Teachers, students and community leaders from Northern Ireland and Irish border counties learnt how to record the stories of their past and sometimes troubled histories during a visit to Queen Mary, University of London last week.
Part of a major oral history training programme, the group, which included 27 graduate students in history, law and sociology, honed the skills needed to capture the testimonies of their communities, covering the conflict years to peace time.
The training was offered as part of the ‘Peace Process: Layers of Meaning Project’; an ambitious collaboration between Queen Mary’s School of Law, Trinity College Dublin, and Dundalk Institute of Technology. The programme is supported with €1.1m from the EU’s PEACE III programme.
Located in the heart of multi-cultural east London, Queen Mary provided the ideal base from which to explore communities in conflict and to learn from oral history projects that have been undertaken with a wide range of ethnic groups.
Training was provided by Eastside Community Heritage and field trips included a visit to the Imperial War Museum and to Toynbee Hall, a world-renowned centre for identifying and resolving community tensions and conflict.
Three LLM students from Dublin - Alex Layden, Christina O’Byrne and Beatrice Vance – were part of the group who flew to QM to undertake four days of specialist training.
Alex explained why he got involved in the project: “Oral history opens a window into the human side of past events. It engages the listener in a personal way and provides the public with a record of history seen through the eyes of those who were there.” He hopes that the skills acquired will be a valuable tool in future research into post-conflict societies.
Christine O’Byrne added that the programme had underscored to her the value of oral testimonies. She feels that “living history can have a much great impact, emotionally and intellectually”. She added that she will now “have a greater interest in listening to members of my own family and community and in learning of times gone by”.
Highlighting the transferability of the skills she gained, she stated: “I will try and incorporate more oral history testimonies into further research I conduct, rather than relying on simple written case law - facts and evidence.”
Beatrice Vance is already planning how she would use her skills, saying: “While in London I have been thinking about Irish history and that the Irish nuns: why they took the Vow, the educational roles they undertook, could be extremely interesting - and the Magdalene laundries, although it is a sensitive issue.”
The Project Co-Director, Dr Anna Bryson, from the School of Law, explains: “The training programme aims to demystify the academic process involved in oral history and social enquiry interviewing. We want to equip community leaders and students, interested or already involved in oral history projects, with the necessary skills and self-confidence to engage with the past in a professional and ethical manner.
“In the spirit of the settlement movement this course demonstrates the immense value of combining academic research with community engagement. It provides an opportunity for students to work alongside those who have been deeply affected by conflict and to consider new approaches to cross-community research.”
Further training will take place at Altnaveigh House in Newry and at Dundalk Institute of Technology.
The training programme will act as the foundation for three border-region oral history projects due to be announced shortly. The wider project, led by Seán McConville, Professor of Law and Public Policy at Queen Mary, is also in the process of collecting and archiving one hundred ‘heritage interviews’ with senior political figures, civil servants, and community and religious leaders involved in attempts to achieve peace over the last 40 years.
The research programme is described in full at: www.peaceprocesshistory.org.