Who Tells What to Whom and How: The Prisons Memory Archive

Cahal McLaughlin

To Cite this Article

McLaughlin, C. (2014). Who Tells What to Whom and How: The Prisons Memory Archive. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 1.


This essay will consider the recording and exhibition of stories from a conflicted past in a contested present; who gets to tell what stories to whom and under what conditions? I will use the case study of the online Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) – a collection of filmed interviews at the locations of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison, which held male prisoners, and Armagh Gaol, which held female prisoners. Both operated during the period of political violence during the last third of the 20th century in the North of Ireland (www.prisonsmemoryarchive.com). As Director of the PMA, I was involved from research through production to exhibition.


Memory, Documentary Film, Post-Conflict, Ireland, Participatory Practices, Archive.


This PMA project established early on the need to address the political and psychic sensitivities at work in such a contentious location for both participants and viewers [1]. Ethical protocols of inclusivity, co-ownership and life-storytelling were employed in order to address concerns about remembering experiences from a conflict that is within living memory and which continues to produce spasms of violence. An illustration of the ongoing contention over the location’s meanings can be seen in the decision to withdraw the proposal to construct a Peace Building Centre at the Maze and Long Kesh site, designed by the renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, with the promise of E18million from the European Union. The plan was scuppered by the Northern Ireland Assembly First Minister, Peter Robinson, because of political opposition within his own Democratic Unionist Party that regarded the site as being a ‘shrine to terrorists’.[2]

Inclusivity refers to the spread of experiences, where as full a range as possible of those who experienced the prison, such as prison staff, prisoners, teachers, visitors, and chaplains, were all able to contribute. Co-ownership refers to the sharing of the story’s authorship, so that participants were able to remain co-authors (along with the filmmakers) of their stories and not give up rights to editing and exhibition. Life-story telling is an oral history methodology, which avoids leading questions and encourages the participant to set the agenda of what should be addressed. [3]


We filmed 35 interviews inside Armagh Gaol over two weeks in the summer of 2006 and 140 interviews over three weeks inside the Maze and Long Kesh Prison in 2007. Each participant, or small group of participants (some interviewees wished to be filmed together), were briefed for about 20 minutes about the process of filming, which usually included one camera operator using a radio microphone accompanying them as they walked-and-talked their way about the prison, with only occasional questions posed to tease out issues they had previously expressed a wish to address.

Most participants took the initiative in deciding where to go and what to talk about, as the materiality of the spaces, architecture and furniture stimulated their memories. Many instinctively took on the role of co-directing: the choreography of camera operator and participant collaboration can clearly be observed when Armagh prisoner, Josie Dowds, walks ahead of the operator, who tilts the camera to have a temporary view of the first floor landing, then rushes down the stairs to catch up, and they circle each other looking for the best positions – the operator to position the light behind her and the participant to see into the cell – as Josie remembers raising a new-born baby in the prison: see Josie Dowds at http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/armagh-stories/. This five-minute sequence also shows evidence of the arrangement with the camera operators, who were asked not to consider the film being cut in an edit suite, but to imagine that the entire recording would be exhibited. So although the operator, Deirdre Noonan, does rush down the stairs, she keeps the camera as steady as possible (we hear her breathing heavily and coughing).

Our methodology produced a free flowing structure, with participants’ stories veering from chronological sequencing to more spatially influenced, with, for example, a memory being resuscitated by the sight, sound or smell of a discovery. In one example, a Prison Officer, John Hetherington, enters the hospital in the Maze and Long Kesh and pauses, knowing he has the opportunity to reflect, before offering an almost six minute consideration of his experiences and contemplation of his memories from the period when ten prisoners died on hunger strike in 1981: see John Hetherington’s ‘hospital’ at http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/place/. John’s monologue shifts between his recollection that ‘thinking was the enemy’, through having ‘some sympathy’ with the families of the hunger strikers, to questioning how memory works, ‘I don’t think we remember ourselves how we were’, and to an observation that, ‘this is the most difficult place I have been for many years’.

For some the experience was expressed in wonder, as they were offered the opportunity to visit the site of their previously intense experiences. When Jacqui Upton walks towards her cell, she appears almost pleased to be in the space again and is shocked at the size of the cell, ‘My God, it’s small’. She almost fondly remembers the few times that she was able to watch television when the other prisoners were at Irish language classes. She leans on the landing railing, physically relaxed as she recounts her experiences, sometimes difficult, of her being the only loyalist in a wing of republican prisoners: see Jacqui Upton at http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/armagh-stories/.


