Beyond visual memory: a sensorial journey of the Troubles

Beyond visual memory: a sensorial journey of the Troubles
21 November 2022

“History and memory are two routes to the past,” reflected Rosín Higgins, associate professor of history at Teeside University and recipient of the ACIS James S. Donnelly Sr Prize. In “Sensing the Troubles: Collecting Stories of Northern Ireland’s Troubles”, a lecture at Queen’s University Belfast, Higgins discussed her work in researching sensorial memory of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. The event was hosted by Professor Peter Gray, director of the Institute of Irish Studies. 

Higgins, author of Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising, focused on the significant role the five senses play in remembering the Troubles. She lamented that historical research tends to focus on the visual aspects of memory and past events. Higgins’s findings demonstrated that even though many survivors tried to tune out the events of the Troubles, sensorial stories remain in the body and can resurface. 

Higgins’s research consisted of a diverse sample of 40 individual interviews and 4 group interviews of people over the age of 35 who had lived through the Troubles. In the interviews, participants recalled the many sensorial components of the Troubles, such as the sound of helicopters, the smell of a British army uniform, the tone of a warning voice, the scent of diesel, and the feeling of being frisked and searched. Even the sound of the news and the radio were remembered as part of living through the Troubles. Many interviewees remembered hearing bombs and reported being able to differentiate between the sound of a bomb detonating and other types of explosions. 

Higgins noted the preponderance of auditory memory in her findings, concluding that the Troubles were often more heard than seen. She explained that remembering occurs throughout the entire human body, and recalling sensorial memory can bring out hidden stories. Bodies that survived the Troubles, and were thus transformed by the Troubles, serve as living memories, Higgins asserted. She further remarked that manifestations of such memories can be evidenced in bodies, as in one’s posture or gait, particularly in the case of grief. 

Finding the research process personally transformative, Higgins said she felt as though she carried the oral histories of the interviewees with her and was accountable to do them justice. Though one participant reported feeling “drained” after his interview with Higgins, other participants, amazed by reflecting on what they had been through, indicated they felt “lighter” and were surprised that someone would be interested in listening to their experiences. 

When asked by an event attendee about the tension of approaching her work as a history study versus a memory study, Higgins replied that she was more interested in the revealed narrative given by interviewees than in ensuring the historical accuracy of the memories. She continued that trauma is often fragmented and incoherent, as is its retelling. 

Regarding potential future endeavours with her research, Higgins expressed excitement about the possibility of collaborations with artists but recognized the limitations of her own abilities in creative projects. She also reminded the audience she cannot claim ownership over the stories shared by participants and emphasised that any audio components of an exhibition must be sensitive to avoid triggering and re-traumatizing attendees. 

Higgins’s lecture affirmed the value of sensory memory to help expand the narrative of the Troubles beyond political conflict and spectacular violent events. She stated, “Sound will cross borders, bodies will not.” Focusing on the common, mundane experiences of day-to-day life captured by the senses and remembered by the body amid the violence, Higgins reminded listeners of the power and pervasiveness of sensory memory, even across bodies divided. 

A recording of the event is available to view online:

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