Sitting in Fixx Coffee House on Dawson Street recently, I waved at two men who walked in separately just after three pm. The only thing that they had in common was that they arrived alone, and appeared to cast an eye around as though looking for someone. Neither of the them looked anything alike. Neither of them was the person I was meant to be meeting. While it might sound like I was on a blind date, the scenario I describe is, in fact, one of the perils of interviewing people who are not recognisable public figures! I’ve lined up a series of interviews with (to use the technical term) non-elites: ordinary people who watched RTÉ’s long-running drama series, The Riordans (1965-1978). The interviews form part of the research I’m doing for a conference paper / journal article that examines popular culture and social change. I have done plenty of research interviews in the past — with politicians, activists and journalists — but I was more apprehensive about these.
When conducting interviews with elites, I personally think there’s more scope for the type of questions you can ask — and certainly more background information is readily available. For example, a politician’s date of birth is a matter of public record. If it isn’t available from their own website, it is almost invariably listed on the database of all TDs and Senators — past and present — available on Oireachtas.ie. But asking someone who is not in the public eye their age is one of those social taboos. And yet it was something I had to do in order to establish the type of eyes through which my interviewees watched the The Riordans. A child and an adult will naturally recall the programme differently. And there’s really no point in trying to guess: one woman totally shocked me when she revealed her age to be ten years more than you’d judge by looking at her youthful appearance. Thankfully, having explained why I needed to ask, everyone I’ve spoken to so far has been happy to divulge that particular piece of personal information.
There was another — bigger — reason why I was wary. I had once previously attempted non-elite interviews while I was researching my forthcoming book. Briefly, it opens with the reasons why Fine Gael’s Declan Costello had drafted his Just Society proposals — a blueprint for a new Ireland — in the mid-1960s. A TD since 1951 for the working-class Dublin North-West, he was heavily influenced by the impact of unemployment and emigration he witnessed in the constituency. He was particularly concerned about the housing situation.
Consequently, I aimed to set up interviews with people who had grown up in — Declan Costello was very interested in the challenges facing society’s youth — or lived in the areas that came within the electoral boundaries. I wanted to get ‘pen pictures’ of what life was like, to better understand the conditions that drove Costello’s social consciousness.
I abandoned the idea after the first person who had expressed interest in participating subsequently declined when I sent him a questionnaire. Questions about educational opportunities, family income, employment status, emigration, etc were not ones with which he was particularly comfortable engaging. I completely understand. Non-public figures are not used to opening the door into their lives, nor having it discussed (or, in this case, published). If I had persevered, I probably would have found others more willing to recall the 1950s and ’60s, but I decided not to pursue it since the absence of such personal reflections would not materially alter the content of the book. Archival collections, published memoirs, Dáil debates and newspapers allowed me to construct a profile of conditions in Dublin North-West.
Although I have used oral testimony as a source in the past and greatly value oral history, I don’t consider myself an oral historian. The main ingredient in baking my cake, to use that metaphor, is the deposited collections in various archives. Interviews are the icing on the cake, the decoration. They add flavour, giving a sense of what politicians thought, not just what they did. And it was for that reason that I decided to make another attempt at non-elite interviews. I wasn’t looking for people to tell me what happened in various episodes or to recall the finer details of certain plot-lines — this was information I could glean from such sources as the RTV, later RTÉ, Guide, available from the National Library of Ireland. I was more interested in what they thought, the feelings the programme might have provoked and the discussions it possibly generated. The ‘interviews’ were conducted over coffee, making for a more relaxed and informal setting than the environs of an academic office, and have consequently felt more like casual conversations — which I’ve very much enjoyed.
Returning to the idea of non-elite interviews – despite my initial reservations — has turned up some great insights into the experience of watching television and how it can contribute to social change. Though certainly different to elite interviews, the more informal tone of this set of interviews has nonetheless added substantially to my research. Once I’ve conducted them all, I’ll do a follow up post on the main themes that have emerged.