We collect the material heritage of Kerry, but it belongs to the people
History is all about interacting with the public for Helen O'Carroll, curator and historian at Kerry County Museum, who chats to Stephen Fernane this week about her love of the past and the continued success of the museum
Helen O'Carroll is someone who literally has time on her hands, which is good news for those of us who appreciate and love the county's heritage. As the historian and curator at Kerry County Museum, Helen's job is to collect and present culture to the public, something she's quite good at given the museum is a multiple award-winner with vibrant visitor numbers.
Helen's office is on the upper floor of the Ashe Memorial Hall which gives me a rare chance to glimpse the building's hidden interior. Built in 1925, its staircase has a lovely art deco feel to it and it's a building I associate with the memory of my grandparents and hazy stories of when they danced and enjoyed musicals in the hall many moons ago.
Helen is a Tralee woman born and bred and hails from Caherslee. Her father, Flor, is well-known to generations of Tralee folk from his time behind the counter at his chemist in Rock Street.
After completing her education, Helen left Dublin in 1991 to take up a six month job offer working on a heritage project in Lixnaw. She decided to stay put in her home town after the project, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The transition from researching history to curator is an enlightening experience for Helen. Assessing history's lengthy timeline has always been her forte, but actually engaging with artifacts unlocked a whole new interactive and physical dimension.
"History is basically about documentary research and when I first started studying it we weren't really taught to look at the world around us through objects like archaeology does," said Helen.
"It's kind of silly really that there's sometimes this divide between history and archaeology as the two fit each other very well. So from that respect the transition was enjoyable," she added.
Helen also applied her research skills to the unfairly defamed Jeanie Johnston project back in the late 1990s. While the original ship sank in the mid-Atlantic in 1858, the replica version endured a more metaphorical sinking due to its inflated cost and lonely existence in Dublin's Docklands where it rests today. It cost over €15 million and still casts a long shadow over the local council's budget. In 2015, Dublin City Council pumped a further €200,000 into the ship for repairs. Today the Jeanie Johnston is estimated to be worth around €400,000. But history has multiple narratives and Helen believes the ship still achieved a great deal given the circumstances.
"It was extremely interesting to work on and you sometimes look back and wonder 'did it really happen?' I guess it just grew and grew. My interest was always on the history side of the ship. But the project's additional aims created employment and it fostered ship building skills. The ship also played a small part in people coming from the north to work during the peace process. On those levels it was successful. I think people lost sight of the fact it did achieve some of its aims and it was a very positive experience for the people involved in it at the time. It is a beautifully built ship that did sail, so it achieved what it set out to do. As for the ship being in Dublin, I think its story is lost there as the experience of emigration in the west coast is different to the east."
Although small in comparison with most other museums, there's no doubting the Ashe Memorial Hall is an impressive focal point for the county's history. Its primary function has always been to serve as a civic building for the people of Tralee, both administratively and socially, and Helen makes the point that even today the building maintains this link.
"In the 1990s the museum's growth coincided with the tourism boom which was mainly focused on attracting tourists from outside town to generate money for the economy. Over the last 15 years we've made a conscious decision to say 'there's an audience here on our doorstep too' who live here all year round and pay for the museum through their taxes and rates. We host several events and the local schools are now using it more than ever. A museum has to reflect its local culture as tourists from the outside come to see a living, breathing culture: if people locally are using the museum, then that is part of that culture."
The museum is hugely responsive to change and presenting topical and timely exhibitions is a sure sign of an energetic museum. In the early years, Tralee's medieval experience gradually started to incorporate Kerry's archaeological treasures; the Tom Crean and Roger Casement exhibitions also stand out as examples of the museum's successes.
"We really are thriving today because of the local interaction. What's been important for us is to hold onto the tourist market while also getting local people to see that this is theirs. We collect the material heritage of Kerry but it belongs to the people. When the Ashe Hall was built in the 1920s it was one of the first public buildings built after the foundation of the state. The central part of the building was a theatre, dance hall and cinema, and the offices were around it. It was built for the people to use in a variety of ways. That's still the focus of the building today."
Helen also insists the scale of the museum produces a closer connection among the staff; a connection that, perhaps, is absent in larger museums. "It gives what we do a greater sense of ownership," she says.
I ask what her favourite exhibition has been over the years, which seems a bit unfair given how she struggles to identify just one. It's clear they all matter and each has its own special place in the timeline of her work.
"There are so many but I think the Tom Crean exhibition will always have a special place in my heart because it came at a time when Tom was just starting to become well-known and we were part of that. It was fantastic opening up that story for people. The Space exhibition in the 1990s was also incredible with Neill Armstrong coming to Tralee. That one really put the museum on people's radars and even though I was working on the Jeanie Johnston at the time, such exhibitions left a huge 'can do' legacy for the museum. But to answer your initial question, I guess every exhibition is my darling," she laughs.
Finally, all museums must take a Janus-head approach to their work with one eye on the past and the other fixed on the future. The museum did a tremendous job telling the story of Roger Casement's Kerry connections. But Helen is a tad more reticent over how the museum plans to approach the more emotive period of the War of Independence and Civil War - a period when atrocities occurred in most townlands which are still raw given the oral history that has passed through each generation.
"This is still a period of personal memory rather than history for a lot of people. I'm hopeful that we will do an exhibition on the War of Independence and Civil War but we need to be very careful how we do that, and to respect it. This is a period experienced by people's parents and grandparents which is very close.
There are plenty of things that happened that have never been spoken about. The next few years gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves 'do we want to talk about it now?' If so, we have to do it carefully and respectfully."