Preserving stories of the past, for the future

‘Every old man that dies is a library that burns.’

‘Every old man that dies is a library that burns.’

The idea behind this Senegalese proverb is at the heart of what a group of people in involved in preserving the stories of Ireland’s people are trying to achieve.

That group, the newly formed Oral History Network of Ireland, is holding its first conference on September 16 and 17 in the Parade Tower of Kilkenny Castle.

Their aim – and the aim of the conference – is to bring together people who have recorded or want to record the stories of family members, neighbours or others, and to provide a support network that can advise and assist them in keeping these stories for posterity.

Ultimately, their goal is to set up a national sound archive.

(Local oral historian Regina Fitzgerald, one of the conference organisers, is also holding “How To Get Started on an Oral History Project” in Kilkenny during Heritage Week. This free workshop will take place on August 22 from 2-4pm in the Kilkenny County Council offices at John’s Green, and places can be booked on 056 7794925.)

Practical issues

The Oral History Network of Ireland includes local historians, heritage workers, community workers, freelance researchers and academic historians, and their conference in Kilkenny will include workshops and panel discussions.

The first day will involve workshops on practical issues involved in doing an oral-history recording.

“So if you want to do an oral history project or record somebody’s story – it could be an older relative, it could be a neighbour or it could be a larger project – we’ll have workshops on how you do that,” Ms Fitzgerald explained.

It will cover things such as how to conduct an interview, things to consider while conducting the interview, how to prepare for it, what technology to use, and how to preserve it afterwards, she said.

That afternoon, the focus will be on how to use oral sources, whether for a book, an exhibition or a documentary.

The second day of the conference will involve panel discussions about the current level of oral history in Ireland and how to improve it in the future.

“We will be looking at: Where are we with our oral heritage in Ireland? What oral history is happening in Ireland at the moment? How is it being funded? Who is doing it? What policy provisions are in place in order for oral history to happen and what provisions need to be put in place? What state are the archives in?” Ms Fitzgerald said.

One of the problems with independent research, and one of the main reasons for setting up the network, is that often recordings do not achieve their goal of preserving a person’s story, because they end up stashed away in “a safe place” instead of being shared.

“A lot of people go out and record an older relative or a neighbour and they put the tape in a drawer and it never sees the light of day,” Ms Fitzgerald noted.

“So we are trying to put in place a community that can advise each other on how to make the most of what has been recorded and provide for further preservation in the future. ... We want to establish this network so people can come together and share advice, and we want to develop a set of best practices and provide resources for people so that when they do record they are recording them with respect, ethically, legally, properly.”

Among the speakers at the conference will be Catriona Crowe from the National Archives of Ireland and Guy Beiner, who has done a lot of work on folk memory of 1798.

The keynote speaker is Alistair Thomson, who has been an active member of the Oral History Society in the UK for 20 years and is considered to be one of the world’s leaders in oral history.


Ms Fitzgerald’s own work at the moment is with the GAA Oral History Project, which has been carried out for the past three years by the Dublin-based Boston College Ireland. Commissioned by the GAA, the project involves talking to and recording the stories of people in all 32 counties who have contributed to the GAA in some way.

This has involved talking to people such as a man involved in O’Loughlin Gaels underage teams for many years, club secretaries, bus drivers, women who “washed the jerseys for years on end and made sandwiches and sometimes didn’t get the credit they deserved”, “the man who opens the gate to the field every day and mows the grass and lines the pitch”, and people involved in camogie and ladies’ football.It’s an effort to capture this valuable resource before it disappears.

“Take my parents’ generation, for example, and the amount of changes they have seen in their lives, from electrification to running water in houses, to the development of agricultural life – tractors replacing horses. There are people who are alive and well and who can talk about what life was like before all of those things happened,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

“In a generation’s time they’re not going to be around anymore, and there’s going to be a raft of people in 50 years’ time wondering what everyday life was like in Ireland in the ’50s or the ’40s. Our archives don’t have the stories of everyday life; they only have the stories of the more prominent members of society. That is a real driving force for me, that ordinary people get represented in museums and archives.”

It is also a way to continue the strong storytelling tradition for which Ireland is known worldwide.

“Ireland owes so much to its oral heritage,” Ms Fitzgerald said. “We wouldn’t have the traditional music we have today, we wouldn’t have the stories we have today, we wouldn’t have the traditional craft we have today without people talking and telling stories.”

To book a place at the Oral History Network of Ireland conference on September 16 and 17, see, email or call 086 2080358.