Reliving the past to re-imagine a future - a living historical resource now residing at Queen’s University, Belfast delivers tragic tales from legendary prisons like the H-Block, at The Maze.

Day-to-day life in the H-Blocks, guarding the cells of the hunger strikers, missed Christmases, a mother and her new-born in a cell the women’s jail… These are some of the stories related by the prisoners, guards, teachers, doctors, relatives and others in video and film footage of the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA), a living historical resource now residing at Queen’s University, Belfast, controlled and managed by the collective of documentary filmmakers and the storytellers themselves.

Compound 19

Compound 19

According to Professor Cahal McLaughlin, Chair of Film Studies at Queen’s University in Belfast and Director of the Prisons Memory Archive “there is no one way to address the legacy of the past and not a single narrative”, but through hearing the voice of the “other”, it is hoped, we may enrich our understanding and navigate our way to a shared future.    

At a public lecture in Montreal, sponsored by the School of Irish Studies at Concordia University, Professor McLaughlin stressed the value of life storytelling and deep listening in creating a dialogue about the past and a path forward built on mutual understanding.  This grassroots project (one of many in Northern Ireland today) gets to the root of the work that is truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and it has not been without its own struggles in giving voice to these powerful narratives.

Filmed inside the Maze, Long Kesh (one of the largest prisons in Europe at the time, it saw 25,000 prisoners over the 30-year period of the troubles and is now permanently closed) and Armagh (women’s) prisons in 2006 and 2007, the project languished for nearly 12 years due to a lack of funding. Now partnered with the Public Records Office and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the archive contains 175 interviews, that are slowly making their way into the light.  Currently about a quarter of the material is available online and in two short films, but more is expected be released soon.

H-Block Corridor

H-Block Corridor

In the video recordings the abandoned prison buildings themselves take on a chilling character and tone that serves to stimulate deep and often disturbing recollections of life inside and outside the prisons by ex-prisoners (republicans and loyalists, men and women), prison guards, teachers, chaplains, doctors, relatives  and other prison workers. These videos are not always easy viewing:  In one video a former prison officer speaks with difficulty when discussing the cells that held the republican hunger strikers and appears almost frozen in place, unable to enter the space.  In another, a woman prisoner recalls with barely concealed anger the humiliation and degradation of being regularly strip searched by prison ‘screws’.  Another woman speaks about carrying and raising her newborn baby in the Armagh women’s prison and the kindness and tenderness of the other women prisoners in the nearby cells.

The Prisons Memory Archive is built on an ethical framework that sets it apart from other documentary and oral history projects.  Co-ownership with participants in perpetuity creates its own risks and rewards – participants can withdraw from the project at any time, but this sense of ownership also engenders trust and commitment to the project.  Inclusivity is an essential and core value of the project.  McLaughlin says, “This is not a republican story or a loyalist story”; individuals create a narrative that is complex and nuanced.  Finally, life storytelling (filmed walk-and-talk recordings), unprompted and free from bias creates narratives that are authentic, immediate and compelling.  “It follows on the well-known dictum in documentary production that the best question is silence”, says McLaughlin; individuals reveal themselves without rehearsal in real time. (Viewers will take note of some dark spots in some of the videos where the footage has obviously been edited – one of the agreements made with participants was that other people would not be named and these edits were necessary in order to protect this privacy.)

Irish writer John Banville said, “We think we’re living in the present, but we’re really living in the past.”  Nowhere is this more true than in Northern Ireland, still living and struggling with the legacy of 30 years of sectarian violence, guerilla warfare, military reprisal and internment.

Memory, as we learn from the Prisons Memory Archive, is not a straightforward process of rewind and repeat and the past is not a fixed mark in time and space, it is always being re-constructed, revised and re-versioned. How and what we choose to remember, and how we receive those memories from others can have a profound effect on ourselves, our families and our communities, now and for future generations. 

You can find out more about the Prisons Memory Archive and watch video footage from the Archive here.

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Armagh Gaol