It is all very well to say that ‘History is what happened and Heritage is what it means us now’, (see here) but how do you find out what that means in practice? How do you find out what people value? How do you get a community to work together on a heritage project?
This is what Peter and I were doing last week. We were back in what we now think of of as ‘our’ five small towns in gorgeous Kilkenny: Callan, Castlecomer, Gorwan, Graignamanagh and Thomastown (in alphabetical order).
We were there to look and to listen. That would be my shortest and best answer to the question of how you get a handle on what the heritage of a place really means. Over the years we have done lots of looking and listening and so have become practiced and rather skilled at it.
Having said that, we didn’t need any special skill or professional insight to work out what mattered to the people of Kilkenny last Sunday. It was the day of the All Ireland Hurling Final and the Kilkenny Cats were, as often is the case, playing. That mattered.
I am working up to a blog (or three) about interpreting sport, identity and heritage. Sport is one of the places where I reckon I feel who I am, and the people who I belong to, for better or worse, most acutely. For now let’s just say that hurling in Kilkenny matters like oxygen does to the rest of us. We know this not just because we’ve seen it, but because we’ve listened. Look here at The Kilkenny Way for a flavour.
Before you can listen, you have to get people talking, ideally to each other. We were a running a series of town meetings one in each town and turned up with a bag of kit designed to do just that. The most powerful tools in our kit were maps.
Maps get people talking and we can start listening. We use other conversations starters too, there is quite a bit of stuff in our toolbag, but the main thing is to get people talking, gossiping, chatting and laughing. Then we start recognising what people know, what they care about about, what they value, what they want to keep and what they want to change.
Maps can be a great seedbed for community projects. Helping a community map its heritage is a fascinating process. When it goes well, as it did this week, it can be a wonderful way to get to know a place. It felt like a privilege; we are both grateful to everyone we met and worked with.
We left with heads full of great, unique conversations, and our bags full of stuff to write up. A good week’s work.