Ireland XO Insight - Collecting Oral Histories

Monday, 23 May, 2016
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Not only is storytelling an Irish national pastime, it is also an essential way of learning about times gone past. Tales passed from generation to generation form a key part of our family and personal identity. Where does our family originate from? Why did people leave Ireland and where did they go to? Was there a particular talent or skill that has been passed on in the family? Gathering and preserving stories that give insight about our lives is now easier than ever with so many digital recording technologies widely available.

Story Telling

Why collect?

Hearing stories about earlier times is a great method of passing family history from one generation to the next. Once properly recorded though, these can move to become valuable records rather than family anecdotes that can often change over time with each telling. We collect stories as a way to understand what life was like generations ago. They can help us appreciate why people in our family think like they do or why they made certain decisions. Maybe you have wondered why an ancestor didn't emigrate with all of his brothers? Perhaps he stayed behind to look after a sick parent and these reasons can enrich your family history research by giving an indication what everyday life was like. 

It's really important to record not only the stories themselves but also additional information about the person recording them and the person telling them. Where did the recording take place? Who was present? What are the names, addresses and ages of those telling and recording? What, if any, is your relationship? These are all really important pieces of information that provide a context to any story. Who knows, in 100 years time your descendants might be able to learn more about the family history because you recorded your story or that of your own ancestors in this way?

 

Tell us a story! York Street, Dublin c.1954 - © National Library of Ireland

Do some research and learn the language

Whether you are working on a project for school, a local heritage group or just for yourself there are a few things to consider before embarking on an oral history project. Make sure you plan what you want to do, making a list of who you want to talk to and what questions you would like to ask. You need to be as natural as possible during the recording so that your interview style is open and makes the interviewee comfortable. It's always a good idea to do some background research. This means too that if there are any technical terms used during the interview you will be able to talk about them. If for example, you are talking to an older family member about flax, terms like 'scutcher', 'bobbin', 'pouce' and 'hackling' may crop up during the conversation. Don't be afraid to ask additional questions, not every question can be anticipated beforehand. 

Transcribing and preserving...

Best practice dictates that you transcribe exactly what has been said and this can take a long time! If you are working on a personal project it can be enough to write a summary of what was said. If you wanted to add the information as part of a published work or website it's really important to let the interviewee know this beforehand. Always ensure they have seen and read a consent form that both of you sign. This form should indicate what you will be using the recording for. You may also have to consider relevant Data Protection legislation. Again, if working on a heritage project, the interviewee can assign the copyright to an archives or group (if they themselves are the copyright holders). 

There are some great examples of oral history projects in Ireland including  the Ballymun Oral History Project, the National Folklore Collection and Cuimhneamh an Chláir. Most people will also be familiar with the animated series 'Give Up your Aul Sins'. This series reenacts original recordings from Dublin schoolrooms in the 1960s made by Peig Cunningham. The recordings not only provide factual information but give a lovely example of the 1960s Dublin accent and vocabulary. You can hear some of the recordings: HERE

Once you have recorded your oral histories it is important to make sure that they are accessible into the future. In the past, tapes and CDs were used to archive material. Over time though these inevitably degrade so the most important thing to do is to make your recording as safe as possible. If you are using older methods of preservation like DVDs or CD-ROM make sure they are free from dust and kept in a cool, safe, dry place. Label them! You won't remember what they contain otherwise. You can refresh them periodically or perhaps upload to a newer format like those available online and through your internet provider. Lastly, make sure that you accurately maintain the 'metadata' discussed earlier, that important information that tells others about the recording - where and when it took place etc and remember to include any additional migration dates as well as formatting and ownership information.