has been working with the British Library to complete the Northern Ireland limb of the HLF Save Our Sounds programme (https://www.bl.uk/projects/save-our-sounds#sthash.oWOd6h9b.dpuf). This exciting £9.5 million project set out to digitise and make available 500,000 rare, unique and at-risk sound recordings from both the British Sound Archive and locally based repositories. 
  • Ulster Rugby has completed the oral history component of Your Club Your History and these narratives are now accessible at the interactive museum in the Nevin Spence Centre.
  • Relatives for Justice (a victims advocacy group) has completed a two-year documentary research project and is now embarking on a major oral history project focusing on GAA members who lost their lives in the course of the conflict. They include children such as 13-year-old Emma Donnelly from Benburb, Co. Tyrone and Sean Brown from Bellaghy, Co. Derry, a 61 year old father of six, who was abducted and murdered after locking up his GAA club house in May 1997.
  • Oral history work continues to flourish in academic work with, for example, two new fully funded studentships at QUB exploring respectively the design and implementation of an interactive web resource based on the Prisons Memory Archive and a comparative study of the use of oral history in post-conflict Germany and Northern Ireland.
  • In January 2021 Professor Sean O’Connell and Dr Leanne McCormick published a major publication on mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland, 1922-1990. This includes valuable reflections on oral history work on this highly sensitive topic. Since the publication of the report a Truth Recovery Design Panel has produced a radical set of proposals to establish a comprehensive and integrated truth investigation.
  • A number of local oral histories are now getting under way. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have for example, embarked on an oral history project to record and archive stories regarding the legacy of the 1912-1923 period. Many rural based organisations such as the Maghera Historical Society continue to collect and preserve hugely valuable oral histories and heritage material. A number of groups funded by the Victims and Survivors Service Northern Ireland are also currently scoping out oral history projects linked to quilting, creative writing and memory books.
  • Many other projects such as the RUC George Cross Oral History Project and the Dúchas Oral History Archive continue to collect and preserve material and make it accessible to researchers. 

Oral History Networks

  • The Healing Through Remembering Stories Network continues to provide a focal point for those gathering and sharing personal narratives related to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland by: encouraging people and projects interested in storytelling to learn from each other; promoting good practice / ethical principles for the gathering and sharing of stories and personal narratives; promoting, where appropriate, links between projects and accounts; sharing learning; holding seminars and events; participating in processes calling for national collections; and encouraging listening to stories and personal narratives. Dozens of oral history and storytelling projects (too numerous to list) are represented within the network, with a core of about twenty attending quarterly meetings in Belfast. See https://www.facebook.com/TheStoriesNetwork/
  • The QUOTE (Queens University Oral History Technology and Ethics hub) draws together staff and students at QUB from across the disciplines of History, Law, Drama, Creative Arts, English, Geography and the Faculty of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who are working with oral testimonies. It seeks to develop a centre for research and teaching excellence that offers the foundations from which to build successful collaborative projects and to provide outreach activities to our partners in the community. See https://quote.qub.ac.uk/
  • The Oral History Society continues to enjoy strong and mutually beneficial relationship with the Oral History Network of Ireland https://www.oralhistorynetworkireland.ie/.

Oral History and Dealing with the Legacy of the Past

Since 2015 I have been working with a team of academics, human rights activists and lawyers who wish to inform the development of a proposed Oral History Archive to help address the legacy of the past. Many others including the Stories Network, organisations who work with and represent victims and survivors, oral history project managers, public representatives and others have also worked tirelessly to help inform these vitally important debates. In an unexpected development the UK government published a Command Paper in July setting out proposals to advance oral history and memorialisation work alongside a broad and sweeping amnesty that would close down access to criminal investigations, inquests and civil actions for Troubles-related offences. It is expected that legislation will be brought forward in the New Year and all in the oral history community will be watching closely to ensure that oral history initiatives are not engaged as a smokescreen for impunity. This could do untold damage to the credibility of post-conflict oral history work here.

Conclusion

This brief overview will hopefully give a sense of the wealth of oral history work that is underway here – within, across, and between universities, community groups, the museum and archives sector, and the creative arts. Funding for community and voluntary groups remains a major challenge – as does resolution of outstanding concerns relating to oral history proposals to help address the legacy of conflict. We nonetheless look forward in the coming year to working in partnership with the myriad oral history practitioners and projects operating across our society.

Dr Anna Bryson, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast (a.bryson@qub.ac.uk)

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