During the lockdown in summer 2020, the PMA held a special online event to celebrate the transfer of the collection to PRONI and the launch of the new project website. During the event, participants reflected on why they wanted to get involved in the PMA, and their memories of recording at the prison sites
I was invited to take part in the project in 2006 and I thought it would be an interesting experiment at the time.I was also interested in returning to see the inside of the jail again,as I had left it in 1976 and wanted to see it from an older woman’s perspective, if you like,after 30 years. So that’s the reason I became involved then, and then as the project evolved,I became more and more interested in who else would be taking part and what the stories of their experiences would be. And the fact that it was all walks of life within the prison–like priests, prisoners, teachers, officers etc.–I was very interested to hear their stories as well. And I found it was very enlightening to me, to listen to their perspectives because until this project really, I only had my own experience to go on, one window to look out from, if you like.
When I received the copy of my interview,and I was able to access the PMA website and watch other participants, I was delighted that I had taken part. I enjoyed watching those who were from a totally different perspective or political background to myself, and to listen to their stories. It certainly opened my mind up to the value of recording these interviews for the visual and historic reasons, you know, and what effects that they would have. I could see how it could grow in the future and possibly be used as an educational tool in the future. And I think it is very important also that female prisoners were interviewed,because as is often seen in these struggles, women are forgotten about, and that there were women prisoners. It’s usually the men they talk about–the men in Long Kesh, the men in the H-blocks–and there isn’t really much notice or attention given to the women prisoners, of either side. So, I was really glad to see that the PMA had taken a strong view on that and interviewed as many women as would take part. So, I think it is a very worthwhile project, which records the past and may have impact on the future, that’s what I think.
Maze and Long Kesh
For me and other friends that I was in prison with, it was about trying to tell our perspective on the prison life, from our way. Like it or loathe it, there’s two sides to that (indeed, there’s multiple sides to that story, there was the prison story, the Quaker story, there was the Open University story, there was many stories there) but you know, within the prison there was the two tribal stories. So, we have to represent our story the best way we can, because at the end of the day, we were coming out of a conflict and fiercely involved in a propaganda war. As I say, tell your story yourself,don’t let acadaemia write your history for you. Write it yourself, speak your own history. It’s your truth, it’s no one else’s. I promoted oral history as a great way of healing and reflecting and dealing with the past. That’s the way I promoted it, post-conflict. The whole process itself was about building relationships as well and breaking down barriers too, people’s perceptions of you, my perception of academia as well, so there’s that humanisation, if you want to call it that. The process that you were going through, honestly, me going through the ex-prisoner fraternity and me being involved in the sector and the whole thing about trust, about archiving, how that story is archived, and how that story was published was a whole process and a challenge we had to go through as well. But at the end of the day, I see it as positive
Maze and Long Kesh
I think first of all it was a really good idea because it was a good chance for our group especially – and every other group, for that matter – to get their voices across and get their ways that they done their time, whether it be from a prison officer perspective or a prisoner. I, from my own personal level, brought back some memories, by just walking around the prison going to the different blocks, going to the hospital, to the yards, wherever it may be. I thought it was a great idea, because you just walked in, and the photographer walked behind you, [they] walked behind me, didn’t ask any questions and as soon as you walked in it all come flooding back. These memories, your own memories, without being prompted in any shape or form – for these memories to be portrayed and to be documented, and people to be accessed, for future generations to look at and to glean some sort of information out of it, and maybe help future generations in the future. I also think that being on site, the very fact that we were on site in Long Kesh, made a big difference.
One of the things that did stick out was when I went in to one of the blocks that was the very first time that I did go into the H-blocks, and I went into the cell that I actually went into first and it just came flooding back to me the thoughts of “oh my god, I’ve just got sentenced and I’ve got x amount of years to do; I don’t know when I’m gonna get out.” There was a lot of turmoil going on in the prison at the time, “How do I fit in? Wife and family outside, I’m going to lose my youth”. That cell, that particular moment… But then when I started to reflect over the years, the comraderie that was made with the different people in it, in the prison, getting moved to different blocks at different times, how you got your time in, who you were doubled up with, or in a single cell, the craic. You made your own craic in the prison and without the craic in the prison, it would have been very very hard to go through it. And this, the PMA have made this giant step where all this is recorded and people can see how people did get over those hard turbulent years, and how they were able to come out on the other side and progress in the community we’re in now.
