Oral history and genealogy

Eneclann’s Research Manager, Carmel Gilbride, presented at the second annual Oral History Network of Ireland conference, held in Ennis on the weekend of 28-29 September. The theme of the conference was ‘Voicing the Past’ and Carmel spoke about the importance of oral history in tracing a family’s history:

We here at Eneclann attach a great deal of weight to an oral history within a family.

As someone whose daily work involves a great deal of listening, I was glad to have the opportunity afforded by a recent conference to share the perspective I have gained as a genealogist on the role of oral history within families.    The theme of the conference was ‘Voicing the Past’.    The listening skills of the oral historian are vital to my work as a genealogist.  Actively listening to family stories is a vital component of the process of successfully creating a family tree.

The reality is that often, an oral history is absent from the family narrative.  Often this is caused by a fracture – a breaking of the generational link within the family, which can be caused by the early death of a parent, emigration, or a child being raised outside their birth family.   Our work at Eneclann is an attempt to recreate, through documents, a history for the family where a narrative is absent.

Many times in my practice as a family historian, people are often heard to say, ‘My father never spoke of it’.  Why is this?  After all, we Irish have a strong oral tradition.  The spoken word is central to our sense of identity.  Oral history forms a key part of our social and cultural heritage.

But within many families, silence is the only bequest to the generations.   I am curious as to why this phenomenon occurs.  One answer may lie in the work of the playwright Arthur Miller.  I was intrigued to read that Miller believed there was a voice that we reserve for family and one that we use for society.

Miller argued that the voice of the family is the voice of prose and that the voice of public life, the well-turned phrase, is verse.  If Miller is right, then this might explain why Irish families have found it so difficult to find a language to use within their families.  In general, the Irish are drawn to the poetic, to the hyperbole of the well-chosen phrase.  We are, arguably, more skilled at the poetic, the language Miller believes is more usefully applied to the public sphere

Perhaps the realism of families is sometimes too much for the romantic in us Irish.  This might explain why we adopt strategies to voice our past: silence is one such strategy.   Often a decision is made within families not to talk of the reality of family life.   Let us either forget or ignore it. If we cannot solve the problem – be it an illness that won’t go away, mental health issues, children born out of wedlock, a swift marriage, or a spell in prison – whatever is deemed shameful within a family, then if we do not talk about it, then it doesn’t really exist.     If it is said, then it must be true.  Best then not to speak of it.  This is a major challenge for us historians in trying to uncover the truth of what happened in the past.  But I believe we owe it to our ancestors, to know the truth of their history, to try to learn the lessons we need to learn from the past.   The deep silences within families are a crucial component in voicing the past.

Another strategy used within families in dealing with their past is to embellish stories to such an exaggerated degree, that the original history becomes unrecognisable. With these exaggerated embellishments, the original facts of the case become obfuscated and succeed in frustrating the efforts of even the most determined historian.  It is indeed a major challenge to trace a family who deliberately put out false stories, to lead people away from a truth that is often unpalatable and painful.

Another strategy in the face of an absent narrative is the creation of myths and legends.  Many times this centres on a mythical ancestral home, a ‘Tara’ worthy of ‘Gone with the Wind’.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the emigrant story.  Time and distance lend a romantic edge.    This quest for place to call home on the island obscures the fact that our ancestors were a pragmatic people, who moved from place to place within this island, and the neighbouring island (England, Scotland and Wales), to exploit economic opportunities.  A lost oral history can literally cut you off from your roots.

We must develop Miller’s voice of realism to speak of our family life, as actually lived.  The real stories of poverty, of lack of tolerance, of painful partings, of turning a blind eye, of unresolved disputes, all are part of the rich tapestry of our lives. Yes, there is a place for the poetic, but as family historians we must be acutely aware of the soundless in our family histories.


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