Belfast to Boston: Oral History Goes Awry

Thursday, July 10, 2014


The Boston College oral history project begun in 2001 was an attempt to record and document for history’s sake the voices and the motivations of the men and women who fought during Northern Ireland’s 30 years of brutal sectarian strife. More than 40 former republican and loyalist paramilitaries shared the stories of their personal involvement in Northern Ireland’s so-called Troubles. They believed their interviews with the project’s researchers were confidential and would never be released without their permission or until they had died, but they were wrong.

Following a legal fight, Boston College relinquished some of its archive to authorities, and earlier this year the police in Northern Ireland used the contents as grounds to arrest Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with a brutal murder dating back to 1972. Adams was eventually released without charge, but in Belfast the academic project has unintentionally opened old wounds with some former IRA members who participated being labeled “touts” or informers by their fellow republicans. 

The Takeaway speaks with Boston Globe columnist, Kevin Cullen, about how Boston College's well meaning attempt to promote truth and reconciliation backfired on the ground in Belfast. Jack Dunn, a spokesperson for Boston College, discusses his concerns about how BC’s experience might impact other oral history projects.


Kevin Cullen and Jack Dunn

Produced by:

Elizabeth Ross

Comments [2]

JS from Seattle

Comments regarding IRA "terrorist thugs" have little to do with this well-done story.

The BC archive contains both the Unionist and Nationalist perspectives, and the story correctly points out that much of the Nationalist perspective in the archive comes from dissidents opposed to Gerry Adams' leadership of Sinn Fein in abandoning armed struggle and entering constitutional politics both north and south of the border. To criticize the police for selectively mining this archive to arrest Adams based on the uncorroborated testimony of deceased opponents of the peace process is not unreasonable.

Anyone familiar with the history of Northern Ireland knows that horrible acts were committed on all sides during "The Troubles." It is also indisputable that without armed struggle and the sacrifices of those such as the hunger strikers,one of the most discriminatory states in the world would never have changed. Despite the inevitable violence of the Marching Season of July, all of the people of the north today have an opportunity to be represented in government and treated with dignity. That never would have occurred without the leadership of Gerry Adams. To very selectively dig up the horrors of the past only endangers the progress that has been made since the Good Friday Agreement.

Jul. 10 2014 07:52 PM
Franklin from Framingham MA

I would expect nothing less from Boston Globe "journalists". The IRA are nothing more than terrorists that wished to inflict minority views on the majority by force. Cullen and his band of Irish terrorist sympathizers are the first to jump down on Hamas as they fight for their freedom. I guess Irish terrorists are a kinder gentler breed.

The facts are that Boston College has a treasure trove of evidence, the IRA should have known better than spill the beans to Jesuits, they are an untrustworthy bunch.

Enough of feeling sorry for Irish terrorist thugs.

Jul. 10 2014 01:17 PM

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