Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, director of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin (UCD) is leafing through the pages of a book, handwritten in Irish in 1933.
It opens with the details of a person – their age, gender, occupation, and so on – and then simply recounts their story as they told it.
“That would be typical of the work of the Folklore Commission,” he says, which had an interest in rural affairs and the Irish language.
When the folklore archive does an interview they transcribe it word for word, so that the person gets to tell their story in their own voice, says Mac Cárthaigh.
“The UCD folklore archive is Ireland’s memory,” says Deirdre Nuttall, a folklorist who is spearheading a new project for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
The council is putting out a call for people to tell their stories – or the stories of their family members – particularly those from working-class backgrounds in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, or those who worked in “ordinary” jobs.
They will store those stories in the UCD folklore archive so they are available to researchers and students all over the world for generations to come. It’s part of an oral history project they are calling A People’s History of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.
The Undocumented Stories
Deirdre Black, a heritage officer with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, launched a community consultation soon after she was appointed, to fish for ideas for the council’s new five-year heritage plan.
The idea of doing a “people’s history” of the area came from that public consultation, she says.
“One of the ideas that came through was the need for an oral history programme,” says Black, sitting a large wooden table, surrounded by collections of books in the National Folklore Collection.
The idea sounded exciting, she says. “Platforming the untold stories. What have the books missed?”
Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is one of the most affluent areas of Ireland, says Mac Cárthaigh, but naturally there were plenty of working-class people employed there, in a wide variety of jobs.
Those are the “undocumented stories” of the county, he says.
Nuttall, an independent ethnologist and folklorist, says it’s about correcting the balance. “The nature of history is that wealthy people tend to be better documented than ordinary people,” she says.
She wants to know about the lives of the shopkeepers, craftspeople, tradesmen, the people working on the boats, or in service in the big houses.
It was common for trades like stonecutting to be handed down, too, says Black. “Because there was continued employment compared to other parts of the country, there is a multi-generational continuity often of trades.”
People travelled from all over Ireland to do shopkeeping apprenticeships in Dún Laoghaire, says Black. What was life like for them, away from home at 14 or 15? she wonders.
Statistics can show how many people worked in a particular trade or industry, but the idea of this project is to colour in those black and white facts, to reveal “what history feels like”, says Nuttall.
An Open Call
The council is calling on people, especially older people, who may have stories from their youths, or tales handed down from their parents or grandparents, about life in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.
Second-hand accounts can help to paint a picture of what life was like going back to the War of Independence, and even to the late 1800s, says Nuttall.
They may be subjective, but they can “complement documented history”, she says.
Nuttall will do most of the interviews, she says. Mac Cárthaigh has an interest in maritime history so he may sit in on some that are related to the boats.
Participants can choose if they want to do the interviews together with friends or relatives, or alone, says Nuttall.
She is really keen to talk to living relatives of people who worked in service in the big houses, in particular, she says.
“Gardeners, cooks and cleaners, governesses,” she says. “For every big house there is an army of people keeping the show on the road.”
Nuttall and Mac Cárthaigh recently collaborated on a project, Protestant Folk, to incorporate the stories of Protestant people in the south of Ireland into the National Folklore Collection. Nuttall recently published a book on the subject.
She wonders if some people felt a divided loyalty during the War of Independence – torn between loyalty to a decent boss, perhaps, and their own leanings towards independence, perhaps.
“These places were big employers and they weren’t all evil landlords, some were considered good employers,” she says.
Whatever story people have to tell, if it relates to the lives of working people in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Nuttall, Mac Cárthaigh, and Black want to hear it.
They are currently creating a database of interviewees, with a view to starting interviews soon, and are asking people to email them at [email protected].
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 1pm on 1 July to correct stonemasonry to stonecutting.]