Reading questionnaire entries from the Cork Folklore Project’s online ‘Chronicles of COVID-19’ project from April and early May 2020 is like stepping back into another world, even now, just a few months later in August. On 7 April, CFP launched a call for people to send in audio, text and images, or to fill in the online questionnaire, in order to create a record of what life was like for people in Ireland during the pandemic. Since then, the community-based folklore and oral history archive has received over fifty audio recordings, hundreds of images and over a hundred questionnaire entries detailing people’s everyday lives and routines, preoccupations, challenges, joys and reflection on what the crisis means to us.
Now is a good time to reflect on the worth of the project, and to look ahead to the next steps. Clíona O’Carroll, Research Director with the CFP, gives an update on the work and issues an invitation to all those interested to get involved.
When the crisis hit, we had to ask ourselves if this kind of a project was worth carrying out at a time when everyone – including ourselves – was in a situation of uncertainty and under stress. One thing that this kind of ‘in the moment’ documentation of the everyday can do is to record the thoughts, feelings and observations that we might forget in retrospect. It also provides space for experiences, details and viewpoints that aren’t reflected in the mainstream media.
One relevant question is: ‘What does this project do that isn’t already happening on social media, with people sharing stories and images?’ Although the social media were awash with personal accounts, we were aware that this material isn’t likely to be available to ourselves in another decade, let alone to future generations, and that the information that the CFP gathers as an archive on the background of the experiences that we collect will become more and more valuable as time goes on.
This was our first time using online – or indeed any kind of written – questionnaires in our work. I have to admit that I had always viewed written questionnaires as a poor relation of the face-to-face interview, wondering how they could approach anything like the same richness in terms of understanding the experiences of others. Now I have occasion to eat my words. The detail, the thoughtfulness, the surprises the hope, the sadness, the view into other people’s lives – for example, what it’s like to live your life as ‘extremely medically vulnerable’ in the early days of COVID-19 – and the humour: all of this richness contained in the contributions has made me realise how the use of questionnaires can be very worthwhile, particularly in these kinds of circumstances. You can sample some of the material that people contributed in a West Cork People article from early May 2020 here: https://westcorkpeople.ie/coronavirus/add-your-voice-to-the-peoples-archive-of-covid-19-experiences/.
People of all ages and from many walks of life contributed to the project, but we’re aware that there were many who might have been interested who didn’t have the time or the access to participate at the time. We’re very aware that those in healthcare or service industries, carers, those without good internet access or computer literacy, and many others heavily affected by the situation, would not have had the same chance to put their experiences ‘on the record’, and we invite everyone reading this to consider taking part in the project, and to visit our project webpage here (link to https://corkfolklore.org/cork-folklore-projects-covid-19-chronicles-collection/) or to access the English or Irish-language questionnaires. You can fill out the questionnaire, or send us material, in order to add your thoughts, photos, stories and reflection to this ‘people’s archive’.
We had nearly finished developing a downloadable and printable version of the questionnaire when we were contacted by the Chair of the Farranree Community Centre, who worked with us to incorporate it into their activities in supporting cocooning members of the community, distributing copies of the printed version, along with envelopes, with Meals on Wheels in the area. We’re delighted that those working hard for community solidarity saw some value in what we were doing, and adopted it as part of their range of creative ways to combat social isolation.
What now? We have archived the material collected so far, and it will be available as a community and research resource from now on. We have received a grant from UCC’s College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences’ Emergency Strategic Funding Scheme to share the material already gathered in the project. This gives us the opportunity to build an online exhibition and share material from the questionnaire responses and email submissions. We are looking forward to creating galleries of the photographs submitted, and to showcasing the work of our volunteer ‘chroniclers’ such as Pauline Matthews. Pauline’s regular audio diaries – some of which are already available to listen to on our website (https://corkfolklore.org/) – create a steady narrative charting the main developments of the pandemic, providing a valuable backdrop to the questionnaire entries. And, of course, we’ll keep ‘doing what we do’, which is to listen and document. Life goes on, and while our ‘everyday’ has changed and keeps changing, it is our brief to keep growing an archive that reflects the breadth and depth of people’s experiences, and to make it available for community, research and creative use.
Our questionnaire is still open for submissions, and in the autumn we will be releasing a follow-up questionnaire for existing and new contributors. We are eager to find out more about life now that the newness of the situation has faded. We are also eager to follow up on major themes that emerged from this phase. For example, many people commented that the pandemic reminded them strongly of past epidemics and crises: remembered either from personal experience, such as the polio epidemic in Cork city in 1956, or through family stories, such as those about the 1918 Spanish ‘Flu pandemic. If you have stories, memories, reflection or description of life now or in the past that you would like to share, or are happy to facilitate someone you know who would like to contribute, please do get in contact.