Reflected Lives: broadening the canvas of the past
An oral history project at a Belfast interface
by Allan LEONARD
10 April 2018
Joe O’Donnell (Strategic Director, Belfast Interface Project) told the audience that the auspicious date for today’s exhibition launch was no accident. With reference to the much-publicised conference at Queen’s University Belfast, featuring key political figures behind the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, O’Donnell said, “They’ll be talking about you”, the participants of the oral history project, Reflected Lives.
O’Donnell gave his own personal reflections on living in an interface area, coincidentally near the site of today’s event, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in east Belfast:
“I grew up within a few hundred yards [of here]. I remember Belfast when it didn’t have 100 walls, separating and segregating and dividing the city. I remember, and my children remember and grew up with the walls being put up… To my grandchildren today, the walls are normal, the walls are part of their everyday life. The walls are part of what they know and see.”
He described an aim of the project to explore the intergenerational experiences and attitudes towards the interface barriers, otherwise known as ‘peace walls’, where the current generation’s “normality would be our [older generation’s] abnormality”.
The question, O’Donnell said, wasn’t, “Do you want these walls up or down?”, but rather, “Would you consider a better alternative to life with walls?” He added that “life wasn’t great before the walls went up”, with socio-economic deprivation persisting for the nearly 50 years since the first wall was erected.
O’Donnell described his organisation’s work as being persuaders for peace and that projects such as Reflected Lives are one of a number of building blocks to encourage positive change in Belfast.
He screened a seven-minute introductory film that described the background and nature of the project, which began in 2017 between individuals from the Short Strand Community Forum and Charter NI. Through facilitated sessions, 23 oral histories were recorded, with additional media training provided by Bauer Academy to ten mentees.
Gareth Beacom from Charter NI discussed his involvement.
Meanwhile, David Corscadden (Head of Partnerships, Bauer Academy), which provided media training and equipment, explained how he was involved at the very start.
Anna Bryson (Senior Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast) was the next event speaker, who provided her reflections as an academic expert in this field: “Oral history is a way to bring history to life, to broaden the canvas of the past.”
Here she cited the work, The Voice of the Past, by Paul Thompson, who said:
“Since the nature of most existing records is to reflect the standpoint of authority, it is not surprising that the judgement of history has more often than not vindicated the wisdom of the powers that be. Oral history, by contrast, makes a much fairer trial possible: witnesses can now also be called from the underclasses, the unprivileged, and the defeated. It provides a more realistic and fair reconstruction of the past, a challenge to the established account.”
Bryson argued that this oral history project makes a small, positive contribution to community peacebuilding, by capturing a grassroots-based lived experience. She said that peacemaking can never be confined to the political sphere; it needs to be matched by grassroots community efforts.
She described the Reflected Lives book and exhibition as “a mere flavour of the rich tapestry of accounts that Rosie [Rosaleen Hickey, Research Officer] and her team collected over the course of the last year. Woven through these stories are the ups and downs of everyday life — childhood games, experiences of school, sport, recreation, courtship, marriage, work, rearing families — sickness, health, laughter, happiness. And of course, cutting through all of that the fear and pain and tragedy associated with conflict and division. At times the stories are uplifting — laugh out loud — heart-warming — but in a heartbeat, the tempo sometimes shifts to harrowing tales of injury, tragedy, and loss.”
“… In these stories there is the reality of cooperation coexisting with fear, friendship cut through with distrust.”
Bryson summed this up with an epigraph by E.M. Foster, on the human mission of connection: “This project I think not only captured a vitally important part of our local and community heritage; it also, in the contours of our everyday lives — brought to light vitally important fragments of our common humanity.”
Tony McCusker (Northern Ireland Committee, Heritage Lottery Fund) referenced the exhibition book in a personal anecdote on love and marriage. He described his first girlfriend breaking up with him because, she explained, “My mummy says you’re a Catholic, and I’m not allowed to go out with Catholics.” McCusker said that he didn’t know what was worse — discovering sectarianism or having much the female teenage population of Portadown now off limits!
On behalf of the Heritage Lottery Fund, he praised the project and expressed the Fund’s delight with all of its outcomes. He acknowledged that the Fund provides large investments in physical buildings, “but the projects that give, I think, most of us joy … are those projects like this, which involve local communities and particularly [its] young people”.
McCusker said that he liked the notion of remembering what life was like in these areas before the walls went up (this being represented by the intergenerational dimension of the project). He also highlighted the video clip that references virtual walls — interfaces without a physical barrier.
Like O’Donnell, McCusker put this project work in the context of the overall peace process. He recalled his time at the Northern Ireland Civil Service and his meetings with then Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, who once told him that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement “will go nowhere without the backing of the people”.
This project was backed by local people across the communal divide and across the generations.
It is a genuine building block of people and place in transition.