On Monday September 29th I was privileged to be at Belfast City Hall to witness the ‘Pieces of the Past’ Project publicly unveil a book of 118 excerpts from 97 oral history interviews which were collected between 2012 and 2014, from people whose lives had in some way converged with Northern Ireland’s euphemistically named ‘Troubles’. It has to be conceded that every year there are hundreds of books written about the Troubles and a reasonable number of those are oral histories, but I am of the opinion that ‘Living Through the Conflict’ stands out for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is the composition of the partnership behind the publication; Falls Community Council, Shankhill Women’s Centre, EPIC (former Loyalist prisoners), Forbairt Feirste (Irish language agency), Charter NI (East Belfast Regeneration), Fáilte Feirste Thiar (West Belfast Tourism), West Belfast Taxi Association and the Shankhill Area Social History/ SASH group. Anyone with even a tiny amount of knowledge with regard to Belfast’s cultural geography would recognise this as a partnership that spans the city’s Unionist/Loyalist and Nationalist/Republican working class demographic, which is significant when you consider these communities are amongst those that suffered the greatest direct impact of the Northern Ireland conflict and associated sectional division in the three decades after 1969.
Consequently, the task of gathering and then encompassing an equally inclusive range of first person narratives (including 2 members of Veterans For Peace UK) within the pages of one publication can be described as a stand out achievement because it has required every stakeholder to develop and invest trust where very little previously existed. How successfully this has been achieved is reflected in a confident and brave editorial decision to present the interview excerpts without interpretation or any overreaching context. Although I would hasten to add that the skill with which this has been done means the decision does not impinge on the number of themes and analogies that can be discerned from the pages of the publication.
Furthermore, the achievement in bringing this about is greatly magnified when you consider ‘Living Through the Conflict’ essentially introduces an oral history collection composing 100 hours of audio recordings and 2000 pages of transcripts, which in line with the inclusive nature of the Pieces of the Past project are all deposited together in a publicly accessible electronic archive called Dúchas (the Irish word for ‘heritage’ or ‘the experiences that make us what we are’). This is in addition to the concurrent organisation of events which have allowed the projects diverse constituents and the wider public to discuss challenging topics in a way that is respectful of differing viewpoints.
In sum, ‘Living Through the Conflict’ is an invaluable and enlightening addition to existing historiography, as well as something that stands out as a remarkable testament to the commitment, leadership and courage shown by all those who have contributed to a project that affirms the experience of individuals affected by the conflict, promotes cross community understanding and leaves a permanent legacy for the future generations who will ultimately shape the post conflict landscape of my adopted home.
Lee Lavis is a member of Veterans for Peace UK who settled in Belfast after completing a roulement and residential tour of Northern Ireland/ the North of Ireland as an infantry soldier during the early 90s.