The value of people’s stories

On Tuesday I attended the first talk in a series called Women’s Stories, a collaboration between Near FM Community Radio and the Trinity Long Room Hub. The talk, titled ‘Late the wife of…’: Widows and the 1641 Depositions, was hosted by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer of the School of Histories and Humanities. The afternoon offered a glimpse into Irish history and I was fascinated by what we could learn from the widows’ accounts and testimonies after the 1641 Irish Rebellion.

It reminded me how people’s personal stories, if treated with understanding and respect, can add value to society and be a powerful tool to process grief and trauma. Having said this, I think it’s important to consider how these stories are told and received. Today, stories are told in a very different format to the 1641 depositions. Social media is one of the first things that come to mind since it’s so easy to share photos, status updates and ‘stories’ on digital platforms. Documentaries, fictionalised versions of history, series and films are readily available on television and streaming platforms. People read the news, blogs, magazines and books… These channels give us unprecedented exposure to other people’s stories. This is something we’re all aware of, but on Tuesday I was reminded why it is important to think about how we consume these narratives.

It’s easy to make assumptions based on the stories we encounter…

It was interesting to see what the windows’ accounts revealed (and concealed). The 1641 depositions provide insight into the social and political circumstances of the time and I was intrigued by how women were portrayed. For example, many women’s accounts indicate they were knowledgeable businesswomen, actively participating in the small-scale credit system at the time, but Prof. Ohlmeyer stressed the importance of considering these stories within the broader context. Were these women from a specific social and economic group? How accurately can we make assumptions about something like ‘women’s roles’ based on their stories? For example, most of the widows who testified identified as ‘British Protestants’. Based on the political situation of the time, one should be mindful of how these stories could be abused as political propaganda. Understanding the political and social context, and looking at these stories alongside other resources, is critical for a well-rounded understanding of these accounts. This is true even today – do you read newspapers with similar political views to your own? Do your social media friends represent a social and economic demographic that’s familiar to you or do they represent a more diverse group of people? It’s easy to make assumptions based on the stories we encounter, and even though those stories are true and relevant to the people sharing them, they do not necessarily represent ‘the truth’ for everyone.

I was also struck by the ‘silences’ and gaps in the widows’ accounts. Not one case of rape was recorded during the testimonies, which seems suspicious considering the violence and humiliation these women testified to. According to Ohlmeyer, if one considers the stigma around rape at the time, it’s understandable that a woman might have omitted such details from her account to protect her modesty and her family’s honour. Another factor that might have contributed to this strange silence is the fact that it was often clergymen conducting the depositions. This shows how important it is to read between the lines and to consider the blank spaces. Just because someone doesn’t share their #metoo story on Facebook, doesn’t mean there’s no story to share.

Stories are a way for people to share and express their emotions…

Even though the purpose of the depositions was to take stock of the financial losses people faced, the widows’ testimonies were highly personal and emotional accounts of their trauma and loss. There is value in allowing victims of horrific events to voice their stories, as it can be a way to process these events. It can also rebuild self-worth when people feel like their story is important and worth telling. A collection of stories, like the widows’ accounts, also allows society to process emotions around tragic events. This prompts me to think about the way people share stories on social media, whether it’s rain forests burning down, a tragic accident or a favourite sports team’s victory – it’s a way for people to share and express their emotions.

You might be wondering what’s the value of looking at stories from the past. The more I heard on Tuesday afternoon, the more the answer became clear to me. As shocking as the details from the widows’ accounts are, it all sounded very familiar. For example, the refugee crisis caused by the 1641 civil war echoes some of the realities we’re facing today. The scale and intensity of these issues cause many people, including myself, to close themselves off emotionally because it feels too vast and too painful to deal with. By listening to stories from the past we quickly pick up on the familiarity and relevance, and it makes the issues we’re faced with today feel more real and urgent. People’s stories have value because it provides context and important lessons or warnings, it creates empathy, and it contributes towards our understanding of history and the world today.

I think it’s a good thing for people to voice their stories and it’s even more important for us to listen to those stories. But we need to be careful how we go about this and be honest about how these narratives support or disrupt our views. Hopefully, this awareness will allow us to be responsible and respectful when we choose to share and listen to others’ stories.

This talk is part of a series hosted by Trinity Long Room Hub and Near FM and they have a number of similar events lined up. You can attend these for free at Trinity College or you can listen live on www.nearfm.ie/livestream or catch-up with the podcast on www.nearfm.ie/podcast

The widows’ accounts are only a fraction of the thousands of depositions recorded after 1641. These are all available online at http://1641.tcd.ie/ if you are interested to explore this topic some more. 

Here are some of my favourite stories on the blog: No time for lonely roads, Dreams, dirt and personal growth, and Lost in London.

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