Armagh Stories:  Voices from the Gaol

Cahal McLaughlin

Citer cet article

McLaughlin, C. (2017). Armagh Stories: Voices from the Gaol. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 4.


This essay reflects on the recording, editing and exhibition of the documentary film, Armagh Stories: Voices from the Gaol (2015) , which is edited from material selected from the Prisons Memory Archive . Armagh Gaol was the primary site of female incarceration during thirty years of political conflict in Northern Ireland in the second half of the last century, known as the Troubles. Using protocols of co-ownership, inclusivity, and life-storytelling, the PMA took participants back to the site of their experiences, where the materiality of the site stimulated performances of memory telling.

Mots Clés

Documentary Film, Memory, Prison, Female, Ireland, Troubles, Participatory Practices.


The importance of storytelling to societies emerging out conflict has been established elsewhere[1] and is one aspect of the three planks in the British, Irish and Northern Irish governments’ attempts to address the legacy of a violent past[2]. The Prisons Memory Archive (PMA), funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and one of many ‘bottom-up’ initiatives[3], is a collection of 175 recordings of those who experienced the prison system in Northern Ireland during the Anglo Irish political conflict known as the Troubles. Using protocols of co-ownership, inclusivity and life-storytelling, the PMA recorded a range of experiences in the predominantly female prison, Armagh Goal, in 2006 and the male Maze and Long Kesh Prison in 2007; those who contributed included prison staff, prisoners, journalists, teachers, probation and social workers, chaplains, visitors, solicitors and maintenance workers. Co-ownership of the material allows for co-authorship, which is important to any project dealing in psychic and political sensitivities. Life-storytelling extends this policy by encouraging participants to set their own agenda of what, where and how subjects are addressed. One aim of the archive is to enable our society to hear the story of the ‘other’, so that we can acknowledge and understand the experiences of all sections of society; this seems particularly important in a society emerging out of decades of political violence.


In 2006, we were given permission by Armagh City and Borough Council, which had taken ownership of the prison from the Northern Ireland Office, to film for a period of two weeks. 35 people were taken back to the old Victorian prison in Armagh City to record their memories. Most were women, since this was a predominantly female prison, although some men were included since they were also imprisoned there in the early days of the Troubles when the numbers of those arrested exceeded the capacity of the previously ‘normal’ prison system. The prison was originally built in 1780 and expanded during the Victorian era to take on the classic style of the Panopticon[4], with several wings emanating from a central ‘Circle’. Two wings had two floors of cells, while a third wing had three floors. The prison had closed in 1986 and at the time of the recordings was in a state of decay, with roof tiles missing, paint peeling off walls and the railings, and dead rats and pigeons lying in corridor. Despite, or because of this decay, there was an aesthetic beauty to the high ceilings and the interweaving patterns of iron stairways and grilled gates. When we operated there, during the summer period, it was colder inside the thick walls of the dilapidated building than it was on the outside.

It was important that we had as representative as possible a range of constituencies. One of the distinguishing features of this prison was the unequal numbers of republican and loyalist prisoners. Unlike the Maze and Long Kesh Prison, which had approximately similarly numbers from these political groups, republican women far outnumbered Loyalist women in Armagh. One reason may have been that women were more readily welcomed in republican groups than in the loyalist groups[5]. Another constituency that was not fully represented was that of Prison Officers. While we were able to record two female Prison Officers, we were aware that many choose not to contribute, mainly because of the then fragility of the peace process that had resulted from the Belfast Agreement of 1998. While ex-prisoners had established self-help organisations, other constituencies were not so easily contactable, such as chaplains and solicitors, but we made progress by word of mouth. Over two weeks, we filmed the participants walking and talking their way around the site. A system of briefing before and debriefing after each recording attempted to provide a sense of informed consent, so that the intentions of the project and the processes of filming was understood.  Participants took, on average, one and a half hours to record their contributions, with some people taking just 20 minutes and others up to four hours.


Jolene Mairs had previously created an installation from the Armagh PMA material, entitled Unseen Women: Stories from Armagh Gaol[6], but no attempt had been made to create an intercut linear film. When it came to editing a linear narrative, we were aware of the context of the prison’s reputation in popular culture. As stated above, the majority of prisoners were female republicans and the issues of strip searches, no-wash protesting and hunger striking were well-known elements of their struggle for political status against the British Government’s attempt to criminalise that struggle, both inside and outside the prison system. When choosing from the 35 recordings, we had to take this and several other issues into consideration. The first was to reproduce the inclusivity that remains at the heart of the PMA project. While, like any storyteller, we wanted to prioritise the most compelling, performative and visually engaging stories, such as movement around the prison, we also needed to ensure that there was a range of stories that reflected, if not the entire participant range, then at least a reasonably diverse range. We had experience of such negotiation between performance and variety with the post production of We Were There (2013)[7] on the experiences of women in the male Maze and Long Kesh Prison. In that film, the range of women included teachers, probation officers, visitors and artists. In our new film, we had access to those who were more at the ‘coal-face’, such as prisoners and prison officers, as well as others who experienced the prison as part of their work duties.