Hi, my name is Jackie and I got involved in the PMA simply because I was asked would I go back down to Armagh prison, and walk round it, and revisit it again in my own terms, go back to a place where I spent a bit of time back in 1983. I sort of wanted to go back on my own terms and actually walk round and see what memories it would bring back, which I was surprised it did bring back some memories I had forgot about until I got back inside. I then realised being down there that there wasn’t a lot of loyalist prisoners that had been incarcerated in Armagh jail and that it was important that, me being a loyalist prisoner, being on the wings with republican prisoners and ordinary catholic prisoners that I was in the minority and it was very, very important to get my story across and out. That, you know, me being a loyalist prisoner I suffered the same way, and all the issues that the republican and catholic prisoners, I also suffered those injustices as well, and it was extremely important that I got this message out. I think it is also extremely important that the PMA is doing in keeping this alive, it’s history, and each story needs to be told, and both sides, from loyalist and republican, both need to be told and people need to hear that. So, keep up doing the good work and I’m happy and quite proud to be part of the collection and the history and to tell my wee part of the story of my time that I was incarcerated in Armagh jail in 1983.
Former Prison Officer
Maze and Long Kesh
At the beginning I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it, I felt very nervous about it, because of the background of someone who had been in the prison service. I thought, to be honest with you, even though I was on one side of the wagon, you might say, we were really all in it together. It was a shared experience from different aspects. And I had a friend of mine who was very interested in the writing a thesis on the civil war, the war of independence before, and he thought about the prison system at that time as ‘everyone who was anyone’ had been there, and he was aghast at what little remains; to be honest with you, isolated sources that could be used in no cohesive way. And in a way, that persuaded me perhaps just to say something. I found it a cathartic experience in some ways but a bit frightening in others.
It changed me in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. I think I matured as a human being, because I faced issues that we had lived through in a way I probably never would have done, and I realised that we have so much in common, everyone who was involved. I spoke to former prisoners, former combatants, whatever and however they wish to describe themselves or ourselves, and I find that really, we were just ordinary people caught up, it struck me, in a very extraordinary time in history. In a hundred years’ time, it would be remarkable basically how very alike we all were, no matter what part we played at that particular time. It changed my views on society, it changed my views basically on the people I met. I have no bitterness whatsoever to anyone, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart and I wish everyone well who suffered through those times. My own father suffered, and I have spoken to former paramilitaries and their stories are not that different, they have had some terrible experiences. And to be honest with you, had we been born somewhere else, these things wouldn’t have happened to us. But they did.
I think it’s important for the future that we show the generations to come what happened to us, and how we emerged from it. I’d like to think we’ve emerged stronger; we’ve become closer, I think. Certainly, a lot of the people who went through those times might think really when we meet, no matter what their particular experience was, again they have so much in common, they have a lot of pain in common too. We have the same hopes and fears for the future, it’s quite incredible. I spoke to one former, quite prominent individual, sadly he has passed now; we met by accident one day and to be honest with you we found it quite incredible that there have been any differences in the first place. It matured me in a way, and it made me look at our history, at my humanity in a way that I never would have done before being in the PMA.
The PMA has been a unique experience; it hasn’t been easy at times, but it has been very, very rewarding. I am so glad that I have done it. There are times when I look back on it, and I think how uncomfortable I felt at times, especially when I visited the hospital and places like that there; I was quite badly shaken actually when I came out, because the full emotional content of it really finally hit me at last. You do tend to, I wouldn’t say bury it, but you tend to try and control your feelings when you’re going through experiences – many people tend not to revisit them. But I think it’s important that we do, because by doing that, then I think we really share, you know, and I think that was the most important thing I got out of PMA. To me, it was one of my great life experiences, probably one of the most, possibly the most, formative experiences I’ve been through and that includes the Troubles itself. I think the PMA is the most important piece of work I’ve ever been part of.
Paddy Smyth and Larry Carragher
Maze and Long Kesh
In 2006 I was approached by Sean O’Hara and asked would we participate as we’d both been in Long Kesh, Paddy and me. I said I would surely, so we went down as you saw in the little film of us walking around, talking about being interned. I think it has been a great idea, the project, the whole thing. It has been going on a long time, and it has been very educational for the youth in the future, and it gives us a look into both sides of the community, what people have gone through, and what they have been through being in Long Kesh. And whether about their different political opinions and that, the project has been a good thing showing how a lot of people had to deal with internment, with prisoners going in … it will be very educational and it’s history, part of Northern Ireland history, and it’s been very, very good.
I think the project is a great idea. The invitation we got to go to see Long Kesh again, I thought it was just something small, and we went down there; and then it developed into a prison archives, and we met Cahal and Joanna and Jenny and other people there, and I could see the serious interest there was. I always thought there should have been a record because internment came to Northern Ireland every decade from the inception of the state and no-one knew about it. When there’s trouble, put them in jail and forget about them, then they’re released and that was the end of that. But now the whole focus is on the political feelings of both sides of the community and I think this project’s going to bring it to the fore. I think it’s a brilliant thing that these recordings have been kept.
Maze and Long Kesh
At the start, the interview was just me as an individual ex-prisoner. Cahal invited me to do the interview in Long Kesh and I was content to do that. Afterwards I was there in PMA as a representative of Coiste to make sure that our voice of republican experience was there, instead of someone else telling others what we think.
