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Anna Bryson reflects on the impact of award-winning work with Oral Histories Archive

After picking up a major research award in recognition of her work with the Oral History Archive, a key strand of the Stormont House Agreement, Dr Anna Bryson tells Gail Bell how Peppa Pig and Gaelic football provide much-need light relief ‘away from the books'

Historian Dr Anna Bryson is a senior research fellow in the School of Law at Queen's University Belfast Picture: Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

IT IS fair to say that Dr Anna Bryson is a good listener – and now has a major award to prove it. Over the course of a fast-tracked career as a historian and now senior research fellow at the School of Law at Queen's University, Belfast, the 40-year-old has specialised in listening to stories from the past – in a concerted bid to inform the future.

Named last month as winner of the QUB Vice Chancellor's research impact prize, she is well aware of the reverberations of her work with the Oral History Archive (OHA) – one of the main tenets of the Stormont House Agreement.

She is also fully mindful of the need to move forward – "in a holistic way" and end the continual 'stop-start' approach to dealing with Northern Ireland's long-suffering victims.

"I was invited to join a team of lawyers and human rights practitioners who wanted to inform the 'Dealing with the Past' element of the Stormont House Agreement by producing model legislation in advance of the real bill," she explains.

"We are currently waiting for various mechanisms to be implemented and it is frustrating – more for the victims than anyone else; they have been waiting and waiting, having hopes raised and dashed again, ever since the Eames/Bradley report in 2009."

A diminutive figure in the spacious seminar room of the ninth floor of the new law school on University Square, she speaks with authority and passion for the subject, doubtless borne from innumerable one-to-one interviews carried out with those who have been at the coalface of the Troubles.

And yet – she is too diplomatic to say it, of course – but she too is a victim: of the never-ending political crises at Stormont, with its one step forward-two steps back approach to politics of the present as well as the past.

As a consequence, important attempts by modern-day repairers of the breach get inadvertently trapped in the stasis – but, luckily, Bryson is the archetypal optimist.

"Well, you have to be, don't you?" It is a rhetorical question. "There isn't an alternative. It is hope for the future which keeps you going, as well as a belief that research really does make a difference to real lives."

But oral history can be a tricky path, despite being considered the "easiest" of the four mechanisms highlighted in Dealing with the Past, the others comprising the Historical Investigations Unit, Information Recovery and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.

"I think there was a misconception starting out, that the OAH was the easiest of the four mechanisms to develop," she says, "but the fallout from the Boston tapes project imploded that notion and served as a salutary reminder that this type of work can potentially do more harm than good.

"This is still a traumatised society and some people cope by not revisiting the past, and that is their right. Others find it helpful to put their perspective on the record for fear that others will speak for them, or perhaps because they want their grandchildren to have some sense of their family and community heritage.

"I remember one victim that I interviewed explaining to me the horrendous pressure that she felt to forgive – and the guilt she endured when she could not. For her, the chance to simply put her story on record without being judged or pressurised in any way was of immense value in itself.

"My own belief is that you can't simply draw a line under the past and hope it will go away – as Irish president Michael D Higgins reflected (on the death of literary giant, Brian Friel), after his work, no-one could offer amnesia as an alternative to history."

Genuinely "gob-smacked" after winning the award in the post-doctorate research category, Bryson traces her interest in oral history back to listening to old reels of testimonies taken from people involved in the Irish Revolution and civil war.

"I was a student listening to the interviews – recorded in the 60s – in the O'Fiaich Memorial and Archive Library in Armagh and I was fascinated," she recalls.

"I think it was the first time I recognised the value of individual testimony and how it could make a positive contribution in retilting the balance of history."

A politics and history student at the Trinity College Dublin at the time, she went on to complete a PhD in history before working with criminologist Professor Sean McConville at Queen Mary University of London and leading research for a major study of political prisoners from 1920 to 1998.

Having invested time and energy in building the trust of those involved in the study, a follow-on project was discussed, "broadly focusing on the history of the peace process."

The result – with the support of the EU Peace III programme – was the 'Peace Process Layers of Meaning' project which Bryson jointly directed and describes as "ambitious" due to inclusion of audio archive, oral history training manual, exhibitions, online data base of media interviews, short film and teacher-training resource pack.

During this time she also published three books – an edited collection of prisoner diaries, a biography and a joint-authored text book on research methodology.

"It is a bit exhausting when I think about it," concedes the mother-of-two, "but that's the nature of academic research – one grant opens the door to the next, one publication leads to another. It's even more fun when you're trying to meet a deadline with Peppa Pig ringing in your ears."

The reading material for her children, now aged six and eight, provided light relief from her heavy duty literature, as has a surprising new-found interest in football.

"St Brigid's GAC in south Belfast started a programme called Gaelic for Mums and Others and my friend dragged me along," she laughs. "At the first session 40 women turned up and I discovered, for the first time – despite having seven brothers who played the game – how therapeutic kicking a ball can be.

"My husband Muiris, who works with the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's, also coaches younger groups at the club, so it is a good outlet for us both, getting us away from academia and books."

Originally from Maghera, Co Derry, she first moved to Belfast in 2014 to work on an international research project on the role of lawyers in conflicted and transitional societies – a socio-legal study which extended to Cambodia, Chile, Israel, Palestine, South Africa and Tunisia.

Today she is till ensconsed at the "interesting interface" of history and the law and believes the Oral History Archives will make a positive contribution if, as promised, it remains free from political interference.

"Issues of trust and legitimacy are key to its success and it is clear a lot more work needs to be done," she adds. "There is little point in enshrining the model in statute until levels of co-operation and engagement have been properly tested and broad terms and conditions agreed.

"Having said that, we can't delay forever. We need to move to meaningful consultation, agree the parameters for legislation and get on with it.

"While there is no panacea for the pain of the past, the proposed mechanisms hold the key to a better society for us all."

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