Another key protocol of the PMA is co-ownership, and therefore co-authorship, so we had to ensure that the participants were happy with the editing of their material, which can change the meaning and significance of particular recordings when cut short and/or when placed next to another’s recording. As in We Were There, we sent drafts at each editing stage to the participants to comment on, to amend if necessary and to approve before moving onto the next stage of editing. Once a final rough edit was prepared, we were able to add additional footage, text and a soundtrack. We decided that the participants’ contributions would stand alone, without any other footage over it. When text was used to provide context for contributions, e.g. to explain ‘internment’ and ‘segregation’, we used minimal wording in order to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation in a society where historical and cultural descriptors can be contested. We also choose to use only a minimal musical soundtrack, which accompanies the visual breaks, in order not to over-determine the atmosphere of the film; at one point the composer was asked to reduce the base in the music, because it conveyed too much darkness. The visual sequences, which acted as ‘breathing spaces’ for audiences to reflect on what they had just seen and heard, were composed entirely of images from the prison itself, recorded during the same period as the participants were. We eschewed archive footage, despite its availability, because of our emphasis on the priority of the participants memories of their experiences, and not to dilute this with, say, broadcast news footage.


To date there have been only two screenings to comment on; at Armagh Irish Local History Library and at Queens Film Theatre, Belfast. Responses have been positive, especially with regards to the range of stories, in particular the prison officers who have not appeared on public media before. A recent documentary film, A Kind of Sisterhood (2015)[8] focused on the story of republican women’s struggles, while Armagh Stories opens up the contributions to include loyalist prisoners, as well as teachers, a solicitor, a doctor and a chaplain. Such a range of stories is important in a society where listening to the ‘other’ is still not a common practice and yet crucial to generating understanding; the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, commissioned by the British government, recommended, ‘…all sides need to be encouraged and facilitated to listen and hear each others’ stories.’[9] Another response from audiences concerned the pleasure of having the participants ‘talk for themselves’ with minimal intervention by questioning and by the avoidance of quick intercutting. At 57 minutes, the film was described as ‘not long enough’, which shows an appetite for this type or work. With previous films, participants have frequently attended after screening discussions, but the nature of this film makes this less likely to happen. The themes covered in the film can be painful and sensitive, so the prospect of exposing oneself to questioning in a public space is not appealing.


This second attempt at editing an intercut linear narrative from the material in the Prisons Memory Archive has allowed us to test out the placing of sequences next to each other that might contrast, oppose and challenge the experiences of others. This risks the intention of the Prisons Memory Archive to allow audiences to select from an archive and navigate their own way through the material, as can be done at the interactive site Our motivation was inspired partly by experimentation, but also by funding opportunities: it proved difficult to secure funding to develop the interactive side of the archive, and easier to fund a linear film. We believe that the experiment has worked, in that none of the selected participants have refused to contribute and that their amendments, when offered, have been minor; audiences have reacted positively to the selection of stories and to the pace and length of the film. Finally, we have a more mobile artifact, which can be seen collectively, encouraging discussion after screenings. This last element is almost as important as the film itself, in that audiences, usually from varied backgrounds, have the opportunity to hear contrasting stories and to make sense of them in situations where they have the opportunity to express themselves and to listen to others’ interpretations, which they might not agree with; the film, and its participants’ experiences has, to date, been responded to with consideration and respect.


[1] Lacey Rogers, K. and Leydesdorff, S. Trauma: Life Stories of Survivors. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

[2] While the latest Stormont House Agreement did not deal with the legacy of the past, the governments have committed to returning to this subject in the future; see

[3] For other examples, see

[4] See

[5] Fairweather, E., McDonagh, R. and McFadyean, M., (1984) Only Our Rivers Run Fre: Northern Ireland – the Women’s War. London: Pluto Press

[6] See

[7] Edited by Laura Aguiar and Cahal McLaughlin, For more on the production process of this film, see Aguiar, L. (2014), We Were There, The Women of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison: Collaborative Filmmaking in Transitional Northern Ireland. PhD Thesis, Queens University Belfast.

[8] Devlin, M. and Hackett, C. (2015) A Kind of Sisterhood. Belfast, which won the best documentary at the London Irish Film Festival, 2015.

[9] Robin Eames and Dennis Bradley, The Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, (2007), 53. Web 24 October 2015.

Biographie de Cahal McLaughlin