I emigrated from Ireland to Australia in December 1978 with my husband and two young sons. I flew from deepest, dark winter to the blinding white light of an Australian summer. Equipped with an Arts degree and curiosity about my new home, I found work wherever I could, pursuing an eclectic career in teaching, community service and policy development across three levels of Government – Local, State and Federal and across three different States – Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland. It was a wonderful time that gave me an opportunity to deepen my knowledge of the country and its people.
By 2002 I was living in Brisbane and looking for something new to absorb my energy. I had, for some years, been a regular broadcaster with the Irish program at the multicultural radio station, 4EB in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane. I interviewed many people on-air whose ancestry was Irish or part Irish and whose interest in Irish language, culture and particularly dance, drew them to the program. I was curious about their own and their families’ histories; the genesis of an idea for a project to record those histories began to grow in my mind.
I cannot recall exactly how I found my way to the Oral History Queensland Conference in 2002 but I have vivid memories of sitting in an Auditorium in the State Library listening spellbound to Robin Hughes, the then presenter of “Australian Biography” on SBS, speak about her interviews with some of the people who featured in the popular TV show. I joined OHQ and after workshops with Sue Pechey, Lesley Jenkins and Suzanne Mulligan, I started recording the stories of Irish migrants and the descendants of migrants to Australia. My methodology was to use a community developmental approach with the central theme revolving around migration and residual memory in families and communities of that foundational event.
The launch of the project, including a self-published book of the stories, at the then premises of the Irish Club in Elizabeth St brought all project participants together for the first time. It transpired that many had known each other at various stages in their lives and careers. The launch gave them the opportunity to reconnect with each other and re-engage with their own personal histories. That project, Journeys into Inheritance: Stories of Irish Migration to Australia 1867-1987 – recordings and book – was subsequently housed at the John Oxley Library for future research into Irish migration to Australia. The project led to a paper on the methodology used to find the interviewees and record their stories which was presented at the 2004 European Social Science History Conference in Berlin.
In 2007 I presented a Paper at the Oral History Queensland State Conference, Old Stories, New Ways. In this Paper, entitled Searching for Adam and Eve: how oral and family history contribute to building individual and family identity across intergenerational and international boundaries, I explored themes identified in the recorded stories, in particular the role of memento keeping and cultural iconography in memory transmission.
In 2008 I partnered with the New Farm Neighbourhood Centre in a community based, intergenerational oral history project to train younger residents to record stories from older residents about their lives and times around Fortitude Valley and New Farm. The suburb of New Farm was undergoing rapid development with many of the old landmarks disappearing to make way for new housing. The resulting stories of old trolley cars and trams rattling through Brunswick Mall and along Brunswick Street to New Farm, old dance halls now defunct, picture theatres and WWII American servicemen captivated the younger generation. The outcome was an online virtual museum replete with photos and mementoes of the old days.
Later that year I was commissioned to undertake a series of recordings with a retired Medical Administrator who travelled through Australian colonial Papua New Guinea as a young man overseeing community clinics and dispensing medical care to local people. He published the stories later in his local newspaper as a personal history.
A career highlight for me was attending a Masterclass in Sydney with the renowned Italian oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, whose reflections on memory and memory making have influenced my own thinking and practice of oral history.
Other community projects followed, such as one I led shortly after moving to the Southern Downs when the area was heavily impacted by the 2011 floods. Stories collected from that project reside in the local library.
I took part in a history seminar on the Warwick Egg Incident which commemorated the anti- conscriptionists of WWI and the “egging” of Prime Minister Billy Hughes at the Warwick Railway Station in 1917. Following a successful partnership with two academic historians and a family historian to present a paper that focused on the local, family and oral history of Warwick at the Irish Studies Association Conference of Australia and New Zealand in Sydney 2018, my colleague Pauline Peel, a family historian, and I presented our papers to an audience of 98 people at the old St Mary’s church in Warwick in March this year, days before the Covid-19 restrictions on such gatherings were announced.
Since the advent of Covid-19 I have used my time at home to pursue further online research into my own family background and the history of Warwick and District. Zoom meetings, Skyped conversations, online training and catching up on my reading through the State library online have opened up whole new worlds for me. I am looking forward to whatever comes next!