Oral History in Post-conflict societies: Experiences from researching the Northern Ireland Troubles
|Author: Dieter Reinisch,Adjunct Faculty member at the Webster Vienna Private University and a Lecturer at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg.|
The past five or so years were rather difficult for those conducting interviews in Ireland. Nonetheless, interviews remain an essential source for those of us researching political violence and the Northern Irish Troubles. Since the debacle of the Belfast Oral History Project at Boston College (BC), narrators greet oral historians in the best case with increasing suspicion, in the worst case with open hostility. All too often, potential narrators refuse to proceed with interview requests, giving the BC project as the reason.
To be sure, the BC project is not the only academic project using interviews that has brought oral history under a cloud of suspicion among activists. Despite the label “disaster”, and most likely rightly so, the BC project led to the publication of some groundbreaking writings, almost all sparked intense public debate. The first began with the publication of Richard O’Rawe’s Blanketmen. The former IRA prisoner decided to write the book after interviews with Anthony McIntyre, himself also a former IRA prisoner, for the BC project. A few years later, Ed Moloney published the book and TV documentary “Voices from the Grave”, including interviews with two deceased participants in the project, Brendan Hughes and David Ervine. Finally, November 2018 saw the release of “Say Nothing” by New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe, also an indirect result of the BC project.
Despite these publications, researchers tend to shy away from interviewing former Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. Yet, my own experience researching the Northern Irish Troubles convinced me that oral history is one of the most fruitful methodologies for uncovering hidden narratives and, thereby, providing a fresh understanding of the conflict.
For the past ten years, I have conducted oral history research in Ireland and Northern Ireland. First, in 2009/10 for my MA thesis, then, from 2014 to 2017 for my PhD thesis, and now, as part of my postdoctoral research project. Altogether, I recorded almost 100 interviews with Irish Republicans.
My first research project was about Irish Republicans that were active in the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan. I later published a German-language monograph and an article in Irish Political Studies, among other publications.
When I embarked on my research as an MA student, I had not anticipated becoming an oral historian. Instead, I became an oral historian partly by chance, partly by circumstances.
My initial research led me, as so many students, to the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. There, in the Northern Ireland Political Collection, to my disappointment, all material related to militant women in the Provisional Republican Movement was filed under “Women IRA”, no matter if they were indeed in the Provisional IRA or Cumann na mBan.
Some weeks later, I met a member of the 1960s Cumann na mBan leadership in Limerick. When the conflict in Northern Ireland erupted, Cumann na mBan, then the only paramilitary organisation that provided membership for women since the IRA was all-male until autumn 1971, decided to move the leadership from the south of Ireland to the north.
She told me that representatives of the old leadership and the new Belfast-based leadership held a meeting in Dublin. At that meeting, they handed all internal documents, including minutes, financial reports, correspondence between local branches, internal communique, etc., over.
The following year, she attended another meeting with members from the Belfast leadership in Dublin. She asked if the documents were safely stored in a “billet”, the term for safe houses of the IRA. To her great disbelief, she was informed that all documents were burned in a shed outside Newry, just north of the border. This step was justified because of “security concerns”, yet, to me, she said: “They also burned our history.”
By burning their internal documents, Cumann na mBan played its part in removing themselves from history books. In the historiography of the Troubles, Cumann na mBan appears as a mere footnote – at most. Over the following years, I was able to conduct 24 interviews with former activists of Cumann na mBan. Despite several difficulties, I was able to uncover parts of the hidden history of Republican women during the Troubles.
Despite the numerous obstacles faced by academics in researching post-conflict societies, oral history provides arguably one of the most fruitful and interesting avenues for researching war, conflict, and political violence. This avenue must not be left neglected due to the mistakes of those who went before us. On the contrary, these mistakes are a chance to learn from them and improve further oral history research on the Northern Irish Troubles.
Dieter Reinisch is an Adjunct Faculty member at the Webster Vienna Private University and a Lecturer at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg. He holds a PhD in History from the European University Institute and is an Editorial Board member of “Studi irlandesi” (Florence University Press). He is also an IFPH member, tweets on @ReinischDieter and blogs on www.ofrecklessnessandwater.com.