Ireland's Military Story

An Seanchaí – The Storyteller

An Seanchaí – The Storyteller

The Irish Military Heritage Foundation’s oral history programme

Dr. Joseph Quinn interviewing World War II and D-Day veteran John Robert ‘Bob’ Leeper, Royal Engineers, in the Tinnypark Nursing Home,, Kilkenny on 8 April 2017. Bob sadly passed away on 19 June 2018 aged 96. (Photograph by Ken Mooney)

The tradition of storytelling in Ireland is as ancient as the island itself. The art of telling a story lives on in the people of Ireland and the wider Diaspora. In ancient and medieval Ireland, the written word was confined to the learned few. Histories and stories were passed on to generations by the Seanchaí. Through their oral storytelling these ‘custodians of the past’ engaged the imagination of the people and brought to life Ireland’s history, folk and lore. In tribute of this long-standing Irish tradition we have adopted An Seanchaí as the title for our oral history programme.

Oral History

Through the medium of oral history recordings, our programme aims to capture the personal accounts of Irish people and the wider Diaspora. Our recordings take a biographical approach which allows the interviewee to tell their story as they remember it: Our leading question – What’s your story? The personal nature of oral recordings gives Ireland’s past a voice, capturing for future generations all aspects of our culture, heritage and identity: architecture, art, commerce, community, diaspora, economic, education, folklore, history, innovation, landscape, nature, people, politics, religion, science and technology, social life, and sport.

Oral history is a wonderful way of engaging with people. An oral history and heritage project ensure every voice is heard and their stories are preserved for future generations. Recording interviews with members of the community captures their reflections and perspectives on their lives.

Most of our oral histories are with generations over 60. As a priority we do our best to identify and record the older generations; who we regard as a national treasure. Within this older group are those from the ‘greatest generation’: the nonagenarians – those born in the 1910s and 1920s and aged in their 90s today or older. These nonagenarians have quietly become the fastest growing group of older people. They possess an invaluable window into our past; once they are gone that window is shut forever.

Why undertake an oral history and heritage project

  • Every voice matters
  • Puts people at the centre of the project
  • An oral history and heritage project will engage members of the local community
  • Reach a diverse audience
  • Add to the existing history of the local area
  • Gather stories that will help preserve its heritage
  • Give a voice to those whose stories have yet to be told
  • Offer a window into the area’s past
  • Give insight into the areas culture and identity

Wesley Bourke with Vietnam veteran Michael Coyne from Jenkinstown, County Meath on 18 January 2017. (Photograph by Ken Mooney)

Collections

The oral histories for this programme are recorded through two collections:

  • The International Irish Military Veterans Oral History and Heritage Collection
  • The International Irish Oral History and Heritage Collection (currently in development)

Each collection undertakes targeted projects either for the Foundation’s programmes or commissioned projects for companies, heritage offices/sites, museums, or organisations.  Our oral histories take a biographical approach allowing the interviewee to tell their stories and experiences of everyday life; this approach has a twofold purpose: to give the researcher rich material to analyse while the interviewees have an opportunity to learn about themselves. All recordings follow the best practices set out by the Oral History Network Ireland. These collections are further complemented by recordings and articles by colleagues, comrades, family and or friends.

With the permission of the interviewee their edited interview and any archive photographs provided appears on our YouTube channel and or transcribed and published as an article on our website; ensuring these stories are available to all. The full recordings and archive material are deposited in partner national or county archives.

The International Irish Military Veterans Oral History and Heritage Collection

At the heart of this programme are servicing personnel and veterans of the armed forces and auxiliary services. The sacrifices made by these men and women have guaranteed our economic, political, and social freedoms; build and defend democracy at home and overseas; and at times put their lives on the line so others may live. Most service personnel and veterans are humble and modest regarding their service. Their service, however, should not be forgotten.  The exploits, lives, and sacrifices made by these people should be honoured, recorded, and preserved so we can remember them today and neve forget them tomorrow.

Today there are approximately 250,000 ex-service personnel of the Irish Defence Forces, British Armed Forces, and auxiliary services such as Civil Defence and the Irish Red Cross currently residing in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Additionally, there are several thousand ex-service personnel Irish born or of Irish extraction who have served in other armed forces around the world, including the American, Canadian and Australian armed forces, who live on the island of Ireland.

Currently there remains a small number of ex-service personnel who served in the British and Allied forces during the Second World War (1939 – 1945) and with the Irish Defence Forces during the Emergency period (1939-1946). The number of surviving Irish ex-servicemen and women who have served in post-war conflicts with foreign armed forces, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars, or on United Nations peacekeeping service with Irish forces in the Congo and Cyprus, is becoming smaller every year. Although a certain amount of testimony has been recorded from some of these brave men in recent years, there is comparably little documented testimony from ex-servicewomen who served in auxiliary branches or non-military medical services.

