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Cataloguing the Sound Archive - from superstitions to satirical songs!

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This time six months ago, I never imagined that I would come to know so much about rural townland mythologies, cures and superstitions, the secrets of lace-making, or satirical songs about Belfast! But each morning when I go into work, I know there will be something to captivate and compel me in the Sound Archive of National Museums NI.

I am the Cataloguing Officer for the Northern Ireland hub of the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project. Our team at National Museums NI is one of 10 regional hubs working all across the UK to preserve sound recordings that tell the unique history of each region through music, radio, drama, poetry, oral histories and everything in between. This ambitious nationwide project, led by the British Library and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, aims to digitally preserve almost half a million rare and at-risk sound recordings. Over three years at National Museums NI, we aim to digitise and catalogue 5,000 recordings from our own collection and the collections of our partners across Northern Ireland. These recordings are currently held on obsolete mediums such as cassettes and open reel tapes which are physically degrading. Experts estimate we have 15 years to save these sounds before they are lost.


Image © Amy Hamill

Recordings held on open reel tapes like this one could be lost forever.

As Cataloguing Officer for the project, my role is to extract information from the digitised recordings to create searchable online catalogue records that will allow new audiences to access and explore this rich trove of local information, which covers a staggering variety of topics including folklore, textiles, music, agriculture and transport.  

Listening to the recordings and using archival material, I piece together the story of the recording: who is speaking, when, and what they are talking about - think Sherlock Holmes if he listened to podcasts! The result should be that the records are accessible and discoverable to new audiences online. Many of the tapes have not been played since they were recorded 30-40 years ago and it is a pleasure to be the person who gets to hear them for the very first time. The recordings the tapes contain can last for 30 seconds or stretch across four or more hours but each is a labour of love.


Image © Amy Hamill

Tape registers full of information about recordings held in the Sound Archive. Collecting sound recordings has been part of the Folk Museum’s mission since the 1960s.

A large number of the recordings we will digitise at National Museums NI are oral histories. They are stories of everyday lives, records of unique experiences, responses to topical events and sometimes voices that have been lost to history. 


Image © Amy Hamill

Hunting through 1000s of reels and cassettes stored in the Sound Archive at National Museums NI.

We are in the primary stage of the project and some of the first sounds that we got to unearth were part of a collection by Linda Ballard. Linda collected oral histories, performances and music over the course of 30 years working as a curator at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. She was interested in an eclectic range of topics including folklore, childbirth, textiles, marriage customs, motorcycle gangs and even ghost stories. Listening to her recordings has been an education in obscure place names (did you know there are over 2,000 townlands in County Tyrone?!) and even more obscure customs (I now know more about childbirth in pre-war Belfast than I ever thought I would!).

The stories I have found most fascinating so far have been those about women and work. I have found a treasure house of stories that have defied my expectations at every turn. These oral histories aren’t your great-granny who worked as a scullery maid saying it was better in the old days! These are first-hand accounts of honest, unique, unexpected lives. They are the narratives of women born in 1890 who speak with pride about the skill of their messy, tiring work in the linen mills; the life story of a female doctor in the mid-1920s who women trusted for practical advice about family planning; or anecdotes about housewives getting stuck on their shed roofs during a bomb scare in the midst of the Troubles. They tell the stories of our little region from the inside. It is surprising how modern and candid their perspectives are.


Image © Amy Hamill

Some intriguing recording titles including ‘The story of the pig faced child’.

Tape boxes unassumingly labelled ‘narrative’ often contain intriguing and funny folklore from across the island of Ireland: the consequences of messing with ‘the wee folk’ (fairies); old women turning into hares; and epic tales of heroes saving princesses in the hills around Drumquin. Some of the most compelling are told by a man Linda describes as ‘one of the best storytellers’ she has ever met. He came from Rathlin Island and within his stories he weaves together details of the everyday life of Rathlin along with tales of Danes, witches and islands that disappear into the sea.

It’s not all talking heads, though. There is a wealth of musical heritage captured here as well. Haunting acapella performances of Scottish and Irish folk songs, satirical songs that convey the dry Northern Irish wit whilst taking on proportional representation, and unique pieces written by the everyman that describe life in rural parts of the country. I had the tune ‘Far from Rathlin’s Sunny Shore’, penned by a young fisherlady, stuck in my head for days and I am still convinced it could have been a Top 40 hit!

This project has proved to me the incredible personal resonance of sound recordings and I hope to bring you further updates on the rich histories that I quarry.