My PhD is a Northern Bridge Collaborative project between Ulster University and the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, titled Mapping the Cultural Geography of Sam Henry’s Irish Song Archive (the Sam Henry project).
Who is Sam Henry?
Sam Henry himself was a local Coleraine man and active member of the community who worked as a pension officer and journalist for the Northern Constitution newspaper. He ran a weekly newspaper series known as Songs of the People where he gathered and published the folk songs known, played and sung by people across the north of Ireland between 1920 – 1939. Now the collection, held and managed by the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, is among one of the most extensive and important collections of the British Isles containing over 15,000 artefacts (including approximately 800 songs).
The material was collected at a time of great social, political and demographical change in Ireland following the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921. As such, Henry’s work located and preserved many songs and contextual information which otherwise might have been lost, and therefore captures and celebrates an important aspect of Northern Ireland’s cultural history. The archive has gained significant recognition over the past 10 years through exhibitions and community workshops across Ulster and this has prepared the way for serious academic investigations to begin. This, I hope, is where I come in.
The project aims to map and analyse the significance of the sense of place that Henry’s archive constructs and examine how local place impacts upon the gathering of song. The archive itself embodies the significance of Seamus Heaney’s celebration of place upon existence. I was born and grew up on the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, attending schools in Portrush, Coleraine and Ballymoney. As such, I have had a great awareness of the sense of place throughout the areas in which the project is located. My upbringing made me very aware of the cultural differences and diversities as well as commonalities of the area, and this experience has stimulated my academic studies since.
The PhD project is timely due to the current re-evaluation of what constitutes Northern Irish identity and “culture” amid the concerns and implications of Brexit today. Henry’s collection was situated in a moment of another exit or “Irexit”; when Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1921. The songs and lyrics convey a sense of how communities understood their local places and their place within them; their ‘Geographical Imagination’ (Massey, 2005). Due to this I believe there is potential for a contemporary historical parallel between the cultural underpinnings of Northern Ireland in its foundation, and its centenary as a state..
Interview on Mahon's Way - UTV 04/09/2022