Detailed Information

Memoir as Both Literature and History

Every memoir is a work of the imagination where personal observations, lived experiences and recollected memories are pulled together and made into a story.  Memoirs are both historical documents and literary narratives; creative works and social records.

This module asks questions about the relationship between how we remember and how we articulate or represent memory and memory making.  It draws on literary, historical, philosophical and creative approaches to individual and communal memory practices and considers how such practices change over time.  A key focus is the interrogation of the memoir as history and the memoir as art.  We analyse the subjective processes of selective memory making that are shared across literary and historical memoirs as well as examining how an individual life story generates broader historical meaning in wider national contexts and traditions.

This course will assess these questions by focussing on Timothy O’Grady’s and Stephen Pyke’s I Could Read The Sky (1997). ‘Every book, like every blackbird, is different,’ writes John Berger in his introduction to this compelling and important fictional memoir. And there is no book quite like I Could Read The Sky: it is a collaborative text that combines historical archival work, a lyrical narrative by Timothy O’Grady and black-and-white documentary photography by Steve Pyke.

At its most basic, it tells the story of one man’s journey from the West of Ireland to the towns and cities of England, a history of Ireland’s complex migration patterns and an individual account of love and loss and regret. The book is told as an act of memory: the narrator finds himself alone at the end of the twentieth century, looking back across decades of a life lived between our two islands.  The full force of the collision of dislocation and belonging that afflicts the emigrant is everywhere apparent in the written and visual text. Music becomes a focal point for this collision throughout the text as a binding tie to home and fundamental expression of emigrant traditions abroad.

This experience of Irish emigration is both fictional and a creative expression of historical reality. It is the memory of one man and the history of a people. Our purpose is to tease out these apparent contradictions and to come to some conclusions about what constitutes memoir, memory work, history and fiction.


Dates Venue/Location Fee €
03 Apr 2018 to 24 Apr 2018 National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2


The relationship between history and fiction

The function of memory: individual and communal

Irish emigration after World War II

The social life of emigrant communities

Childhood in rural Ireland

Memory and Music

Memory and Photographs

Dr. Fionnuala Dillane is a lecturer in the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD, where she teaches and writes on memory studies, genre history and print cultures. Her most recent publications include The Body In Pain in Irish Literature and Culture, co-edited with Naomi McAreavey and Emilie Pine (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and work on Anne Enright and Tana French in a special edition of the Irish University Review 47.1 (2017) entitled ‘Moving Memory: The Dynamics of the Past in Irish Culture’.

Dr. Paul Rouse is a lecturer in the School of History at UCD, where he lectures in modern Irish History. His film on Irish emigrants to London –  ‘Lost Generation’ – was nominated Best Documentary at the Irish Film and Television Awards in 2003. 

4 Tuesdays 10:00am - 12:30pm

April 3,10,17,24

Timothy O’Grady and Steve Pyke, I Could Read The Sky (1997).

At the end of this course, a student should be able to: 

  • Assess the nature of memoirs.
  • Evaluate the function of memory in works of art.
  • Discuss the relationship between fiction and history
  • Discuss how personal experiences are shaped by context