“What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives” (Heil-Brun 1988, p. 37, Writing a Woman’s Life) (In Connolly and Clandinin 1990:2).
Maureen Heatherington has written, “Within the field of peace building in Northern Ireland, it has become apparent that the ‘healing work’ has not been adequately dealt with” (2008:51). Even though different groups have competing versions of history in Northern Ireland, it could be argued that those competing narratives have in themselves become our “single story”, “… the conflict-saturated relationship narrative in which people are often stuck” (Winslade and Monk 2008:8). This is understandable. In Northern Ireland, between 100,000-140,000 people live in households where someone has been injured or killed in a Troubles-related incident (Fay et al., 1998, p. 59).
It has been suggested that 12% of the Northern Ireland population may be diagnosable with PTSD (Healey 2008:59). A more recent study suggests that figures may be higher, and that Northern Ireland may have the highest levels of PTSD in the world: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-16028713. Personally, I feel this is playing very fast and loose with the notion of PTSD, which, as my wife Emma reminds me, is a complex clinical diagnosis, and one which even a psychiatrist would be loathe to label someone with too readily.
People often speak of the last forty years in Northern Ireland as ‘The Troubles’ or ‘The Conflict’, characterising this time as a continuous experience of intense conflict. Most recently, this was highlighted by the opening of “The Troubles Gallery” at the Ulster Museum. For me, this easy shorthand influences us with a subtle gravity that often leads us, in our retellings and characterisations of life in Northern Ireland, to frequently and predominantly place the emphasis on hostility, trauma, and on incidents and contexts of violence. By doing this I would suggest that we pay the high price of effacing many other aspects of our lives. More helpful aspects of everyday life over the past forty years have been rendered discursively invisible.
Of course, people did experience hostility, trauma, violence, and violent death. It is crucial to acknowledge and respect this in any work that might be undertaken. But I think it is also important to acknowledge and respect that to remain exclusively or predominantly focused on difficult experiences would be to misrepresent the character and texture of the everyday lives that people have led in Northern Ireland over the last forty years. In this light, work such as that undertaken by Henry Glassie (1995), Ray Cashman (2009) or Anthony Buckley (1982) draws attention to other ways of being, other dimensions of everyday life in Northern Ireland during the last forty years. In each case tensions, hostility, and conflict are acknowledged, but as part of a broader spectrum of lives lived and relationships forged.
Where people suggest that the authentic experience of living in Northern Ireland is that of hostility and violence, when people characterise the last forty years glibly and euphemistically as “The Troubles” or “The Conflict”, then we can all too easily establish a hierarchy of authenticity. The experiences and narratives of trauma and victimhood easily become privileged as more valid and representative than the experiences and narratives of people for whom trauma and violence were not a dominant aspect of their daily lives. Similarly, a geographical hierarchy of authenticity becomes quickly established, whereby certain locations take on symbolic and iconic significance for being flashpoint or interface areas, for example, the Bogside or The Fountain in Derry/Londonderry or the Falls Road and the Shankill Road in Belfast, while other areas assume major importance on account of individual events of violence that occurred on single days, for example, Omagh or Warrenpoint (where I grew up).
Maureen Hetherington has also noted that “Because of the nature of the conflict, there is no one individual or collective voice that can speak for everyone” (2008:49). Could it be argued that, nevertheless, a single collective voice has emerged, one that speaks a single history of violence, even if the complexities of the violence and the details of the story remain contested? Has violence, in effect, become the Single Story of Northern Ireland?
This is where story work comes in: “Through the physical recording of stories and an ongoing storytelling process, opportunities for individual healing and societal healing may emerge, as well as providing a forum for a shared and diverse history” (HTR report cited in Kelly 2005:4). Paul Thompson has written that oral history “gives history back to the people in their own words. And in giving a past, it also helps them towards a future of their own making” (1978:226). Through story work we can challenge some of the ways that many people’s voices can easily get silenced by the lumbering simplistics of Single Stories casually told as definitive histories. As Johnston McMaster has written: “The lost voices and lost stories not only give us permission to ethically remember and to critically commemorate, they provide us with a counter-story to the dominant discourse of the time” (2008:132).
It is within this context that story projects such as An Crann and Towards Understanding and Healing have been developed. At the heart of such projects people trust in the power of story, storytelling, and the voicing of stories in “positive encounter dialogue” to open to the door to the possibilities of change and transformation in the wake of conflict. Story work can provide “a safe space for people to begin to articulate personal stories and also to listen to other stories, or “truths,” in a way that does not diminish their own experience” (Hetherington 2008:42).
