Bringing the 1960s to Life: My Work as a Film Cataloguer at Northern Ireland Screen

In our latest blog Bronagh McAtasney, a QUB MA in Public History graduate, discusses the Ulster Television (UTV) archive and her work as a Film Cataloguer for Northern Ireland Screen:

When I tell people I watch old television for my job, they are intrigued and think it sounds like a lovely job. And the truth is, it is. It is both a joy and a privilege. Every day, I delve back in time to Northern Ireland in the 1960s and see the stories of those times come to life. I catalogue the Ulster Television (UTV) archives in a project run by Northern Ireland Screen and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

The front page of the UTV Archive catalogue

I work on television footage from the beginning of UTV in 1959 to 1969. The early 60s was truly a different time, pre-Troubles but as I work chronologically through the digitised film cans, I see glimpses of things to come. Civil rights protests and social issues are only beginning to find voice, industrial unrest and a faltering economy are having an effect on the lives of the people living here, and the political status quo is coming under challenge from the Northern Ireland Labour Party and a young preacher called Ian Paisley. With hindsight, it is poignant to watch footage of new restaurants, international stars coming to perform and the excitement of horse fairs and new playgrounds. Knowing now what is to come at the end of the decade, I feel a sadness in seeing how life once was. But it is important these stories are told. There are clues to the future here and these television films provide an insight beyond nostalgia.

Cataloguing Ella Fitzgerald’s visit to Belfast in 1964

Here are three examples of the variety of film available. The first is the opening of a new, fashionable restaurant which, to me, shows how 60s Northern Ireland was starting to develop an attractive cultural life. The second, however, shows clearly that conditions for a large number of people were not as they should have been. Springtown camp in Derry was a leftover from the US troops stationed there during World War II. The derelict camp was used to ‘temporarily’ house families but it become a long-term and entirely unsuitable ‘solution’ to a developing housing issue. From protests in places like Springtown, we can trace the rise of the Civil Rights movement. The third film brings us back to Queen’s and a vox pop on whether the new Students’ Union (itself now gone) should have a bar or not.

I came to this career in a truly circuitous way. Two years ago, I worked in administration for a charity but I felt an increasing restlessness and urge to learn more about how to talk about the past. I had started to take part in projects with PRONI and developed a (healthy?) obsession with the lives of so-called ‘ordinary people’. I wanted to learn how to contribute to our understanding of our past. When I heard of the Public History MA at Queen’s I knew it was for me, so I quit my job and plunged headfirst into full-time study, something I hadn’t done since graduating from Queen’s with my politics degree in 1992.

I loved it. I loved meeting people with a similar passion, I loved walking around Queen’s, sitting in the library and learning how to articulate and explore history. I struggled too, finding the change to study and writing at a Master’s level difficult and frustrating but I had the support of others, now friends for life.

And now, I have found a place I belong. The BAI project is fascinating and the team at Northern Ireland Screen are so encouraging. I do not just catalogue the films but I have learnt how to edit them and been allowed to create outreach projects and contribute to policy development. For me, this is what public history is all about; making the past accessible to everyone and using these archives as a starting point for conversations and learning.

This final clip shows perfectly how this can be achieved. As part of the BFI’s Coast and Sea project, Malojian’s Stevie Scullion worked with filmmaker Colm Laverty on a series of audio-visual collaborations that creatively repurpose content from Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive, with a video created to accompany each track on the album, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.


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