Pressing Back & Forward on Community Relations in Ulster: a personal account of cataloguing for the Sound Archive
The ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project at National Museums NI has achieved many great feats over the last two and a half years. Above all, by digitalizing 3,500 obsolete audio items, writing up catalogue entries for most of these, and contacting their rights-holders, the project team has not only preserved much of the contents of the Sound Archive at Cultra and other oral history collections from likely deterioration and loss, but also opened these up to public access and heightened awareness of the value of oral history. This work has continued without stop throughout Covid-19 restrictions. In addition, the team has provided opportunities for almost 100 volunteers to contribute to the process.
Few of those who have contributed to the project have as personal attachment to the work as mine. 35 years after I recorded over 100 interviews for the Ulster Folk Museum collection, I find myself returning to these recordings, which have lain essentially dormant for all of that time; and now I have the rather unique privilege of cataloguing the newly digitalized interviews carried out by my former self.
My return – albeit virtual – to the Sound Archive at Cultra has been enabled by my internship as a mature student of the MA in Public History at Queen’s University. It was quite an emotional experience to listen back to oral history I recorded in my early adulthood – akin to opening a time capsule on one’s own fieldwork from half a lifetime ago. The excitement was increased by a sense of a race against time, as the digitalization of unique sound collections is carried out on cassette and reel-to-reel tapes that have a life expectancy of some forty years, even in pristine museum conditions. It feels like a special privilege to assist an effort to save this audio treasure-trove of Ulster’s modern oral history for future museum-goers.
An Oral History of Ulster Life from the 1920s to ‘the Troubles’
The collection I’ve been working on were interviews I made myself for a university project with the Ulster Folk Museum in the mid-1980s. About a year of intense work in 1985 went into identifying mostly former politicians, pastors, community leaders, academic and thespians, and ensuring representativeness. The identification work took far longer than the interviewing, and there was a strong multiplier effect as nearly everyone we interviewed recommended someone else. I started with a target of about fifty and ended up with 104 of the most interesting Ulster personalities of their generation. Most of them were already well into their seventies then; indeed several very sharp folk were already nonagenarians, for whom we followed some extra protocols due to their great age. I was looking at community relations in the formative years of Northern Ireland, but some memories even dated back to the end of the nineteenth century. And now I am cataloguing these accounts of pivotal events in Ulster for posterity at a time when the partition and the birth of the new northern state a century ago are very much in public focus.
At that time I was also working with the University of Oxford and I possessed not only a formidable stamina but a zeal for a very relaxed and gentle form of ‘interview confessional’. I really enjoyed talking to people and had caught the oral history ‘bug’. I also possessed three great advantages: the seal of an ancient university; the enthusiasm of the museum anthropologist (the late and much missed Dr Tony Buckley); and extensive prior work experience with the older generation. These were a winning combination, and Tony and I shared a common respect for the dignity and rights of our interviewees that would put a modern ethics declaration to shame. Between us, we met a great army of veteran community leaders, politicians, scholars and protesters, such as to create an archive brimful of what the seasoned BBC journalist Gavin Esler calls ‘verbal incendiaries’. People spoke to us so frankly, and we recorded so much passion about Ulster life up to the Troubles, it’s almost a surprise to me that Cultra has been able to contain all the ‘hot air’ we captured.
The Public Historian & Sound Archives
Since January 2021, I have been curating the recordings that I deposited so many years ago in the Sound Archive at Cultra, now digitalized by UOSH, and cataloguing the political shibboleths contained therein. The very anthropocentric core of Ulster oral history is buried in those massive sound archives and they offer a kaleidoscope of images and voices, as can be heard from large collections such as those of Anthony Buckley, Linda Ballard and Janet Harbison. It is a privilege to have my interviews – which had never before been heard anywhere outside of Oxford – preserved here as audio files.
Many issues immediately confront the intern when they commence work at a beautiful place like Cultra, or even if they are volunteering remotely for the Sound Archive. In the first place, it is an emotional activity to review one’s own collection, so many years later, remembering personal encounters with people who almost without exception have long passed away. In my cataloguing I’ve been thinking about how to distil intricate events and complex memories into an explanation which has equal resonance for a professional group, a general audience and maybe even a class of schoolchildren. As interns we quickly find ourselves with mutually contradictory roles, balancing academic and public history missions. The preservation of the past is something which inspires enthusiasm. In writing up catalogue summaries for each interview, our goal is to offer an accurate and ample description that will make them useful to the researcher of the future. We have to think carefully about setting the balance between adequately describing the memories on a tape, and eliminating superfluous detail. The knack is to try to get the level of detail just about right.
Emotionality, Objectivity & Oral History
The context of the time that these interviews were recorded emerges as strongly as the preceding period that was the intended subject of discussion. Emotions run high as people explain Ulster in the mid-1980s at a time when the Troubles was rampant. One Protestant pastor described it thus:
‘In my memory, looking back, they were better times, and then when you think about it a while ... they were hardly better times at all. I think that’s what they call nostalgia ... when it all looks artificially nice ... . Well to me the Troubles were the worst of times and they weren’t (much) better even before the 1960s....there was always a danger of the religious or the political thing boiling over...”
A Catholic priest from the same district describes ‘predictable unease throughout the period of the Twelfth', referring to annual summer unrest.
A nurse stresses, ‘we treated everyone free of politics ... . Our ward sister used to shout in casualty, “no flags past the hospital door, please”’.
A hairdresser echoes this tone, remarking ‘creed, colour or class, everyone was welcome in my salon'.
A Jewish woman notes that the Troubles made her question ‘my family’s journey to live in Belfast, compared to cities like Manchester and London where Jewish families do not feel vulnerable ... even though my own neighbours are unfailingly polite and kind ... .'
One of my interviewees, 93 at the time and in top form, could recall ‘UVF gun-running in 1914. ...hard to know if either side has stopped since...'
These are the articulate and sometimes blunt voices of a living history, now preserved for posterity.
Where we have come from and where we are going
This has been a unique opportunity to take a look back into the past, to ponder where we have come from and where we are going. We face unique challenges as we confront the ‘decade of centenaries’, as the complex relationships that exist between memory, commemoration and history become sensitized over the issues of identity and community. I also feel privileged that I will remain working with National Museums NI for the duration of the year, and have learned much about the remarkable oral history of Ulster’s communities. Forging a genuinely shared public history is probably one of the greatest challenges for a public institution, and it is one which National Museums NI have embraced with enthusiasm. Even by largely working remotely with the Sound Archive, I have felt part of the museum’s passion for the history and memories of everyday folk in Northern Ireland.
Martin Duffy came to the Sound Archive as part of the Public History programme with Queen’s University, Belfast. He particularly thanks Dr Leonie Hannan and Dr Donal McAnallen for their kind co-operation.