Bad jokes, fighting cats, and odd uses for prams: snapshots of Irish daily life
While newspapers from November 12th, 2011, full of President Michael D Higgins’s inauguration and boasts of Ireland’s footballing victory against Estonia, are preserved in archives, the particulars of what ordinary people did that day fall through the net of official record.
However, thanks to a team of dedicated Dubliners who recorded their every move from rising to sleeping that day, we know that it was unseasonably warm; silver at first light with mackerel clouds to the southwest. We know that at 4.07am, a woman in Monkstown woke abruptly from a strange dream to hear cats fighting in her garden.
Out in Stillorgan later that morning, a joke to a fellow shopper in the supermarket bread aisle went down badly, while a father marooned in a hospital bed won €4 on a scratch card. In the sunshine of a winter afternoon, two friends practised their hula-hooping in Phoenix Park as two former friends passed each other wordlessly in the shadows of Henry Street.
Driving home in the dark that evening, a mother and daughter discussed the importance of remembering the dead, while across the city at 9.10pm, the moon was so bright it was mistaken for a new street light and examined through binoculars.
To some, such details are inconsequential. To others, myself included, there’s something magical about this sort of trivia frozen in time. It provides a snapshot of life at one very particular moment; a record of the small joys and disappointments of a single day.
The group of volunteers who participated in this “day-survey” on November 12th were part of a month-long city-wide project called Mass-Observation Dublin. Some 124 people, recruited by radio, website and email appeals and ranging in age from 21 to 72, agreed to devote the month of November 2011 to observing themselves and the people around them.
The day-survey was accompanied by weekly questionnaires, in which contributors gamely revealed everything from the contents of their wardrobes and their typical Saturday night entertainment, to a list of all they ate on a particular day and how they felt about their jobs.
They were also encouraged to watch and listen as they travelled around the city; counting, itemising, storing up anecdotes, sketching and taking photographs.
The venture was inspired by a social study of the same name that first took place in the UK in 1937 and continued for many years, involving voluntary observers watching and listening on the streets of Bolton and London, filling out regular questionnaires known as “directives”, and keeping a more detailed diary on the 12th day of the month, just as we did.
The original project was prompted by newspaper coverage of Edward VIII’s abdication and subsequent marriage to divorcee Wallis Simpson, which the Mass-Observation team – led by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, an anthropologist, poet and film-maker respectively – felt had failed to capture the public mood. Their aim was to create a comprehensive survey of ordinary people’s feelings and activities.
Nothing was beneath their attention; from snippets of overheard conversations to the number of people wearing tweed overcoats on a given day; from a survey of window displays to the average number of chips in a six-penny portion. Volunteers were also encouraged to watch out for particular things of interest from a regularly updated list.