A colleague of mine recently commented to me, however, that he felt that dominant thinking in relation to storytelling projects in peace and reconciliation work might be leading us into a blind alley. He had been involved in many storytelling projects as a facilitator, and was concerned that they were becoming repetitive, falling into a cycle of telling and re-telling, of traumatization and re-traumatization. He was also concerned that people could sometimes all too easily play the role of victim, when perhaps it might be more helpful in some circumstances to challenge self-identification with victimhood in order to open up spaces for helpful transformation. In the conversation I mentioned research I had come across, by Eva Illouz (2007), that spoke of the rise of what the researcher termed the “cold intimacies” of “emotional capitalism” and the prevalence of intense emotional public confessions, particularly on television chat shows. Was there any possibility of a connection between this and the rise of confessional modes of storytelling in peace and reconciliation work? Might there be differences between the “cold intimacies” Illouz identifies and the “warm intimacies” of much of the storytelling work that is currently being undertaken. Might there also be food for thought in the critique Frank Furedi made of “Therapy Culture” (2003)?
As we talked, we wondered whether there might be a way for people not only to tell their stories, but for people to think about how they might also tell other stories. We don’t have just one story to tell about ourselves. Might there we ways in which we can facilitate spaces for people to explore how we craft stories about ourselves? Often we live with stories about ourselves that are many years old, constructed under conditions different to the ones we inhabit now. I like what Connolly and Clandinin have written, that “education is the construction and reconstruction of personal and social stories; teachers and learners are storytellers and characters in their own and other’s stories.” (Connolly and Clandinin 1990:2). How might we become more present with ourselves and our contexts in the stories that we tell about ourselves and our histories? Are there ways to respect our pasts and the sense we have made of our lives as we lived them, while also respecting that other ways of telling stories are always possible? How many different stories might we tell about the lives that we have lived, while still feeling that the stories remain relevant and appropriate to our experiences? Might we explicitly commit ourselves to challenging Single Stories?
It is important to remember, as Jessica Senehi notes, that “storytelling, of course, is not inherently good or peaceful” (2009:203). She makes an important distinction between “destructive storytelling”, storytelling practices that can intensify conflict and reinforce social and political inequalities and divisions, and “constructive storytelling”, storytelling practices which tend to emphasise dialogue, mutual recognition, consciousness raising, and which offer alternatives to relations of domination (ibid.). It is possible to recognise the violent histories of people’s experiences in this place, and also to suggest that the dominance, replaying, and reinforcement of exclusively histories of violence may be destructively contributing to what Hutchinson calls “colonisation” of social imagination, or “restrictions on creative thought and creative action in relation to potential reality” (Hutchinson 1996:34). We can challenge the “single story” of Northern Ireland as “a history of violence”. We can imagine differently.
 I learned this with some immediacy when I started dating a few years ago after not doing so for quite a few years – the life story I told about myself during one of these dates was one I had previously told many years before, and I had changed so much in the intervening years that the story no longer fitted me. More, I felt like I was misrepresenting who I was and what was important to me, projecting roles that I no longer identified with. The protagonist whose story I had told was no longer me.
Chimamanda Adichie. 2009. “The danger of a single story.” Ted.com October 2009. URL: http://www.ted.com.
Brennan, T. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Anthony D Buckley. 1982. A gentle people: a study of a peaceful community in Northern. Ireland. Cultra: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
Ray Cashman. 2009. Storytelling on the Irish Border. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
F. Michael Connelly and D. Jean Clandinin. 1990. “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry.” Educational Researcher 19(2):2-14
Frank Furedi. 2003. Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age. London: Routledge.
Henry Glassie. 1995. Passing The Time in Ballymenone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Arlene Healey. 2008. “Holding Hope When Working Towards Understanding and Healing.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing. Liam O’Hagan, ed. 55-70. Derry/Londonderry: Yes! Publications.
Maureen Hetherington. 2008. “The Role of Towards Understanding and Healing.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing. Liam O’Hagan, ed. 39-53. Derry/Londonderry: Yes! Publications.
Francis P. Hutchinson. 1996. Educating Beyond Violent Futures. London: Routledge.
Eva Illouz. 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Oxford: Polity Press.
Gráinne Kelly. 2005. ‘Storytelling’ Audit. Belfast: Healing Through Remembering. URL: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/victims/docs/kelly0905storytelling.pdf
J. P. Lederach. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: OUP.
Johnston McMaster. 2008. “Ethical Remembering: Commemoration in a New Context.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing. Liam O’Hagan, ed. 127-138. Derry/Londonderry: Yes! Publications.
Report of the Consultative Group on the Past. 2009. URL: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmniaf/171/171.pdf
Jessica Senehi. 2009. “Building Peace: Storytelling to transform conflicts constructively.” 201-214. In Handbook of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Dennis J.D. Sandole, Sean Byrne, Ingrid Sandole-Staroste and Jessica Senehi, eds. London: Routledge.
Paul Thompson. 1978. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
John Winslade and Gerald Monk. 2008. Practicing Narrative Mediation: Loosening the Grip of Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Community Dialogue http://www.communitydialogue.org/
Towards Understanding and Healing http://www.thejunction-ni.org/towardsunderstandingandhealing.htm