Spring Seminar – Oral History and the Community

Oral History Seminar Drogheda 2012



Conference Centre, Drogheda Museum Millmount

Sat. 24 March 2012



The recent one day seminar hosted by the Old Drogheda Society proved to be a most interesting, informative and stimulating event. The list of speakers on the day was an indication of the variety and range of topics presented .Keynote speaker was David R. Rowe, affectionately known as Doc. Rowe, who had travelled from Whitby in Yorkshire to speak at the conference. A legendary field worker, documenting English vernacular culture, both in sound and vision since the 60’s. Doc worked with major pioneers in the field, like Charles Parker (B.B.C “Radio Ballads”) and Ewan Mc Call. His huge collection is now housed in its own archive in Whitby. In 2002 Doc was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from University of Sheffield for his research work into vernacular culture and traditional music. He gave a fascinating talk on his extensive work over many years in field records and analysis punctuated with some great stories in a most humorous and entertaining way. Based on his own personal experience he traced the many changes and developments that had taken place in regard to recording equipment used and techniques employed by field analysts. One fascinating account was about the unique Mayday festival that is held every year in Padstow in Cornwall and is still alive and well today. He expressed great concern about what might happen to his unique collection in the future. He had set up “the Doc. Rowe” support group whose main objective is the electronic dissemination of material to the academic community and the public at large.

In a talk entitled “ Turning talk into history: an effort to overcome tape-in-the-drawer-syndrome” Ida Milne of the Oral History network of Ireland (OHNI) informed the audience of their relatively new organisation set up to promote the collection, preservation and use of recorded memories of the past throughout the island. She spoke about how they hoped to bring together, oral historians and all those people interested in our heritage, folklore, social and local history to explain and extend the role of oral history in our society. The aim is to encourage and foster new and existing projects of all sizes in communities around Ireland and to offer advice and support to those wishing to learn more about collecting oral history. Ida shared with the audience many of the interesting stories and experiences she had while researching the Flu Epidemic 1918/1919 for her recent PHD thesis. It was interesting to learn how to plan a session and how to look out for some of the pitfalls encountered when recording the stories and memories of older people. It is important to understand and respect their wishes and the question of informed consent was paramount.

Somewhat unique and different was a presentation given by the Louise Lowe and Upstate Theatre under the title of “Oral History, the Community and Drama”. The group take oral history stories and translate them into live theatre performances. They made two short presentations to illustrate their work. One was from their award winning production “Laundry” and another “Kitchens in the Big House”. Although this was a totally different approach to the presentation of oral history research, it was most definitely thought provoking and provocative.

Mary Cronin, a senior lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick University talked about her work with undergraduate students at the College. Mary has established the study of oral history as an integral part of the undergraduate history programme and has also established the college’s “Oral History Centre”. The students are encouraged to engage in oral history recording and most undergraduates were more comfortable recording in their own communities. They found that older people in their communities were a bit wary and somewhat apprehensive about talking to people from outside their own locality. The centre had now in excess of one thousand hours oral history recording stored in the centre’s archive.

Dr. Mary Muldowney, Research Associate, Centre of Contemporary History, TCD presented a most enlightening talk on how oral history interviews enhanced labour research by giving access to the memories of workers whose viewpoints do not appear in the records on which research in this area used to rely exclusively. Mary talked about how oral history can open new avenues of research into working lives and working practices. It was important to extend the range of research beyond the accepted documentary records on trade union leaders and public figures by giving access to “ordinary” workers whose perspectives are different. A recurring theme in the address was the importance of getting the story from the “bottom up” and not from the “top down”.

Eamon Thornton from the Old Drogheda Society outlined the great work being done in Millmount with their “Local History Voices” Project. This Project has been on-going for many years and had produced its own unique archive of local oral history. Eamon also talked about his own oral history researches which centred on the history of the ITGWU. He is the secretary of the Old Drogheda Society, a director of the Drogheda Local Voices and a member of the Management Committee of Drogheda Museum.

The conference closed with a lively presentation by Sean Corcoran about his extensive work in the field of Irish vernacular song. He recounted on the many years spent in researching this area with some great stories and antidotes to captivate and entertain his listeners. Sean is an ethnomusicologist who has carried out pioneering fieldwork in the whole area of Irish vernacular song and currently lectures in Irish Music at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. He is a professional musician and producer of documentaries for radio and TV. Sean is a director of Drogheda Local Voices, Chairman of the Old Drogheda Society and a member of the Management Committee of Drogheda Museum.