The Deaf Heritage Centre, located within Deaf Village Ireland in Dublin 7, was set up in 1999 by a group of past pupils of St Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys, Cabra. The initial aims of the group were to collect and preserve the priceless artefacts from this school. Since then, it has expanded its reach to include other schools and organisations, including deaf clubs around the country.
Kevin Stanley, a Deaf Heritage Centre committee member and grants advisor, explained who the centre is for, and why it’s so vital in the preservation of the history of the deaf community in Ireland.
“The Deaf Heritage Centre is a voluntary organisation, and a registered charity with the Charities Regulator. The committee are volunteers, and I assist with the grants opportunities for the centre, including the Heritage Council,” Stanley says.
“At present, the centre has the exhibition room, library, administration/ research room and archives. In the archives, there are numerous old and rare artefacts such as school rolls, correspondences, photographs, film reels, books, all of which are priceless and have to be protected from natural damage. Fortunately, the DHC has some archivists, who underwent training with Maynooth University Department of History, and funded by the Department of Justice and Equality,” he continues.
The centre is also open to the public at large, particularly students, historians, academics and researchers.
"The major aims and objectives of the centre are not merely to preserve the artefacts and materials and to exhibit them, but also to recreate the chequered historical experience of the deaf community in the past 200 years," he says.
"The DHC has numerous folklores, legends, traditions and stories through Irish Sign Language (ISL)."
The impact of the Deaf Heritage Centre on the deaf community is immense as far as cultural and historical experience is concerned, he adds.
Alvean Jones, honorary secretary of the Deaf Heritage Centre Committee, points out that marginalised groups often get somewhat excluded from the preservation of history, something they’re actively working against in the DHC.
“While people realise the importance of preserving history and heritage, it is all too common to forget about marginalised groups, for instance, deaf people. When it comes to the 1916 Rising, how many people are able to name a single deaf person who took part in the Rising? Eileen Murray was a deaf woman who was awarded a military pension for her services.
“When it comes to Irish deaf writers, how many people are able to name more than one such writer who lived before 1900? Three such examples are Jonathan Swift, who needs no introduction, John Burns (c740-c1785), and Charles Joseph Kickham (1828-1882).
“When it comes to notable Irish deaf women in history, you have Lady Mary O’Brien (c.1721-1790), a member of the Irish landed gentry, Charlotte Grace O’Brien (1845-1909), a social worker, writer, botanist and nationalist, and Teresa Deevey (1894-1963), an Irish dramatist who wrote plays for the Abbey Theatre and for BBC radio,” Jones says.
“For the development of an individual, the knowledge of one’s own history and heritage is of vital importance. Thus, the impact of the centre on the Irish deaf community is slowly but surely being felt, as the information is being shared.
“There was always an interest in Irish deaf history, however, there are a lot of primary and secondary sources on and about deaf people that still need to be sifted through and researched properly,” she says. “It is all too easy to discount the experience of being deaf or hard of hearing, especially when it comes to people who are not deaf.”
Having recently received more funding from the Heritage Council, the DHC is better able to carry out their projects and conferences. It has also helped the proper display and preservation of artefacts and materials.
“The latest funding from the Heritage Council is a significant boost, which enables the DHC to purchase high quality visual stands for the DHC exhibition room. It enables the DHC to professionally and safely place the significant artefacts, materials, pieces and items for visitors to observe and to immerse in the wonderful world of deaf heritage,” says Stanley.
“The funding couldn’t happen at a better time, because the DHC was forced into hiatus for 18 months due to the pandemic. The DHC is now slowly reopening to the public and that will provide us the opportunity to display our wonderful heritage artefacts. That will bode the DHC well in the future, that we are building our activities and programmes for the next year and beyond.
“The Heritage Council also kindly funded the cost of ISL interpreters for our recent virtual conference during National Heritage Week. The DHC has a great relationship with the Heritage Council, working together as part of a common goal for our great Irish heritage, including that of the deaf community. The Council has always ensured the inclusion of the deaf in its mission,” Stanley continues.
“When looking at material that is in Irish sign language, people who do not know the language would be at a loss as to what is being said/signed. So access for non-signers would be via interpretation, voice-overs, subtitles and printed material,” says Jones.
As an example of some of the exciting activities the centre organises for the community, Stanley talks about the virtual conference they held recently, which would have been an in-person conference had the pandemic restrictions been eased in time.
“Due to the pandemic, the DHC could only manage a virtual conference during National Heritage Week. The conference was called Irish Deaf Lives Across Time and Place, which included presentations on understanding deaf heritage and deaf life stories,” says Stanley.
Stanley and Jones both are hopeful for a return to regular and in-person activities soon, however, and they have a full calendar being planned for 2022 and beyond.
“The full swing of activities, which will increase in 2022 in the hope that the pandemic restrictions will become a thing of the past, includes the probable live conference on deaf schools, and an annual mass for the deceased deaf in November.
“The DHC is currently upgrading the website to include ISL features with deaf heritage stories. We will also enhance the exhibition with new stands, run possible deaf heritage courses, have ongoing guided tours by appointment and hopefully, we will be in position to welcome researchers back,” says Stanley.
“We also aim to publish our anthology on Irish deaf history in the near future,” adds Jones.
For anyone who would like to visit the centre, Stanley says: “The Deaf Heritage Centre is generally open, but by appointment, due to staffing constraints, since the management is voluntary and since the centre does not receive State funding for operations. It is starting to open slowly since it was closed during the pandemic. The centre welcomes all kinds of visitors and it is free, but donations are welcome.