Reflections on (Extra)Ordinary Lives

I confess, I am allergic to biographies of the famous and exceptional. My dad gave me some prime specimens when I was younger – the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Bird among others – and recently he even tried to interest me in new books about Abraham Lincoln. But I simply cannot finish one. Why? Some subjects perhaps seem anointed from the start, the products of circumstances far removed from the realities of my life and the lives of others around me. Others may have had the benefit of living in interesting times, but I never did finish Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography either, as much as I like his historical work.

Yet I find myself drawn to read and write the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people, those whose experiences many judge unremarkable. Historian Richard White’s mother told him ‘half jokingly, but only half, that her life was more interesting than my latest book. Why didn’t I write a book about her? I told her, not joking at all, that I would.’[1] The result is my favorite history book, Remembering Ahanagran. Its subject, Sara Walsh, would have remained anonymous outside her immediate circle of friends and family had her son not become a distinguished historian and taken up her challenge. I take the book off the shelf repeatedly and never get bored. In the space between history and memory White reveals much about life, the ways we tell our stories, and how, through them, we come to understand ourselves.

As I worked on my Ph.D. I started a collection of memoirs by Irish migrants – Angeline Kearns Blain, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Anna May Mangan, Seán Ó Ciaráin, any many more – picking up stories from the boxes and shelves of secondhand booksellers. If history remembers their names it is because they took up the pen. Many who did not still have stories to tell. As an oral historian, that realization motivates my work. Some of those I’ve interviewed are household names (at least in traditional music households); others are not, but that does not make their words or memories any less meaningful. Their stories have taught me about the human experience: what it means to be a migrant, why people hold onto their cultures, and what it felt like to live in the foreign country that was the past. In biographies of the famous, perhaps some of those fundamentals get lost amidst the action.

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[1] Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (Hill and Wang, New York, 1998), p.4.

The First World War & Irish Identity

I don’t often take the train from Cork to Dublin, but recently I did and for the first time I paid close attention to the memorial plaques along one wall of Heuston Station. In their own way, they encapsulate the debates over Irish identity and historical memory.

Sean Heuston plaqueFormerly Kingsbridge Station, its name changed as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The first plaque commemorates the man after whom the station is now named, Sean Heuston, Irish revolutionary and former railway clerk. It gives a brief summary, in Irish, of his life and role in the rising.

The second plaque reproduces the text of the 1916 proclamation on three, relatively bland, metal tiles. Though I was unable to find information about its origins, it’s likely that it also put up in conjunction with an Easter Rising commemoration.

The third looks the oldest and is, I think, the most interesting. It commemorates the staff of the Great Southern & Western Railway who ‘laid down their lives for their country in the Great War’. The ambiguity is striking. What country was their country: Ireland or Britain? While the inscription does enshrine the idea of patriotic sacrifice, it leaves open the question of the nation to which that patriotism was directed.

WWI plaque, Heuston Station

As many as 200,000 Irishmen served in the First World War and of those about 35,000 died. However, the context of the Home Rule crisis and subsequent Easter Rising meant that their enlistment was hotly debated at the time: Unionists joined up to demonstrate their loyalty; Redmondites enlisted to show their commitment to Home Rule; and many others simply welcomed the separation money, regular pay cheques, or sense of adventure.

Staunch nationalists opposed Ireland’s participation in ‘Britain’s war’ and saw being an Irishman and fighting for Britain as an irreconcilable contradiction. This view had a long and pervasive influence on historical memory. Keith Jeffery writes that ‘the prevailing orthodoxy in nationalist Ireland is that no true Irishman could possibly have joined the British army for patriotic and legitimate Irish reasons, or even (horrible thought) for a species of British loyalty.’[1]

Even those who enlisted realized at the time that their legacy would be contested. Tom Kettle justified his participation, arguing, ‘I have written no word and spoken none that was not the word of an Irish Nationalist’.[2] Poet Francis Ledwidge, reflecting on his life and decision to join the 10th Irish Division, asked, ‘how will I be accounted for?’[3] Patrick MacGill rejected attempts to view the war through the lens of patriotism, instead saying ‘the justice of the cause which endeavours to achieve its object by the murdering and maiming of mankind is apt to be doubted by a man who has come through a bayonet charge.’[4] He puts words in the mouths of those who lie dead, asking ‘what purpose has it served?’[5]

Placing these three plaques along the same wall gives a certain parity to their subjects. We are forced to consider the Easter Rising in its European context – the First World War – and to recognize that both events raised questions of national identity. Who are we to impose a brand of patriotism on those who did not or could not speak for themselves?

