It is one of those wild and windy mornings in Salthill. I have just about made it inside the door of a café overlooking the choppy sea. Waiting inside in the welcome warmth is Laois man Colm Muldowney. This is the Headford-based historian who is offering people the chance to document their family history in their very own book.
Colm was always a fan of storytelling, and as a young boy growing up in Portarlington, he loved listening to his grandfather spinning yarns. His own most memorable family tale is the one about his grandfather, who one day while out fishing had the top of his finger bitten off by an otter. His fingers had been immersed in a stream tickling the bellies of trout – a favoured fishing trick- which on this occasion did not yield any fish for supper!
Fast forward to NUIG many years later. Colm is sitting in a lecture hall listening to the lecturer speak about oral history; he finds himself engrossed. From there, he begins to ask his own family questions about their past, documenting their experiences of living in the Midlands, (or in ‘Biffo country’, Colm jokes). He talked to World War Two and Korean War veterans and various local characters.
A huge amount of people wish that they had some kind of record from their parents or grandparents
“When you’re talking to an individual it’s fascinating. It’s history, it’s where we come from; it’s why we are the way we are. There’s a great interest out there in oral history. A huge amount of people wish that they had some kind of record from their parents or grandparents; they’re the last link to an older way of life,” explains Colm.
After Colm himself started to put down his own roots the idea to start his own business grew stronger. And as he watched his own kids, eight-month-old baby Norah and two-year-old Emmet grow, the idea matured into a fully-fledged business plan.”
“I wanted to put my history degree into practice. Just from simply talking to people I realised the demand for such a service was out there,” he explained.
His wife Clodagh, herself an expert in business start-ups, came on board, providing crucial advice at the early phase of his business, ‘Tell Tales’. The basic idea is to use the life story of an individual or a particular family story as the basis for a hardback book, complete with memorabilia and photos. Over coffee, I’m shown samples of the books he has produced and clearly, a huge amount of time and effort has gone into each of them.
Colm is emphatic about how valuable the spoken word is, especially the particular language, customs, wisdom and traditions of your own family. While working as a history teacher in Headford, he saw how disconnected students could be from history. “They’re fascinated by IPods now, but in 30 years time they will be interested in their own family history.” he predicts.
Tell Tales is launched at a time when family trees and finding out where you come from is hugely popular. This is confirmed by the success of the TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, which features various celebrities tracing their roots-with fascinating results. In addition, the placing of the 1911 and 1901 census online generated immense interest in the area of family history in recent months.
It was common on a Sunday afternoon for neighbours to call in and stay for many hours. There wasn’t the same emphasis on time back then; no one was looking at their watch
The Ireland we live in today is unrecognisable to the Ireland Colm has uncovered in his work. There was a time when men in parts of rural Ireland met at the crossroads on a Sunday afternoon to pass the time. Colm has found that in the Ireland of the forties and fifties, there was an utterly different sense of time. One lady he interviewed recalled, “It was common on a Sunday afternoon for neighbours to call in and stay for many hours. There wasn’t the same emphasis on time back then; no one was looking at their watch.”
She recounted fondly many nights sitting around the fire playing cards, telling stories or singing and playing music. Another interviewee related to Colm how ‘the stations’ were of the utmost importance. This event, when the local priest celebrated Mass in your family home, was treated with reverence and solemnity. It even involved the children taking a day off school. And for the adults, a barrel of porter would be wheeled in to entertain guests late into the night.
Another event, treated with similar reverence, was the All- Ireland final. The radio may have been the only one in the parish, so a large crowd would assemble at this particular house for the big day. The battery-operated radio would be placed on the windowsill so that listeners both inside and outside the house could catch the action.
The Catholic religion also played a huge part in people’s lives. One unusual tradition he heard of was a practice in Mayo where children used to say 5,000 Hail Mary’s in the weeks from Advent to Christmas. During his research, he found out how Corpus Christi processions, which honoured the Blessed Sacrament, used to be hugely popular in Headford.
In the current bleak economic climate, it’s heartening to see a man like Colm dip his toe into the entrepreneurial world. Entrepreneurs like Colm are key to getting us out of the present financial mess.
Tell Tales is a unique service and Colm is confident of its quality. But he knows only too well of the obstacles that lie ahead.
“Getting the message out there is my biggest challenge,” he acknowledges. But like his grandfather, who bravely dipped his finger into the stream to get fed, Colm is also taking a risk. He could get bitten, but here’s hoping he will catch a mighty fine trout.
For the ‘Memory Book’, which costs €399, Colm will sit down and interview your subject for two hours. He then produces a paperback book of around 7,000 words with the transcribed interview. If you supply photographs and other documents, Colm can scan them and interweave them into the text.
The €799 larger ‘Celebration Book’is a hardbound book based on two half-day interviews. Each book takes between two and three months to produce.
For more info: www.telltales.ie