Echoes and resonances: spontaneous testimony from life history interviews

Life history interviews in the Cork Folklore Project’s archives show the many ways in which people’s lives were affected by infectious diseases. The theme comes up in spontaneously in a range of contexts, including family histories and surprising, vivid, stand-alone memories of childhood experiences.

The lives of some individuals and families, such as Johnny ‘Chris’ Kelleher’s mother, were severely affected by successive losses. The impact of such diseases in the community also manifest in people’s memories and in our interviews in resonant ways: on this page, too, Sister Marie Collins speaks about the memory that stayed with her throughout her life, of a classmate killed as a small child by measles. At the date of the interview, in 2000, Sr Marie was probably the last person who returned regularly to the memory of that little girl, Kitty O’Brien.

Johnny 'Chris' Kelleher's account of how he came into a career in newspaper selling starts with a tale of devastating familial loss. 

Content log of this extract (the full transcript can be accessed here in the item entry): tell me a little bit about your family – my mother was married twice – Freddie Murphy was a newspaper ‘shopper’ – he died in 1924, a young man, with TB – better known as consumption – if you got the TB it just consumed you – he died at the age of 24 – left my mother with four children – no welfare – she had to go out selling newspapers to rear the four of them – he died in February ‘24, she buried one of the boys in June 1924 and she buried the other boy in September 1924 – diphtheria and the croup – left with the two girls – met my father – she kept on the papers – till the last day of her life

Sister Marie Collins was born around 1920 in Limerick, to farming parents, and became a Presentation Sister and a teacher. She attended primary school in Monaleen, near where the University of Limerick is currently situated. Sister Collins was interviewed in 2000 by the Cork Folklore Project, and during the interview she reflects on the way in which certain memories from her early childhood stand out in isolation. Speaking of a scene that comes to her memory with clarity, as an isolated incident, she says: ‘Now, I remember that, and I have no memory before or after but that stands out in my mind. Do you know, extraordinary things. I remember the first day I went to school, being around the teacher’s table, but I have no recollection of the night before or days afterwards… I’d love to write down memories without anything before or after, just things that struck me there and then.’

She goes on to recount one such vivid memory, of a girl who had been in Low Babies (Junior Infants, the first primary school class that children attend) with her:

Content log of this extract (the full transcript can be accessed here in the item entry):

And we must have been in Low Babies, we had a high stool and a low stool and there were the High Infants and The Low Infants. and the two of us got the measles. And I can still see this little one, Kitty O’Brien, she had straight hair and a fringe, and a little bow on top of her head. And when I went back after the measles she was dead, she had died from the measles. I can still see her little wee face. And I got measles, and I didn’t die, but she died. So, you know, things like that. You’d say: ‘I can’t remember a bit of before or after but I remember that.'

Alison Morley, who was interviewed by Lorraine Cahalane in 1998, grew up on the Northside of Cork City. At the very beginning of the interview, she is asked about her earliest memory, and she recalls getting her sight for the first time at the age of four, after having lost her sight after contracting German Measles. She describes what it was like to be blind as a child, and how that experience will never leave her.

The full transcript and more can be accessed here in the item entry.

This is a live resource that will grow throughout 2021 and 2022.