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[1] Keith Jeffery, ‘The First World War and the Rising: Mode, Moment, and Memory’, in Gabriel Doherty & Dermot Keogh (eds.), 1916: The Long Revolution (Cork. 2007), p.90.

[2] Tom Kettle, Ways of War (Constable & Co., London, 1917), p.72.

[3] Francis Ledwidge, ‘Soliloquy’, from The Complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge (Herbert Jenkins, Ltd., London, 1919), pp.259-60.

[4] Patrick MacGill, The Great Push: An Episode of the Great War (Herbert Jenkins Ltd., London, 1917), p.vii.

[5] Ibid.

In Memory of Roger Sherlock

I was saddened by the news that flute player Roger Sherlock passed away last week. He kindly welcomed me into his home in Bettystown, Co. Meath in May 2011 and shared stories about his life and music.

Roger was born in 1932 in Cloonfeightrin, Co. Mayo on the Sligo border and grew up surrounded by music: his grandfather played flute and whistle, his father sang, and his mother played melodeon. It was also a musical region: he went to the same school as fiddler and composer Brendan Tonra (late of Boston) and flute player Kevin Henry (now of Chicago) grew up about two miles away. While all these musicians were born on the Mayo side of the border, the region’s proximity to south Sligo and its famous fiddle players has led them to be associated with that tradition.

It was also an area with a high rate of emigration: Roger went to London in 1952 where the first musician he encountered was west Limerick flute player Paddy Taylor. During the mid-1950s he shared a flat and played music with Clare piper Willie Clancy. He led bands in the Irish dance halls and played with the Thatch Céilí Band when they won the All-Ireland title in 1986 and 1987. He also played regularly in the city’s many Irish pub sessions. Roger and his wife, Mona, returned to Ireland and settled in Bettystown, Co. Meath in 1994.

Roger Sherlock Memories of SligoAs a fellow flute player, one of the many things Roger and I discussed were flutes. He had a large collection, including some rather unique instruments. One of them is the beautiful ivory flute made in 1779 that he is pictured playing on the cover of his 1972 album, Memories of Sligo. In honour of Roger and the other men and women who have done so much to keep Irish music alive over the years, here is his story of how it came into his possession:

Did you ever hear tell of the White Hart in Fulham Broadway? I played there for twelve years. We used to play there three nights a week and Sunday morning. There was this gentleman from Killasser in County Mayo, he used to come in every Sunday morning. He was a contractor; he was a plasterer. He used to play the war pipes, you know the pipes with the drones on the shoulders, he used to play those and he used to play the flute. He had an accident at work with a mixer, you know them mixers? He got his arm caught in the mixer and it pulled his arm from here out, so that finished his playing. This Sunday morning, he was very dedicated to the music, this Sunday morning anyway he came in and he something wrapped up in paper under his arm. He came up to the stage to me and he said ‘Roger, I want you to have this.’ I said, ‘what is it?’ He said, ‘it’s something I want to give to you ‘cause I cannot play it anymore.’ So he said, ‘you keep it.’ That was it… Wasn’t it a lovely present? Tom Kenny was his name. He’s dead now, years. I could never forget, of course never will forget him. Until someday I hope I never will [sell the flute].

Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

Most of my oral history interviewees are male and the experiences they discuss are therefore also predominantly masculine. Consequently, at conferences I am often asked ‘what about gender?’ What this really means is ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what are you (a woman) doing studying men?’ I have yet to attend a presentation on women’s history where the speaker was asked ‘what about men?’ Gender history, though based on exploring ‘the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history,’[1] is all too often synonymous with women’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: considering gender is not the same thing as writing about women. In fact, to focus only on women is just as biased as to focus only on men. In order to write gender into history we need to consider both.[2]

Despite the fact that most of my interviewees are men, in my dissertation I’ve made a conscious effort to address how and why their experiences differ from those of their female contemporaries, relying on extant sources to supplement my own interviews. In terms of employment among post-war Irish migrants, workplaces tended to be gendered spaces. Irishmen worked predominantly in trades and manual labor (traditionally male occupations), while women moved into more traditionally feminine roles including nursing and clerical work. They came together in their social lives, meeting at church events, county associations, and dance halls. However, gendered experiences persisted. Men and women started the night on separate sides of the dance floor and a man generally had to ask a woman to dance. Some men may have wanted to get married or settle down, but felt tongue-tied even trying to approach a girl to ask her to dance. An inability to communicate well appears as a theme in discussions of loneliness and isolation among Irishmen. Others justified the fact that they remained single by saying they didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, in the words of one interviewee. Men were (and are) constrained by the expectation that they do ‘manly’ work and provide for a family and women were (and are) by the expectation that they bear and raise children. The latter has received far more attention in historical scholarship.

But the questions I am asked at conferences are not only about my subject of study; they are about my right to study it. Oral historians are taught to reflect on the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship:[3] Did they know each other before the interview? Are they of the same sex? The same race? The same age? The same generation? The same political outlook? How do these factors affect the interview? While these are important questions, they give the impression that there is a right or a wrong type of relationship. They suggest, for example, that a man could never get ‘the best’ interviews with feminist activists or that (in the words of someone who ran a training course I attended) ‘young people’ don’t understand their elderly interviewees. While undoubtedly a man’s experience is different from a woman’s and a teenager’s from an eighty-year-old’s, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Oral history is about listening, about capturing untold stories or hearing familiar ones in new ways. Though my interviewees and I have a common interest (Irish music), I am a different gender, a different generation, and a different ethnicity to most of them. This can lead to enlightening moments: descriptions of how people charged radio batteries in the days before rural electrification or of styles of dress in the 1950s. Because of the differences, they feel the need to explain what life was like and to reflect on why. Where tacit, mutual assumptions exist between interviewer and interviewee, stories may remain unspoken.

Last year Emma Watson launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign. In her speech, she reclaims the term feminism from its negative connotations and defines it as the support for equal rights and opportunities. It is therefore a men’s issue too, because they ‘don’t have the benefits of equality either’. She argues that gender inequality will not end if it is seen as an issue concerning only half the population: everyone needs to participate in the conversation and be part of the change. The same is true for academia: in Ireland, female students outnumber their male counterparts in third-level institutions, but women constitute only 29 percent of senior academic staff.[4] Ending gender inequality is about more than closing the achievement gap; it’s about changing attitudes. As historians, we need to extend the same courtesy to each other and to the past. Women’s history should not only be about, by, and for women; nor should history be only about elite white men. Gender in history – like class or ethnicity – needs the whole population in the picture for it to make sense.

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[1] Sonya Rose, What Is Gender History? (2010)

[2] Joanne Bailey, ‘Questions of Gender’, History Today, vol.64, no.6 (June 2014); Joanne Bailey, ‘Is the Rise of Gender History “Hiding” Women from History once again?’, History in Focus (2005)

[3] For example, see: Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2005), pp.157-87.

[4] Higher Education Authority, ‘Gender and Academic Staff’, figures based on Dec. 2013. Women are 29% of senior academic staff in universities and ITs in Ireland.

New on Oral History @UCC

This year’s crop of students have added their interviews to the class website, Oral History @UCC.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Quirke of the Irish Defense Forces spoke to Adam Mangan about his experiences as part of the UN Peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. He felt the Irish made particularly good peacekeepers: ‘I have often heard of situations where there would be conflict in a sort of a check point and… everyone would be shouting at each other. Suddenly the commander would come in and say to the fellow, the leader of the opposition and he would say, “hey, would you like a cup of tea?”‘

Two students focused on local sports in which they have a vested interest: Jason Abbott interviewed fellow Cobh soccer players David Curran and John Flanagan about relatively recent history. They discussed the relationship between the League of Ireland club Cobh Ramblers and the youth club, Springfield Ramblers and the sport’s strong community support. Curran recalls going to matches when he was young and says, ‘I’ll always remember how the stadium was full and everyone singing on one side of the ground. There was a great buzz about the place.’ Darren Collins, a graduate of Presentation Brothers College in Cork, interviewed three people involved in rugby union at the school. Denis Hegarty attended Pres in the 1960s and came back as a teacher and rugby coach in 1991 and felt  a great camaraderie existed between everyone involved in the sport: ‘Winning wasn’t the be all and end all. You wanted to win something, but you just wanted the lads to enjoy their sport.’

Another common theme was migration: Eve Millett-Trimble interviewed her mother, Carmel, who was born in Nottingham and moved back to Fethard, Co. Tipperary with her family at age twelve. She remembers the move through the eyes of a child: ‘The actual move of going to Ireland I was quite excited about. We’d always heard the stories about Ireland growing up. My father was a very good storyteller, raconteur, and all we ever heard about was how nice it was… We thought we were going back to this sort of wonderland the way dad described it.’ As an adult she re-migrated to England in the 1980s and then returned to Ireland with her family in 2000.

