Life Histories and Social Change Archive

The collections illuminate the historical and social changes Ireland has undergone over the past century through real personal experiences.

Dr Irial Glynn

Life Histories and Social Change is a large collection of qualitative life story interviews with three cohorts of Irish citizens: those born between 1) 1916-1934; 2) 1945-1954; and 3) 1965-1974. Jane Gray, Seán Ó Riain, and Aileen O’Carroll developed the project, funded by the Irish Research Council, and researchers from NUI Maynooth conducted a total of 113 life history interviews between 2006 and 2008. From the collection, 100 have been made available for re-use through the Irish Qualitative Data Archive as full-interview transcripts on the Digital Repository of Ireland’s website. Of these, 37 come from cohort 1, 40 from cohort 2, and 23 from cohort 3. All names in the archive are anonymised.

Various publications have since emanated from projects linked to the development of the archive. Of particular note is Jane Gray, Ruth Geraghty, and David Ralph’s book in 2016 entitled Family Rhythms: The changing texture of family life in Ireland, which ‘aims to document and explain the changing rhythms, textures and meanings of Irish family life’ (p. 2). The book and various related articles devote extensive attention to documenting how Irish childhood, early adulthood, family formation, parenting, grandparenting and work have developed over the last century.

One article by Gray and Aileen O’Carroll, for example, looked at how education and class affected those who started out in difficult financial circumstances in Ireland over the course of the 20th century. They used quotes from the archive to excellent effect to support their argument that ‘some groups were able to accumulate economic and cultural resources in ways that enabled them to convert education to upward social mobility during key periods, whereas for others the system of education served to ‘shut them out’ from the project of the state’ (p. 708).

Although the scholars mentioned above are sociologists, the collection represents a treasure trove for historians because it touches upon so many significant themes and topics, as demonstrated by these audio clips on education, class, gender roles, community, religion, emigration, politics, Irish independence, mobility, food culture, work, social life, love and especially family relations and family dynamics.

Some stories that stand out from the transcribed interviews include one in which a woman born in the late 1920s recounted how her 10-year-old son with a serious life-threatening rare skin disease was saved by the next-door neighbour’s brother, a doctor on holiday from England. He saw the boy being brought out to the garden – he could not walk at the time – and called to the house to find out about his medical condition. He then arranged for an ambulance to pick the boy up the next morning from an airport in London – and so began the boy’s long road to recovery (A24 ‘Laura’).

The archive contains much of interest for my own research on Ireland’s migration history. For instance, one woman born in the late 1920s recounted how prevalent emigration to the United States was in the early twentieth century when talking about her family history. All her father’s six siblings ended up moving across the Atlantic. Her mother almost emigrated too: ‘Her uncles in America had bought her passage, for her to go to America with my aunt, and it was only five pounds and she withdrew the five pounds to get married’ (A19 ‘Irene’). ‘Irene’ later emigrated to England in the early 1950s, as did four of her siblings.

Various reasons are also provided for why emigrants chose to return to Ireland. One man born who came back from London in the early 1970s explained that ‘Things were supposed to be picking up here and that and we had learnt a bit on the building trade so we decided we’d come back and we got a couple of contracts […] to build rural houses’ (B14 ‘Bernard’).

The Life Histories and Social Change archive is not the only comparable collection available to researchers. The Digital Repository of Ireland, for instance, holds a range of oral history collections. One standout example is the openly accessible Magdalene Oral History collection, which contains 80 oral histories from survivors, relatives, members of the Religious Orders, and regular visitors to the institutions. Another is the Irish Women at Work Oral History Project, which contains interviews that describe the working lives of women in the Munster region from 1936 to 1960, as outlined in a previous short History Hub piece.

Outside of the Digital Repository of Ireland collections, there are some parallels with the Irish Folklore Collection’s Urban Folklore Project. More than 700 interviews were conducted with Dublin men and women in 1979 and 1980. The contents of the collection have been transcribed into 75 manuscript volumes available to consult at the Irish Folklore Collection but a sample of 10 digitised audio files is available on UCD Digital Library, as well as a large number of interview snippets relating to people’s memories and experiences of 1916.

Access to the full Life Histories and Social Change collection is restricted to bona fide researchers and teachers, and to students who are currently registered at a third-level academic institution. To request access to any of the restricted content use the Access Request option in the Digital Repository of Ireland or contact the Irish Qualitative Data Archive directly. A collection of short audio clips are openly available to the public here.

Similar international collections also exist. The British Library has excellent links to some of these collections here, including the BBC’s ‘The Listening Project’, an audio archive of people’s intimate conversations with a close friend or relative. The National Library of Australia has an extensive Oral History and Folklore Collection dating from the 1950s, much of which is available online. The US Library of Congress contains a range of collections, including the ‘Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938’ collection.

For this blog post, my plan had been to quickly browse through the collection to provide a general overview of its contents. But I found myself getting sucked in because of the incredible richness of the collections and the remarkable insights they offer into people’s extraordinary lives. They illuminate the historical and social changes Ireland has undergone over the past century through real personal experiences.

Dr Irial Glynn
UCD School of History