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  • Oral histories

    Friday, July 24th, 2009

    There has been a wonderful trend in recent years of collecting emigrants’ oral histories. Many of those contributing their memories are elderly, and these books, films and websites are an invaluable record of the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people, many of whom have extraordinary stories. Know of any other oral history projects? Drop me a line or fill in the comment box…


    Irish Oral History Archivea reference archive and resource for the contemporary and historical spoken narratives of Irish people at home and abroad, especially as they relate to the story of emigration. Luton Irish Forum – a variety of individuals detail their moves to England

    I Only Came Over For a Couple of Years… 2005 – Interviews with Irish elders in England who arrived between the 1930s and 1960s. (Half-hour documentary, £7 plus postage and packaging)

    Irish Elders Now project

    Dunne, Catherine. An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London. Dublin: New Island, 2003 – a book detailing the experience of older emigrants.


    A story to be told: Personal Reflections on the Irish emigrant experience in Canada (book)

    Memories of the Past: Reflections from Ottawa’s Irish Drop-In group – a collection of memories and recipes

    United States

    Archives of Irish America – Interviews with a range of notable people in the New York Irish community, discussing their life history and sense of identity.

    When Mem’ry Brings Us Back Again – the stories of 35 people who moved to New York between 1927- 1964. Available as both book and DVD.

    An Irish (American) Story (film, 1997) – The 96-year-old grandmother of the filmmaker recalls her emigration as a 17-year-old in 1911.

    The Gathering: Collected Oral Histories of the Irish in Montana – Funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs, this project is based in the University of Montana.

    Irish Dance in Arizona – Tracing the history of Irish dance in the American southwest since 1942.

    Crossroads Irish Oral History Project Archives of the San Francisco Bay Area – Funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs, the project looks at the Irish and Irish-American communities of the San Francisco Bay area.

    Molloy College – documenting the Irish of Long Island and the greater New York area.

    University of Notre Dame – Director of Notre Dame’s Department of Anthropology Deb Rotman is working on a developing an online archive of Irish-American oral histories.


    The National Library of Australia – has a number of Irish-related recordings in its oral history catalog.

    New Zealand

    National Library of New Zealand – has several oral history collections; contact them for Irish-related materials.

    Global and Irish-based

    GAA Oral History Project – recording what the GAA has meant to the Irish people, in their own words.

    Breaking the Silence: Staying at home in an emigrant society – examines the impact of emigration on those who stayed through 78 oral narratives and 12 text contributions.

    Returning to Ireland

    Narratives of Migration and Return – Stories of returning emigrants

    Coming Home: “Stories of young men and women who left Ireland and, after many years in exile, closed the circle of emigration by coming home again? – produced by the Safe Home project – also see their True Lives page.

    “I Only Came Over for a Couple of Years” records experience of London Irish

    Monday, May 11th, 2009

    Yet another oral history project detailing the experience of elderly Irish emigrants has come to your correspondent’s attention. “I Only Came Over for a Couple of Years”, a documentary that was completed in 2005, is now available on DVD from the Irish Studies Centre of London Metropolitan University. The film is a collection of interviews of Irish elders who came over to London between the 1930s and 1960s.

    The DVD is a production of the Irish Elders Now project, which is aimed at building a substantial video and oral record of a generation of Irish migrants to Britain whose stories and experiences have been underrepresented in other official records.

    For more information and to order the DVD, visit the Irish Studies Centre website.

    Emigrant stories make great Christmas gifts

    Friday, November 28th, 2008

    There have been plenty of emigration-related publications this year that would make delightful Christmas gifts. Several Irish centres have produced oral histories detailing the lives of emigrants to America and Canada, as well as the stories of those who have returned to Ireland.

    Here’s the rundown of this year’s publications:

    “Memory Brings Us Back: Irish Stories of Farewells and Fortunes”: This film by Derek Woods is the followup to “While Mem’ry Brings Us Back Again” – the 2006 hit book, produced by New York’s Aisling Irish Centre, detailing the lives of older Irish emigrants living in America. This DVD tells the stories of ten men and women who left for America between 1929 and 1965. With music by Joannie Madden, this film is sure to be a treat.

    Order both the DVD and the original book at the Aisling Irish Community Centre’s website.

    “Coming Home” – Frances Browner, the editor of “When Mem’ry Brings Us Back Again”, has returned to Ireland and compiled the tales of 36 emigrants who returned to their native land thanks to the help of the Safe Home organisation. Safe Home reports that this is a hot seller for Christmas. Their website says, “Frances Browner has conducted thirty-six fascinating interviews that highlight the heartache of leaving home; the struggles and successes of survival in a new land; the joy, and sometimes trauma, of returning.”

    Buy it at the Safe Home website.

    “A Story to be Told”: This gorgeously produced book tells the stories of 129 emigrants to Canada in their own words. Edited by Eleanor McGrath and with photographs by William C. Smith, this book reveals the diversity of the Canadian Irish experience, telling the tales of artists, mothers, a labour leader, a bus driver, a dance teacher, an actor, an engineer, an accountant. Their Irish identities are diverse as well, with tales of people from what seems like every possible background: rural farmers; Belfast Protestants and Catholics; Lithuanian descendants; Jewish Dubliners; American-and English-born, Irish-raised emigrants.

    Many of them express love for both Ireland and their adopted home of Canada: “Today I am a very proud Irish Canadian who is blessed to call two of the greatest places on the planet home”, says one interviewee in a sentiment echoed by many others – although some express greater loyalty to one country or the other. A moving book and a great addition to the increasing library of oral history books.

    Order the book from the Liffey Press.

    For another Canadian treat, Ottawa’s Irish Drop-In Group has created a wonderful miscellany called “Memories of the Past: Stories and Recipes from Ottawa’s Irish Drop-In Group?. The eclectic collection of reminiscences, poems, jokes, photographs and more is a splendid insight into the lives of the 40+ seniors in the drop-in group, which meets every week at Margaret Mary’s Church in the south end of the Canadian capital. This book has the most ‘home-produced’ feel, but with about 60 recipes, including for such traditional favourites as barm brack, colcannon, champ, porter cake, beef stew, and soda bread, this spiral-bound volume has much to offer.

    See the website for the Irish Society of the National Capital Region.

    For a musical treat (albeit a commercial one), check out “The Irish Scattering” from Galway traditional singer and musician Sean Keane. Available as both a CD and a DVD, the music tells diverse tales of Irish emigrants through the centuries, including the travels of Irish monks, Irish settlers in Montserrat, Irish soldiers abroad, and the Ulster-Scots in America. The CD features 16 songs; the DVD of the live performance features 28 songs with music and dancing from some of Ireland’s finest practitioners.
    Buy it at Sean Keane’s website.

    Any suggestions? Post them in the comments below.