Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Sean O'Connell (a1)


This paper explores the risks and rewards involved in directing undergraduate students engaged on an oral history project in Belfast. It advocates the role of oral history as a tool through which to encourage students’ engagement with research-led teaching to produce reflective assignments on the nature of historical evidence, particularly autobiographical memory. The particular challenges of conducting oral history in a city beset by ethno-sectarian divisions are discussed. This factor has ensured that the historiography of Belfast has focused extensively on conflict and violence. The city's social history is poorly understood, but employing oral history enables the exploration of issues that take undergraduate historians beyond the Troubles as a starting point. This project probed what is called the troubles with a lower case t, via an analysis of deindustrialisation and urban redevelopment in Sailortown (Belfast's dockland district). It provided evidence with which to offer a new assessment on existing historiographical discussions about working-class nostalgic memory and urban social change, one that supports those scholars that problematize attempts to categorise such memory. The testimony also differed in significant ways from previous oral history research on post-war Northern Ireland.



Hide All

1 For further discussion of this, see Graham Smith, Historical Insights: Focus on Research – Oral History (Coventry, [2010]), 4.

2 ‘Photography during the Northern Irish Troubles’, Ulster Museum exhibition (June – November 2017).

3 Connolly, Sean, Belfast 400: People, Place and History (Liverpool, 2012).

4 Hepburn, A. C., A Past Apart: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast 1850–1950 (Belfast, 1996).

5 Munck, Ronnie and Rolston, Bill, Belfast in the Thirties: An Oral History (Belfast, 1987).

6 Gray, John, City in Revolt: James Connolly and the Belfast Dock Strike of 1907 (Belfast, 1985); Lynch, John, A Tale of Three Cities: Comparative Studies in Working-Class Life (Basingstoke, 1998); Loughlin, C. J. V., Labour and the Politics of Disloyalty in Belfast, 1921–39 – the Moral Economy of Loyalty (Basingstoke, 2017).

7 Barton, Brian, The Blitz: Belfast in the War Years (Belfast, 1990).

8 Elliott, Marianne, The Catholics of Ulster (2000); Elliott, Marianne, Hearthlands: A Memoir of the White City Housing Estate in Belfast (Belfast, 2017).

9 Boal, Frederick W. and Royle, Steven A., Enduring City: Belfast in the Twentieth Century (Belfast, 2006); Maguire, W. A., Belfast: A History (Lancaster, 2009).

10 Morris, R. J., ‘Urban Ulster since 1600’, in Kennedy, Liam and Ollerenshaw, Philip, Ulster since 1600: Politics, Economy and Society (Oxford, 2013), 121–39.

11 A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, ed. Michael Pierse (Cambridge, 2017).

12 David Park, The Big Snow (2002); Campbell, John, The Disinherited (Belfast, 2006).

13 See O'Connell, Sean, Credit, Class and Community: Working-Class Debt in the UK since 1880 (Oxford, 2009).

14 Interview with Mrs Rafferty (born 1904). Conducted by Sean O'Connell, 10 Oct. 2002. Where full names are used for interviewees, this is their real name. Pseudonyms are employed for interviewees that are still living. There is one exception, John Campbell, who is happy for his identity to be revealed.

15 O'Connell, Sean, The Motor Car in British Society, Class, Gender and Motoring 1896–1939 (Manchester, 1998); O'Neill, Terry, Terry O'Neill's Belfast (Belfast, 1999).

16 Interview with Terry O'Neill (born 1930). Conducted by Sean O'Connell, 15 Apr. 2001.

17 The Myths We Live By, ed. Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson (1990), 9.

18 Joanna Bourke, Working-Class Cultures in Britain, 1890–1960: Class, Gender and Ethnicity (1994).

19 Waters, Chris, ‘Representations of Everyday Life: L. S. Lowry and the Landscape of Memory in Post-War Britain’, Representations, 65 (1999), 121–50; Waters, C., ‘Autobiography, Nostalgia and the Changing Practices of Working-Class Self-Hood’, in Singular Continuities: Tradition, Nostalgia and Identity in Modern British Culture, ed. Behlmer, G. K. et al. (Stanford, 2000), 178–95.

20 Jones, Ben, ‘The Uses of Nostalgia: Autobiography, Community Publishing and Working-Class Neighbourhoods in Post-War England’, Cultural and Social History, 7 (2010), 335–74; Jones, Ben, The Working Class in Mid-Twentieth-Century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory (Manchester, 2012).

21 Gunn, Simon, ‘The Rise and Fall of British Urban Modernism: Planning Bradford, circa 1945–1970’, Urban History, 49 (2010), 849–69.