This collection further sets to record the story of civilian members of the public who were born in, grew up in, or worked in military establishments throughout the country. Their stories are equally valuable, as members of Ireland’s ‘military diaspora’ and Ireland’s ‘military community’, and the foundation wants to record all such testimony for the benefit of future generations.

The collection, is a trans-national undertaking aiming to preserve the contribution Irish service personnel have made to international peace and democracy worldwide. This  collection will contribute to the growing diversity of modern Irish historiography by recording, for the first time, the testimonies of all ex-service personnel and civilians connected to the military from both the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Diaspora who have served at home and abroad through living service personnel, veterans, and family members.

This collection aims to:

  • Record and preserve the oral histories and heritage of Irish service personnel, military veterans and their descendants, and local histories around the world
  • Foster relations amongst Irish serving personnel and veterans throughout the world
  • Develop transnational and local partnerships amongst third level institutions, archives, museums, veterans’ organisations and libraries
  • Educate the public on the contribution made by and continued to be made by Irish service personnel

This will be achieved through:

  • Partnerships with armed forces and veterans’ organisations throughout the world
  • High resolution video and audio recordings
  • High definition scans of photographs
  • Publication of testimonies and histories on the foundation website with access to all
  • Uploading of edited video of interviews on the foundation website with access to all
  • Production of heritage programmes for upload to foundation website with access for all 

The collection sets out to record the oral histories of Ireland’s ex-service personnel by developing relationships with other organisations and ex-service charities, including the American Legion, Irish United Nations Veterans Association, Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, Royal Air Force Association, Royal British Legion, Royal Navy Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and in collaboration with the numerous battalion and regimental associations, and auxiliary services such as Civil Defence, the Order of Malta, the Irish Red Cross, and the St. John Ambulance Corps. 

This is the first Irish oral history collection of its kind, encompassing local, national, cross-border, and trans-national dimensions. It will prove to be an invaluable resource for future generations, and a tribute honouring and remembering those who have served.

Methodology

The collection takes a multi-disciplinary approach, covering a variety of areas, including: family history, local history, military history, women’s history, cultural & social history, diaspora studies, international relations and political science. This collection is located in the field of modern social and cultural history.

Throughout recent decades, contributions to military history from cultural historians have been reciprocated by interest from military historians in social and cultural history. This resulted in burgeoning war studies scholarship. The use of oral history as a foundational source for such studies in recent decades has significantly enhanced the quality of these contributions.  Examples of previous oral history collections which have transformed our understanding of the role and feature of military recruitment and voluntary military enlistment in Irish society include: Military Archives Oral History Project, the University College Cork Volunteers collection (UCCVPA) and the Imperial War Museum Sound Archives (IWM SA). This collection, however, is unique in terms of it’s scope, scale and inclusiveness. It seeks to examine and assess military and civilian service by Irish people, both at home and abroad, in Irish and foreign uniform, and, during wartime and peacetime. 

The collection has four methodological approaches:

  1. adopts a transnational, all-island approach, to oral history testimony, which will help to correlate recruiting patterns in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and especially cross-border military recruitment trends.
  2. explore preconceptions of military service in connection with community, family and popular culture. It will be the first to undertake a qualitative analysis of oral history testimonies as part of the cataloguing process, in order to observe patterns and trends of recruitment, as well as influencing factors and motivations. This will be achieved through the drafting of a questionnaire template, through which each interview testimony will be separately assessed.
  3. anonymous sampling methods in order to enable a demographic survey of a wide range of participants, revealing crucial information such as family and social background, religion, education, affiliation, pre-and post-service employment, along with the details of each participant’s service.
  4. provides a summary of the political, social and cultural history of Irish military and non-military service in terms of opportunities provided by the Irish state and by other countries, such as Britain, Canada, France and the United States, and their respective armed and civil forces.

Principles and Best Practices

All oral histories are conducted with the full permission of the interviewee and follow the Principles and Best Practices set out by the Oral History Network Ireland and the Oral History Association. Ethical issues may arise concerning the use of oral sources obtained from subjects who are still living, or only recently deceased.  In addition, there are Research Ethics workshops held on a monthly basis at University College Dublin to provide instructions and guidance on how to approach ethical issues with regard to academic research.

Recording the story of Irish Defence Forces veteran Dr. Cathal Berry TD for the Kildare Veterans’ Project on 17 July 2020 in Newbridge County Kildare. (Photograph by John O’Byrne)

Current Projects

Dublin Port’s Emergency Story – This heritage and oral history project looks at the strategic importance of Dublin Port during the Emergency 1939 – 1946, and the men who served in Dublin to protect it. There are only a few members of the Irish Defence Forces left from this period. This project is funded by Dublin Port Authority.

Kildare’s Veterans’ Story – This project sets out to interview and record military veterans living in County Kildare. The project, funded by Kildare County Council, sets out to interview veterans from a broad spectrum. The recordings are being aided with the help of the Irish United Nations Veterans Association, the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel, and the Royal British Legion.