There have been a number of options to exhibit the archive. We were faced with two dilemmas – participants’ concerns about where the material would be screened and the difficulties in raising funds. One of the original aims of the project was to make as much of the material from each recording as available as possible, given participants’ agreement, rather than edit selected highlights. However, attracting funding for post-production has been difficult to sustain and the option of editing extracts was a compromise we estimated would at least continue the process of making material available. Firstly, PhD student, Jolene Mairs, selected stories from 14 participants from the women’s prison recordings to upload onto our website: see http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/armagh-stories/. We decided that the names of those chosen should be used to identify and distinguish, but refrained from adding any more information, such as their role in the prisons. Part of our aim was, and is, to limit viewers’ political and cultural baggage, so that they have to work out for themselves the participant’s roles. We wanted to encourage curiosity and reduce assumptions before viewing. From this selection, Jolene edited a 27 minute film of six discreet stories from the women’s prison, entitled, Unseen Women: Stories from Armagh Gaol. She created mini-stories by editing together a short narrative, usually from the same sequence in the recording. We also decided that we would leave out names of people who were referenced in the story, unless they had passed away, because not everyone who spent time as a prison officer or prisoner wishes this to be known, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for personal reasons: this decision was extended to all subsequent outputs. Reflecting the range of stories, the film included a prison officer, three prisoners, and two Open University teachers. Unseen Women was screened, followed by public discussions, at various venues throughout Ireland and in London. The reception has been varied in detail although consistently supportive of the project [4]. In one screening, at the Local History Library in Armagh City, one audience member, who described herself as coming from a nationalist background, appreciated the presence of a prison officer in the film, who remembers her experiences as a young mother trying to balance work and home life. ‘She was just a uniform before, but now she has been humanised’, the audience member said in the discussion afterwards: see Daphne Scroggie at http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/armagh-stories/. At another screening in Derry, again with a predominantly female audience, one audience member argued that a prisons officer’s sequence should be removed from the film, because she discussed her own family situation, but did not address the allegations of abuse in the prison. Another audience member countered by saying that the screening contained only an extract and that our society needs to hear all the stories from our past, including those that we might find uncomfortable. The idea that we should not proscribe, but listen to all versions of the past, turned out to be the unanimous view of the audience.

Secondly, and more recently, we have produced from the archive a feature length documentary of the female experience inside the male prison of the Maze and Long Kesh, entitled We Were There. Another student, Laura Aguiar, chose this topic for her practice-based PhD and began selecting and editing material in order to create a narrative to fit the linear, edited format. This is unlike the six discreet stories by Jolene, because of the intercutting of material, which can add new meanings, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Continuing the protocol of collaborating closely with participants, Laura chose 12 women from the original recordings, which included three tutors, two probation service workers, an artist-in-residence, a journalist, and six relatives of the prisoners who were frequent visitors. A structure of journeying through the prison was decided upon, although, as in most edit decision-making, this was over-layered with themes that demanded attention even though the action ‘jumped’ from, say, inside a cell, to outside. Each draft edit, which contained all the contributions to the film, has been sent to participants and minor alterations have been made as requested. No voice-over was used, in order to minimize intervention, with text used to contextualize some sections that required explanation. The completed film was screened to participants and families/friends at an invitation-only event, which will be the first time that most of the women had met each other. The film was premiered at the Belfast Film Festival with 9 participants sitting on an after-screening discussion panel. See a promo for the film at http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/promo/

The latest development in this ongoing research project is the creation of an online page of interactive access to a selection of 24 of the participants’ stories from the Maze and Long Kesh Prison: www.prisonsmemoryarchive.com/archive-maze/. Our aim is to make all their recorded material available in an accessible way and not just the edited highlights, which is necessary for a linear edited documentary, but which could leave up to 90% of the recorded material ‘in the editing room’, i.e. unseen. There was an average recording time of 2 hours per participant (some recording for half an hour, others for four hours). With over 50 hours of material to view, we needed to devise a structure that encouraged navigation and avoided overpowering viewers with the density and quantity of material. We came up with a number of categories that the material could be sub-divided into and cross-referenced as mini-stories. We wanted these to reflect concepts that would encourage lateral and more intuitive approaches to the material, e.g. relationships, gender, coping, and communication, rather than more obviously ‘rational’ approaches, e.g. chronology, ideology, etc. We also decided, as we had done with the Armagh material, not to include the roles of the participants in our descriptions, but, because of the possibility of creating several mini-stories from one source, such six Howard Giffen mini-stories about ‘Place’, we gave each of these mini-stories sub-titles, e.g. conditions: see Howard in (http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/place/). Of course, there were overlaps and some repetition, so that Howard’s ‘dirty’ protest appears in both ‘Place’ and ‘Protests’ categories, but we attempted to limit this repetition. We also made the ‘full interviews’ of the 24 participants available at the bottom of this page, in order to allow viewers to move between a mini-story and its full version from which it was extracted: http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/interviewees/. We also have a link on the page to ‘video tours’, which show areas of the prison site without participants, so that viewers may get a sense of being there themselves: http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com/tour-of-mlk/. These were filmed in buildings that have since been mostly demolished, and show the prisons’ different functions, e.g. the compounds; which was the hut style accommodation and operated from the start of the conflict; the H-Blocks which replaced the compounds and became famous during the hunger strikes of 1981; the warehouses and training workshops, the exercise yards and the Quaker visitor’s centre.

