Oral histories: expanding narrative understanding of the Troubles

Oral histories: expanding narrative understanding of the Troubles
9 December 2022

How are memories of the past represented in the present? What are the policy and social implications of archiving diverse oral histories? Can collecting oral histories and narratives about Northern Ireland’s past contribute to a transformation from conflict? These were some of the questions set out by Dr Fearghus Roulston (a Chancellor’s Fellow in the History of Activism and lecturer at the University of Strathclyde) and Dr Barry Hazley (a Derby Research Fellow in Transforming Conflict at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool), during their lecture at Queen’s University Belfast. The event, part of the HAPP History Seminar Series, allowed each researcher to share their work as presented in a forthcoming special issue of Oral History which they both co-edited.

Dr Fearghus ROULSTON. “Transforming the Troubles? Oral History and the afterlives of conflict”. School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Dr Fearghus Roulston discussed the research featured in his book Belfast Punk and the Troubles: An Oral History. In amplifying a story of young Protestants and young Catholics taking part in the punk scene on friendly terms, however, Roulston became worried that he was imposing a “good relations model of history” or worse, “bland, neutral, and ineffective” representations of the Troubles. At the other end, citing Olwen Purdue’s article about public history in Northern Ireland, is partisan, community-run representations of an exclusive, single narrative. 

Roulston argued that we shouldn’t reduce sectarianism to bad relations between groups of people, but as a consequence of “a structure of discrimination produced in part by the post-partition state”. He learned through his interviews that these interactions were actually complex, which raises the question of how do we tell stories of commonality or community without ignoring the context or integral difficulties. 

Roulston also examined the cultural significance and influence of the film Good Vibrations, the biopic about Belfast punk scene artist Terri Hooley. Despite the film being a cultural touchstone, the historical backdrop of the Troubles was largely absent, Roulston critiqued. Given the strength of Good Vibrations in popular memory, Roulston expressed interest in understanding how oral history interacts with these kinds of “loud” popular memories and how that connects with the larger memory of the conflict. 

Dr Barry HAZLEY. “Transforming the Troubles? Oral History and the afterlives of conflict”. School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Dr Barry Hazley began his lecture by discussing the value of diversifying the narratives that we collect, in order to “decentre… historical understanding and entrenched metanarratives of the conflict”. The potential, he explained, is to grant agency and visibility to those hidden from history or left on its margins. Citing Joan Scott, Hazley put it that revealing such complexities can counter a homogenising metanarrative and change our understanding of the relationship between past and present, and through this our relationships with each other.

Hazley reported on his Derby Fellow research focusing on the neglected histories of the Troubles in England after 1969. Often considered recovery history, his work uses oral histories and personal narratives to reconstruct experiences of the conflict that have largely been marginalised in public discourse. Given that the Troubles occurred during a time of major social, technological, and cultural change in Great Britain, these narratives are used to examine the relationship between subjective experiences and the wider political and social background and can help expand the understanding of Britain’s legacy during the Troubles, he argued.

Hazley’s article for the special issue, “Composing personal histories of Operation Banner: memory, emotion, and temporality in British veterans’ accounts of the Troubles”, gives in-depth attention to the often-omitted military perspective in oral histories regarding the conflict, by using the personal account of British officer Sam Lockhart. Hazley asserted that his article attempts to expand the “interpretive lens” by which the Troubles is understood and demonstrated the connectedness of Northern Ireland and England as sites of conflict.

Hazley argued that this approach of connecting the histories of the Troubles and post-war British society provides another vantage point to decentre the metanarrative of the conflict. He continued that this especially holds significance for challenging the essentialist understandings of Irish identity politics that enforce rigid interpretations of and responses to historical events. 

Hazley went on to say that while a deconstructive approach to oral histories can tell us a lot about the production of identities, it does not inform how that knowledge impacts everyday life. It is unclear, he said, if anyone is listening to the oral history and storytelling work in Northern Ireland, what they are hearing, and what is the impact of that storytelling. There is a lack of research on measuring the effects of oral history and storytelling, Hazley stated. 

While much work has been done in archiving oral histories, publicising personal narratives of Northern Ireland’s past raises many questions and issues, Hazley pointed out. For instance, he noted, publicly sharing personal histories must not be mistaken as a substitute for justice, and de-privatising memories can be harmful. Furthermore, audience reception has to be considered, and it cannot be assumed that disseminating diverse narratives will affect well-established interpretations. 

Hazley finished his lecture by discussing a possible application proposed by scholars William Blair and Chris Reynolds in the special issue. The Blair–Reynolds article, reported Hazley, called for a “social peace process” in which diverse voices and experiences are listened to. This process should implement “agonistic remembering”, which uses critical engagement by publicly including diverse and contradictory perspectives. Hazley recounted that Blair and Reynolds, aiming to keep people and communities centred in this process,  suggest a collaborative model for dissemination that employs academics, museums, educators, and grassroots actors. 

Dr Barry HAZLEY and Dr Fearghus ROULSTON. “Transforming the Troubles? Oral History and the afterlives of conflict”. School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

The Q&A portion of the seminar opened discussion on a variety of topics ranging from funding to obstacles in research projects, to the inclusion of oral histories in rural areas outside of Belfast. 

When asked about the tension between being a historical custodian of personal narratives and making those histories publicly available for engagement as part of the “social peace process”, Hazley responded that he had not initially considered this responsibility when he began his research but eventually realised the necessity of connecting his work to policy, noting that a national archive like the one proposed by Blair and Reynolds has not been done before elsewhere. 

Hazley continued to discuss the challenges of publicising an archive of oral histories, focusing on the tension between the state and local communities, the latter of which may be reluctant to trust a state-sponsored centralised record of narratives. Conversely, he argued that a community-based history project might be likely to perpetuate its ethnic metanarratives. Ultimately, Hazley contended that the only way to know if a “social peace process” like this would work is once you tried it.

In response to a question about the necessity of social justice in public history, Roulston and Hazley affirmed that social justice is intrinsic to their work. Roulston stated that the terms “conflict transformation” and “reconciliation” cause him to pause, because of the unanswered questions of future outcomes and impact. Hazley remarked that while public history should be seen in terms of social justice, alternatively this is sometimes not so in heritage work, which can at times be seen in terms of consumption.

When asked how they personally felt about the impact of oral histories and storytelling, both Roulston and Hazley acknowledged that not all problems could be solved by using oral histories. Hazley proposed exploring whether there was any link between the increase in the population of political “others” (i.e. some voting for the Alliance Party) and engagement with storytelling networks such as the organisation, Healing through Remembering. 

The seminar concluded with Hazley and Roulston affirming the final question offered by an audience member: “Can we address the present by a truer narrative of the past?” Without offering a definitive answer, the researchers agreed that this question is central to historical research and reminded the audience of the importance of action in conjunction with scholarship. As Roulston put it, “Writing a book is not enough… [It’s] a mechanism for what you want to do.”

This seminar challenged listeners to consider the value of a pluralistic and deconstructive approach to oral histories as a means to promote narrative inclusivity and re-evaluate — and, when needed, even dismantle —  divisive metanarratives. While many ask how do we deal with the past in Northern Ireland, Roulston and Hazley augmented the query by expanding the narrative space and considering implications for both the present and the future. 

“Transforming the Troubles? Oral History and the afterlives of conflict”. School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Featured image credit: Michael Collins/Belfast Archive Project

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