Photographs courtesy of Shaun Wright and Seán McCarthy
Increasing Access

Teaching an old culture new tricks

Students help nonprofit in Ireland preserve county’s oral history.

A nonprofit organization in County Clare, Ireland, has a toolkit to help preserve the region’s rich oral history thanks to a visit from JMU professors and students.
Last summer, participants in the short-term study abroad program “Ireland: Text, Image and New Media” worked with the Clare Oral History and Folklore Group to train volunteers to record local stories that have been passed down through the generations.

“[The group] is capturing a version of Clare that is receding into the past because we are [now] communicating with each other differently,” explains Shaun Wright, a professor of media arts and design at JMU.

Wright, along with theatre and dance professor Zachary Dorsey and Seán McCarthy, professor of writing, rhetoric and technical communication, led the trip. McCarthy, who grew up in County Clare, has a brother who is on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

The program afforded students the opportunity to experiment with storytelling through a variety of new media and to present those stories to Clare’s younger generations. The students worked in groups to create designs, micro-documentaries, press releases, a social media plan and educational materials that the organization can use for years to come.

“The students’ abilities and talents give [the nonprofit] elements to enhance their organization that [they] would not have normally had the funds to do,” Wright said.

The educational materials varied by age group. Local elementary school students, for example, could be tasked with creating a sequence of illustrations to tell a story about their family or themselves. Middle-schoolers could practice recording their own oral histories, while high school students could create an interactive map using geotagging of specific locations and adding text, audio and pictures.

“This partnership proved to be more beneficial than we had ever imagined,” said Pat Hayes, director of the Clare Oral History and Folklore Group. “As a small local charity run exclusively by volunteers, we rely heavily on donations to sustain our work. However, even more important than that is the generosity of people in donating their time and expertise to help us promote our work and raise our public profile. In this regard, the work undertaken by our JMU friends was vital and totally outside the skill set of our current volunteer base.”

The 2015 summer study abroad trip “Ireland: Text, Image and New Media” was co-led by professor Seán McCarthy (far right), who grew up in County Clare.

Meeting people from a different culture and taking the time to hear their stories enhanced the student experience, McCarthy said. “The partnership opened a window to a different world for them, and the students reciprocated by capturing their stories.”

Said Kelly Carlin (’16), an English major with a minor in creative writing, “You can look at something and see exactly what that person is talking about and what the connection is right in front of you. There is something more personal than you could ever get learning it on your own.”

“I can assure you,” Hayes said, “that the students have helped change the charity in more ways than I can mention.”

‘[The group] is capturing a version of Clare that is receding into the past because we are [now] communicating with each other differently.'
Shaun Wright, professor of media arts and design
Students survey some of the breathtaking countryside in western Ireland.

The annual study abroad trip, renamed “Ireland in Text, Image and Transmedia,” continues this summer with the theme “The Irish Imagination.”

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