Research Findings

With the North of Ireland emerging out of violence, there is a general, but not yet officially recognized, consensus that storytelling can be one of the ways of addressing the legacy of the conflict in the present. The Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner’s We Will Remember Them (1998) [5], The Report of the Consultative Group on the Past [6], and the Hass Report (2014) [7], all established by the government, call for storytelling as part of a range of recommendations requiring government support, yet none have been implemented to date. The Prisons Memory Archive is just one of the many initiatives that have been produced by civil and academic communities as part of the attempt to find ways to come to terms with our violent past [8].

Most users’ responses to the archive have so far validated the protocols of co-ownership, inclusivity and life-story telling, where the range of stories provoke, stimulate and challenge us to consider the importance of hearing as wide a range of experiences as possible in a society where we continue to contest the meanings and legacies of the past in present circumstances. Reflecting on the screening and discussion after We Were There, Breidge Gadd wrote, in an Irish News feature article, ‘A sizeable section of the cinema audience were young people who weren’t born during those times … I came away utterly convinced that these stories and more have a fundamental role in future peace resolution’ [9].

The most ambitious aspect of the archive is the interactive page with 24 stories. The aim is to encourage users to navigate their own way around the material, offering a limited number of guidelines, and withholding others, so that the users have enough to satisfy their curiosity, but not too much that they bring assumptions too quickly to bear. Our intention is to encourage users not to rush to judgment with their inevitable, and understandable, prior holding of moral or political viewpoints. We hope that users get to know a little of the person before deducting what position they might have held in the prison and their response to that. Since there has been a narrow public discourse around the conflict, e.g. prisoners as ‘terrorists’, our aim is to avoid these limited interpretations as much as possible in order that all stories are heard and not just those which the user feels most comfortable with [10]. We hope that this encourages a listening to the ‘other’ version of the past, an essential element in our society’s attempts to come to terms with the legacy of a violent past.

There are, of course, limitations to the above methodologies. By relying on a life-story approach, we refrained from asking leading questions. Given the nature of the location and its history in the political conflict, some users have asked why we chose not to ask specific questions, e.g. to prisoners about why they were incarcerated. This self-imposed condition can cause limits to the value of the work, but it also, crucially, allows for a consistent approach across all the participants, i.e. that each one is treated equally, with no separate set of questions for each constituency. This is crucial in maintaining a sense of each story being equally valued – they are produced with a consistent methodology. Co-ownership of the material brings its risks and rewards. During periods of heightened political tension in the recent present, e.g. when dissident republican attacks or loyalist protestors create a sense of political instability, some participants have withdrawn permission for their material to be seen publicly. We always agree and attempt to negotiate a moratorium rather than destruction, so that we can return in five or ten years’ time to discuss the situation in changed circumstances. Although this takes up much time and may result in loss of material, it also guarantees that trust is maintained, a crucial element in finding ways to telling and listening to stories from our past. Further, as well as each individual consulted, we have established a Management Group, made up of representatives of the participants’ constituencies, which ensures that the strategic decisions, e.g. where the full archive might be hosted, is discussed and agreed.


In this practice research project, we have investigated methods that address the difficulties of addressing our violent past in the North of Ireland in ways that address aesthetic and ethical concerns. In other words, who tells what, to whom and how. By using a methodology that involves the criteria of co-ownership, inclusivity and life-story telling, we returned to the prisons of the Maze and Long Kesh and Armagh Gaol, filming those who experienced them during the Troubles, as they walked-and-talked their way around the sites. By utilising the formats of linear film and interactive documentary on different occasions, we have encouraged audiences to participate in discussions and/or navigate their way through the material online in order to provoke discussions on how a society might manage its conflicted past in a contested present.


[1] Hackett, C., and Rolsten, B. (2009) ‘The Burden of Memory: Victims, Storytelling and Resistance in Nothern Ireland’, in Memory Studies, 2:3, London: Sage Publications.
[2] http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/in-pictures-belfast-northern-ireland-news-events-and-things-to-do-29589176.html
[3] For more background on the project see, McLaughlin, C (2010) Recording Memories from Political Conflict. Bristol: Intellect.
[4] For more on reception, see Mairs Dyer, Jolene (2014) ‘Unseen Women: Stories from Armagh Gaol.’ Exhibiting Contrasting Memories of a Contested Space. In: Challenging History in the Museum. International Perspectives. Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey.
[5] http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/violence/victims.htm
[6] http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/victims/docs/consultative_group/cgp_230109_report.pdf
[7] http://www.northernireland.gov.uk/haass.pdf
[8] Other examples include An Duchas at http://duchasoralhistoryarchivebelfast.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/archive.html and Epilogues at http://www.epilogues.net/Introduction.asp.
[9] Gadd, B., Irish News, 11.4.2014.
[10] See Miller, D. and Rolston, B. (1996) War and Words: a Northern Ireland Reader. Belfast: Beyond the Pale.

Biography of Cahal McLaughlin