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In Our Day by Kevin C Kearns: memory gathering turned into important Dublin history

Book review: A social historian’s valuable and colourful oral history of the capital

In Our Day: An Oral History of Dublin’s Bygone Days
In Our Day: An Oral History of Dublin’s Bygone Days
Author: Kevin C. Kearns
ISBN-13: 978-0717195596
Publisher: Gill
Guideline Price: €24.99

In the mid-1960s the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Studs Terkel published his classic book of oral history, Working, which became a bestseller in America. The collection of interviews featured the stories of ordinary people and had a profound influence on a young social historian Kevin C Kearns who set off for Dublin to replicate Terkel’s style. Subsequent visits over the next five decades during which he made 42 summer research trips led to his preserving the city’s vanishing history by gathering stories from a range of people.

Dubliners, Kearns quickly realised, are addicted to the rich tradition of yarn spinning and storytelling. Those he spoke to included horse-dealers, lamplighters, park-keepers, shoemakers, pigeon-fanciers, shipwrights, buskers, publicans, Trinity porters and the bell ringers of Christ Church. Kearns built up a rapport and collaboration with many of his informants creating an atmosphere of trust and candour. To win their confidence he wore jeans and a casual shirt since he did not want to be mistaken for another “lost Yank” wandering the streets.

Some examples provide a flavour of the spontaneity to the personal details: Mary Kilmartin, a flower seller in Stoneybatter whose shop dated back to 1897: “In the 1950s a man wouldn’t carry a bunch of flowers … but today I have men who come in and arrange their own flowers and they’re twice as fussy as women!” David O’Donnell, a master cooper at Guinness: “They even had a burial society where you’d put in so much into it — the fellas nicknamed it the ‘Bury Yourself Society!’” Bill Cregan, a newspaper seller on O’Connell Street: “I’m well-known, like a landmark.”

A legendary garda, Tom Troy from Store Street station, befriended Kearns and spent days walking beside him on his beat meeting people of all ages, dispensing information about rough-and-tumble areas. On one occasion, in what the author calls a “high-risk” neighbourhood, his worst experience was having pails of dirty washing water dumped on him from balconies, but this was the exception as the vast majority of his thousands of contacts were generous and he made many lasting friendships. For him memory recollection has turned into important urban history.

Paul Clements

Paul Clements is a contributor to The Irish Times