22 Weiner, Ron, The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill: People and Planning (Belfast, 1976).

23 Colin Coulter, Contemporary Northern Irish Society: An Introduction (1999), 88.

24 Ibid., 70.

26 Milne, Graeme, People, Place and Power on the Nineteenth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown (Basingstoke, 2016).

27 Lynch, A Tale of Three Cities, 35.

28 Loughlin, Labour and the Politics of Disloyalty, 79.

29 Hepburn, A Past Apart.

30 Interview with Sean H (born 1942). Interviewed 25 Mar. 2013 by Ryan Mallon.

31 Hepburn, A Past Apart, 48–54, 176–8.

32 Tin Bath Writers Co-op/Sailortown Cultural and Historical Society, Tin Baths and Mangles (Belfast, 2006); Denis Smyth, Sailortown: The Story of a Dockside Community (Belfast, n.d.).

33 Ibid., 2.

34 For those considering a similar module, reading might include Thompson, Paul and Bornat, Joanna, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford, 2017); Yow, Valerie, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Lanham, 2015); Abrams, Lynn, Oral History Theory (Padstow, 2010); Chandler, S., ‘Oral History across Generations: Age, Generational Identity and Oral Testimony’, Oral History, 33 (2005) 4856; K'Myer, T. E. and Crothers, A. Glenn, ‘“If I See Some of This in Writing I Am Going to Shoot You”: Reluctant Narrators, Taboo Topics and the Ethical Dilemmas of the Oral Historian’, Oral History Review, 34 (2007), 7193; The Oral History Reader, ed. Rob Perks and Alistair Thomson (2016); Jessee, Erin, ‘Managing Danger in Oral History Fieldwork’, Oral History Review, 44 (2017), 322–47.

35 Bryson, Anna, ‘“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”: Researching Memory and Identity in Mid-Ulster, 1945–1969’, Oral History, 45 (2007), 51.

36 Interview with John Clancy (born 1943). Interviewed by Tiarnán Ó Muilleoir, 12 Mar. 2013.

37 Interview with Mary H (born 1941). Interviewed by Francesca Owens, 25 Mar. 2013.

38 Chandler, ‘Oral History across Generations’.

39 Green, Anna, ‘Individual Memory and “Collective Memory”: Theoretical Presuppositions and Contemporary Debates’, Oral History, 32 (2004), 3544.

40 Smith, Graham, ‘Beyond Individual/Collective Memory: Women's Transactive Memories of Food, Family and Conflict’, Oral History, 35 (2007), 7590.

41 Interview with Kathy M (born 1933). Interviewed by Anne Donnelly, 26 Mar. 2013; Giles, Judy, ‘“Playing Hard to Get”: Working-Class Women, Sexuality and Respectability in Britain, 1918–1940’, Women's History Review, 1 (1992), 239–55.

42 Interview with John Campbell (born 1936). Interviewed by Rachel Sloan, 18 Mar. 2013; Campbell, John, Corner Kingdom (Belfast, 1999); Campbell, The Disinherited.

43 Campbell, John, ‘Sailortown’, in The Rose and the Blade: New and Selected Poems (Belfast, 1997). Note Sailorstown/Sailortown are both used with some claiming that Protestants are more likely to use the former.

44 Interview with Mary H.

45 Interview with Mary H, Emily H, Marie S, Briege H, and Annie G. Interviewed by Lindsay Johnston, 27 Mar. 2013.

46 Ayers, Pat, ‘The Making of Men: Masculinities in Interwar Liverpool’, in Working out Gender: Perspectives from Labour History, ed. Walsh, Margaret (Aldershot, 1999), 6683.

47 Interview with Tommy M. Interviewed by Hannah McDade, 22 Mar. 2013.

48 Ibid.

49 Lynch, A Tale of Three Cities, 35. For a discussion of the issue of ethno-sectarian relations in the Belfast labour movement, see Loughlin, Labour and the Politics of Disloyalty.

50 Loughlin, Labour and the Politics of Disloyalty, 122

51 The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places, ed. Steven High, Lachlan MacKinnon and Andrew Perchard (Vancouver, 2017), 6.

52 Interview with Tommy M.

53 Jones, ‘The Uses of Nostalgia’, 358.

54 This documentary was broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio 5 Live. It can be accessed on IPlayer:

55 Critical commentary by Duncan (pseudonym), Mar. 2013.

56 T. G. Ashplant, ‘Anecdote as Narrative Resource in Working-Class Life Stories’, in Narrative and Genre: Contexts and Types of Communication, ed. M. Chamberlain and P. Thompson (1998), 99.

57 Critical commentary by Anthony (pseudonym), Mar. 2013.


  • Sean O'Connell (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed