Making history: The documentary maker creating a treasury of times past
Broadcast journalist Karen Tomkins records anecdotes, yarns and reminiscences that open a window on Ireland’s past, and on the individual lives of beloved relatives for families to enjoy
Anybody who fears Ireland’s rich heritage of storytelling might be dying out will be pleased to know that there’s a new kind of seanchaí in our midst. Her name is Karen Tomkins and she travels from town to town, just as those ancient narrators did, preserving personal and local histories as part of the Treasure Vox, her recently launched business aimed at helping people translate their life stories into audio documentaries that can be enjoyed and treasured by future generations.
A skilled broadcast journalist and documentary maker who has spent more than 15 years working in local and national radio, Tomkins is an experienced storyteller and a natural people person.
“When I worked in newsrooms, it was the local reporting and people stories I enjoyed most,” she says. Although the Treasure Vox only launched in December 2021, the idea is more than a decade old, having taken shape when the Waterford native was at a loss as to what to gift her grandmother as an 80th birthday present.
“She was a brilliant character, and when I was a child, she’d tell me stories about ‘back in her day’, which I’d only half listen to; stories about, you know, how she’d made clothes out of flour sacks,” Tomkins laughs. “But as I grew older I realised what a shame it would be if these stories were to die with her, so I asked her to sit down with me and tell me her life story in her own words.”
Tomkins took the anecdotes, yarns and reminiscences and applied her production know-how to translate them into an engaging audio documentary complete with sound effects, music score and narration. “I found myself making copies for 70 members of my extended family who each wanted this little piece of family history for themselves, and it was then that I knew it had the potential to become a business,” the mother of three says.
While the Treasure Vox produces documentaries that celebrate a variety of narratives, from community and company milestones to christenings and communions, landmark birthdays of 80 and over make up the largest part of Tomkins’s business, as people try to freeze-frame a picture of Ireland’s past, as well as of their relative’s younger years. To date, her oldest interviewee is 99 years of age.
Now living in Enniscorthy, Tomkins says she’s seen common themes emerging from her interviews with men and women who grew up in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. “A lot of the local women I’ve recorded have very similar stories. Many of them reared pigs and chickens in their back gardens and operated a barter system because money was so tight. Some told me how they’d pull the wool out of a jumper and use it to knit up something new. Lots of men revealed how they’d had to emigrate to support their families.”
Tomkins says that generally her interviewees’ happiest memories are the simplest ones: enjoying a sixpenny bag of chips after a day’s work, flying down a hill on the back of a bike, receiving a chocolate bar on Christmas morning during ration times.
Tomkins finds the aural medium incredibly intimate, with none of the distractions, such as lighting and cameras, that filming would require. “Everyone’s senses are heightened. It’s just about the story.” While some of the very elderly people Tomkins has interviewed have had cognitive issues or a degree of memory loss, she says it’s never difficult and always enjoyable teasing out their stories.
“I work very closely with families ahead of the recording so that I’m well prepped with background information on the interviewee and their early lives.” The immediate success of the Treasure Vox (Tomkins is almost booked up through October) is a testament to her natural warmth – which is obvious when we chat – and absolute commitment to telling the very best story she can.
“I become completely immersed in each edit,” she says. “I really enjoy bringing each story to life with the right sound effects. If someone reveals a precious memory about a beach, adding the sound of waves breaking in the background paints a more vivid picture for listeners.”
Each finished documentary is transferred onto a branded USB stick and presented in a small wooden treasure chest box, sourced from a craft store in Gorey, and engraved with the name of the recipient. “Often when a documentary is delivered, a family will gather around and listen to it together,” Tomkins says. Just like the old days, almost.