The idea for my PhD thesis, which later became a book, came initially from my parents-in-law. Sitting at the dinner table one night, my mother-in-law explained to me the story of her uncle, Richard ‘Stirling’ McGarry, who had joined the British army during the Second World War and came home to Belfast afterward suffering severe psychological trauma.
Richard was well taken care of by the British government, and had his extensive medical treatment paid for by London. We speculated what would have happened to Richard if he had returned to a home over the border in Eire. Considering that southern Ireland was neutral during the war, and Richard was an ex-British soldier, would he have had access to medical treatment? Would he have gotten a pension? Who would have paid for his upkeep, Dublin or London?
I knew that approximately 60,000 Irish men and women had joined the British forces during the Second World War, and that some of them must have returned home after 1945. They, then, must have faced the same question: what happens when a veteran of war returns to a country which has been neutral in the conflict? This was the original spark which launched me down a six-year path of writing and research which culminated in Returning Home: Irish ex-servicemen after the Second World War.
What struck me straight away is that although wars are generally described in terms of military strategy, movement of armies and battles, at the core of it are the individual stories of millions of men and women. Ireland’s diplomatic and economic connections to the Second World War were already well-researched, so I determined that the centrepiece of my work was going to be the oral testimony of the men and women from Ireland who volunteered for the war.
This presented a significant logistical problem: how to find the veterans? Letters and advertisements in local and national newspapers yielded few sources. However, organisations such as the British Legion and the Organisation of National Ex-Service Men and Women provided lists of people who were willing to speak, as did regimental history bodies, such as the Connaught Rangers Association and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association.
That, however, led to another issue: how to interview people? I had no oral history experience at all, so sought guidance from other historians, which was very helpful. However, the best practical information I got was from a psychologist. She taught me things like using silence and the importance of eye contact, but the most useful piece of advice she had was on ‘barriers’: i.e, keeping a clear space between you and your source. This was very important as I had a sizeable (and noisy) tape machine for recording the interviews, and I noticed that it was a distraction: it was so bulky that the speaker’s eyes were drawn towards it, and it was so noisy that it often interrupted conversations. Eventually, I bought a much more discreet digital one, and these problems vanished.
There are other, more abstract problems that the oral historian has to face, and one of them is the unreliability of memory. The human ability to recall something can be erratic and the problem is magnified by the passing of the years.
By the time I interviewed Irish veterans, most were in their eighties (one was 94) and they were trying to describe events which took place over sixty years ago. There is very little the interviewer can do about this, other than to carefully check all facts which are recorded. A further complication is the fact that, for many, the war was a traumatic experience: the act of remembering is a form of re-living, which can be painful. For instance, some Irish veterans were deeply reluctant to speak about what they saw at German concentration camps they helped to liberate. As a researcher, it is difficult to balance the need to extract facts and to avoid distressing your interviewees. Equally important, however, is the fact that graphic or shocking testimony can have an impact on the researcher as well. This is a definite issue when dealing with veterans of war, and needs to be taken into consideration when interviewing them.
The final major obstacle which confronts the oral historian is that testimony is often filtered through layers of secondary sources. The Second World War is probably the most heavily researched area of history, and this means that many veterans’ opinions and attitudes were shaped and defined by what they absorbed over the years, through books, articles and documentaries. This can seriously distort oral testimony. For example, an Irish veteran described for me, in great detail, the very heavy resistance the Germans offered to the Allied landing at Anzio in 1944, but he blamed the ultimate failure of the operation on the caution of the Allied commander, General Lucas – a claim which first appeared in Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War, published just after the end of the conflict. Military experts, both then and since, have argued that the landing failed because it was not strong enough, but it was Churchill’s opinion which lodged in the public consciousness, and was then repeated as fact by my veteran, even though he had seen with his own eyes the ferocity of the German defences. The only way to avoid this is to be thoroughly familiar with the secondary literature of the area under research.
However, despite the problems, oral history can be one of the most rewarding aspects of historical work. Personal testimony lends colour and vibrancy to research in a way that archives and documents simply cannot. It also fills in gaps that documents invariably leave blank: it conveys the anticipation of going into battle, the fear of being under fire, the pain of being wounded, the exhilaration of surviving the war, the guilt of losing friends. As long as it is always carefully fact-checked and balanced with printed sources, it can be incredible resource to use.