Conor Long interviewed Con Griffin, who migrated to England in the early 1960s and became a successful plasterer, running his own business. He returned to Ireland in 1990 and when asked if he felt Ireland was ‘home’ (at 9 minutes into the interview part linked) he said: ‘Yes, but it didn’t matter to me where, because I had left when I was a kid and really, when I come to think of it, my real home was probably London. You know, because I could get a little bit excited when there was a hurling match on and when Tipperary are playing Cork, just for the hell of it I might put out a flag and get all excited about Tipperary, but that would be only a one-day-wonder, ‘twould never last two days. I haven’t got that kind of, you know, thing about place or anything like that.’

Feel free too leave comments or questions about the interviews here or on the website.

As American As Pumpkin Pie: Thanksgiving in Cork

ThanksgivingIf the current academic job market gets the better of me, I might just become a baker. Well, maybe not, but I do enjoy baking and there’s no better time to use it to procrastinate than Thanksgiving. Having lived in Cork for several years now, it’s become a tradition for a few American friends to get together for a potluck-style Thanksgiving dinner. We’ve adapted the standard practices somewhat: we hold it on a weekend, so that we have time off for cooking and recovery; some ‘traditional’ foods are left off the menu due to lack of ingredients; we don’t watch football; and we’re a group of friends, rather than family. But we always manage to have a good time and eat too much!

Despite the changes, I think the holiday has a particular resonance for those of us living abroad. I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy Thanksgiving more living in Ireland than I did before, at least partly because like music – the subject of my research – the smells and tastes of familiar foods have a ‘visceral power’ to conjure up memories and ties to home and family.[1] Discussions with other Americans living in Ireland invariably turn to foods we miss – especially those we grew up with that can’t be made from scratch, or at least not easily. Historian Hasia Diner writes, ‘talking about food is a way of talking about family, childhood, community. Remembering foods open the floodgates of the past, as friends and acquaintances describe who they are, where they came from, and the textures and tastes of the time gone by.’[2] While she makes this statement in relation to ethnic food cultures in America, it applies to anyone living outside their native place or far from their family.

Pumpkin piesFor dinner parties I generally opt to contribute dessert. On previous Thanksgivings I’ve made apple pie, but this year I was lucky enough to have possession of a prized food item: a rare, 29-ounce, imported-via-suitcase can of pumpkin, enough to make not one but two pies. (Yes, I could cook an actual pumpkin and have done that in the past, but in the midst of a PhD I don’t have that much time to procrastinate). The ‘authenticity’ of pumpkin pie is debatable. Though pies were a common feature of early English cooking and pumpkins a staple of the early American diet, colonists at the first Thanksgiving(s) would not have had the flour or butter necessary for pastry. However, by the time President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863 pumpkin pies were well established in American cuisine. James Beard’s American Cookery, my favorite source for pie and cake recipes, has this to say about ‘pumpkin or squash pie’: ‘In the eighteenth century this, like all one-crust pies, was called a pudding. Yankees preferred the recipe made with pumpkin, while Southerners preferred sweet potatoes. Spices were not included until clipper ships made them a more common commodity, and molasses or sorghum was used [for] sweetening.’ The recipe as we know it today uses sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, evaporated milk or cream, and eggs combined with canned or freshly prepared pumpkin and baked in a pie crust. It doesn’t get more American – or more delicious – than that. Happy Thanksgiving!

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[1] Mark Slobin, ‘Music in Diaspora: The View from Euro-America’, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol.3, no.3 (Winter 1994), p.244.

[2] Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA & London, 2001), p.xv.

The Folk Revival in Story and Song

Dunaway & BeerSinging from the FloorOver the last several months I read two books that approach the twentieth-century folk revival(s) through the medium of oral history: Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals by David King Dunaway and Molly Beer (Oxford University Press, 2010) and Singing from the Floor: A History of British Folk Clubs by J.P. Bean (Faber & Faber, 2014). Both use oral history to great effect, adopting a similar format whereby the authors arrange interview quotations in dialogue in chronological and thematic sections. Dunaway and Beer’s book is based on interviews collected over more than thirty years, as well as additional sources, and historical narrative is interspersed with the voices of the participants. Bean’s work is somewhat more limited, being based only on his own recent interviews, thereby excluding singers who passed away in the intervening years (though many are discussed in absentia by their contemporaries). Taken together, they paint a broad picture of the trans-Atlantic folk scene in the twentieth century through the stories of its movers and shakers.

As I read these books, I realized that I was spending a considerable amount of time delving through my iTunes collection and the vast realms of YouTube listening to recordings of songs and singers mentioned in the texts. Neither book came with a CD or playlist, so I’ve created my own. These five songs receive prominent mention and encapsulate the development of the British and American folk revivals and the links between them across space and time.

1) Barbara Allen

The song ‘Barbara Allen’ originated in England or Scotland at least three hundred years ago. It appears as number 84 in Francis J. Child’s multi-volume collection from the late nineteenth century, English and Scottish Ballads. This work contains variations of 305 songs comprising a ‘canon’ found on both sides of the Atlantic, including two versions of ‘Barbara Allen’ (though dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of versions of the song exist). Jean Ritchie was born into a family of singers in Kentucky and rose to prominence on the folk scene from the late 1940s. She and her husband George Pickow received a Fulbright grant to travel to Britain and Ireland where they collected music and photographs. There they followed in Child’s footsteps by tracing links between the British, Irish, and American traditions, but unlike him they collected primarily from living people. This shift from collecting static, often edited, words on a page to live performance (enabled by improved recording technology), represents a key shift from the earliest folk collectors to the post-war revival.

2) Goodnight Irene

John and Alan Lomax found singer and twelve-string guitar player Huddie Leadbetter (‘Lead Belly’) at a prison in Louisiana. They recorded him for the Library of Congress and in 1936 published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. Though they parted company shortly thereafter, his songs and style had an enduring legacy. The Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Ry Cooder, and many others covered his song ‘Goodnight Irene’ over the years. As is apparent from this video, Lead Belly always dressed well when performing. Tom Paley recalls, ‘even at his house when it was just a gathering of other performers, he would be dressed to the nines. He would have a waistcoat on and a bow-tie, everything clean and trousers knife-edged. And when he did a number he would introduce it as he did on stage. It was a whole performance, a very formal kind of thing.’[1]

3) Tom Dooley

‘Tom Dooley’ is a ballad based on the life and death of Tom Dula, who was hanged for murder in 1868 in North Carolina. It was first recorded in 1929 and published by Alan Lomax in 1947, but The Kingston Trio brought it into the mainstream with their 1958 recording that hit #1 on the Billboard charts. They credit singer Frank Proffitt’s version as their inspiration. Dunaway and Beer call groups like the Kingston Trio ‘musical translators’ for their role in introducing a wider audience to folk song. As singer-songwriter Si Kahn says, ‘for everyone who sings “lay down your head Tom Dooley” the way the Kingston Trio did it, there is probably as many who went back and found Frank Proffitt, as far as we know, the earliest version recorded, and sing it exactly the way he does. So revivalism circles back to the roots and my guess is the music will survive all this.’[2]

4) Shoals of Herring

Across the Atlantic, the British folk revival was in full swing and people and songs went back and forth. Two of the most influential participants on the British side were Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, whose marriage in itself signifies the ties that crossed the ocean. While MacColl is sometimes disparaged for his purist tendencies and role in the conservative Critics Group, he was a powerful force within the movement and also wrote some very fine songs. ‘Shoals of Herring’ was written for the BBC Radio Ballad Singing the Fishing (broadcast in 1962) and has since entered the folk tradition.

5) Blowin’ in the Wind

The one person who gets the most space in both books is undoubtedly Bob Dylan. He went from being a kid who hung around Greenwich Village to a major force on an international stage. While still relatively little-known, he visited London for four weeks from 1962-3 and appeared in a few folk clubs, to a mixed reception according to Bean’s interviewees. However, his skill in penning lyrics was widely acknowledged and American folk musician Happy Traum recalled of first hearing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘it blew us away. I can visualize the moment’.[3] As one final link between oral history and the folk revival, listen to Studs Terkel interview a young Bob Dylan in 1963; he sings six songs, including ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

Dylan is, I think, a final key in understanding the transformation wrought by the folk revival: it moved along a bumpy road from the collection of ‘authentic’ versions of songs, written in print, to recording of living traditional singers, to refashioning those old songs, to adapting the melodies and ideas into new songs, and bringing those and the whole tradition behind them to a popular audience. Some disliked the way Dylan ‘borrowed’ or used songs he got from others without acknowledging them and others disliked the fact that he ‘went electric’, but if even one out of ten Dylan fans moved from his music to interest in its roots, then the folk revival was a success. Folk music can only be folk music if it is a living tradition to which each generation gives new meaning.

Bob Dylan at the Singers’ Club, London, December 1962

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[1] In Bean, Singing from the Floor, p.160.

[2] In Dunaway & Beer, Singing Out, p.131

[3] In Dunaway & Beer, Singing Out, p.124.