And credit to you for consistently asking for participation in terms of the management end – you’re constantly reaching out to me and other groups. I’m not sure people see the heavy amount of work that’s been taking place. The interview was just the start and it’s important to ask me if stuff is to be omitted, and was it accurate, and then the development of the process. PMA is very unique in terms of editing – I do it least 2 to 3 interviews a week for PhD students, news, TV. Quite a lot of students send us stuff but very few at the high level come back to us. It’s very rare it’s done. Having the right to correct is very unusual as is the right to withdraw. It shows people have the right to change their mind over time.
There are too many academics telling the world about us! Our voice is similar to that experienced by other political ex-prisoner groups but it’s not the same. In PMA I found no censorship or dismissal of our voice, that’s why I think all ex-prisoner groups should be there. I like prison staff and education and welfare being there. They are a vital component. It’s great to see a broad selection of republican and loyalist voices and different groups. You’ve done a great job of getting that breadth. I’ve also really appreciated the partnership with PRONI and working with their professional, well-intentioned staff. All that has been really well handled.
Armagh Gaol and Maze and Long Kesh
I was there for filming in Armagh, and the next year for the H-blocks. I got involved probably because I saw it as a great opportunity to visit these places that we’d grown up with in the news; and also, to get into the buildings, look around in the buildings to see where all these things had unfolded, you know.
It was interesting, the idea of what we were doing as camera people. Normally, as a camera crew, you’d go there and sit somebody down, you’d decide the agenda, ask the questions and dictate really… what was going to happen. But this was completely different. Not only was it difficult for us because, you know, we’re not directing things; the other person, the participant is directing; but it’s also difficult for them because they’re coming in front of a TV camera with a person they haven’t met. We’d meet them at the hut. We’d walk – well, we’d drive, and that’s something you probably don’t get from the videos is the size of the H-blocks particularly, you know. It’s an airfield. You don’t think in terms of a prison, you think in terms of an airfield. It’s absolutely huge; it took five minutes to drive to the blocks from the gate. And then the person was given a radio mic, then asked to talk. So, it was difficult for them, and it was difficult for us, you know. So, they had to direct it, in a sense.
You know, I suppose it became an iconic place, the H-blocks particularly. Even just being there, and seeing a watchtower, or seeing wire, you know, in front of a block and seeing the shape of the buildings was really interesting. The prison itself is like an industrial site and very quickly it was falling apart. But I suppose the people themselves, and watching their reaction, it was very difficult and very emotional for a lot of people. We had to try not engage too much with them, let them do their own thing. For us, the visuals were very important. It was difficult to operate in there because you’re in confined spaces; you’re watching what you’re filming, you’re trying to listen to see that the audio is right, so we’re doing a job as well as to trying to understand, and watch people, you know.
It’s an amazing archive, and arriving there, having Cahal and Lorraine you know, in charge of what was going on; they were very specific about the ideology of what they wanted to do, you know. I’ve worked on a lot of TV programmes, a lot of places around the world; this isn’t a TV programme but it’s maybe one of the most valuable things I’ve done and the most interesting and enjoyable. It was just a brilliant thing to work on.
Former Probation Officer
Maze and Long Kesh
Well, I was very fortunate I think like many of my colleagues, to go back down to the Maze; we’d been working there from the days of Long Kesh, right through the 70s, 80s and 90s, and seen all the changes that some people have referred to. Quite a body of people had worked there during that time; it was an opportunity, I suppose curiosity, to take us back to the site again, and once you were there, as Gerard was saying, all your thoughts and feelings and memories flood back, both of incidents in the prison, relationships, the team of people that worked there which was quite a tight team given that prison is quite a hostile environment for social workers, and we sort of walk a tightrope between the institutional side and our role in helping prisoners and prisoners’ families, and trying to keep that communication going, or doing our bit for that. So yeah, all of that came back on the site. I didn’t think 13 years later I’d still be involved but a number of us still are, which is very good, and we are all retired now from work, but we have our retired association, so the activities of the PMA are always reported back. Quite a wide group of people are interested in how it’s come on.
The narratives are so rich really from every perspective, you know, and I think it’s good to have all those. Obviously, we would have had a lot of contact with prisoners’ families but I was particularly involved, as were a couple of colleagues, in the film We Were There so actually the contributions of prisoners’ wives, daughters, aunts, whatever – it was all women actually – it was fantastic to get those perspectives, how resilient people were, the humour that came through as well, how people were creative to get round situations and just the openness of the narratives, the honesty, the painful aspects of them as well, none of that was glossed over in any way. I think you got what was there, what happened, and how people saw it. I think that’s very important for the future, you know. We don’t deal with legacy that brilliantly here, but that’s going to be an aspect that has dealt with legacy pretty well I think, giving a rounded picture from everyone’s point of view. I think that’s really, really valuable.