Literary motivations to look forward
Books that bend bars @ImagineBelfast
by Eilish BOSCHERT for Shared Future News
13 March 2018
Crumlin Gaol welcomed a panel from Open University (OU) on Tuesday night as part of Belfast’s fourth annual Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics. The ‘Books that Bend Bars’ discussion invited three former political prisoners and OU graduates to discuss the books that inspired them during their time in prison.
National Director of OU, John D’Arcy, welcomed everyone to the event and introduced many of us to OU’s Oral History Archive project that the University has been working on since 2011. All three members of the panel participated in the archive project, which documents the educational life-journeys of former prisoners, and includes over 100 audio interviews.
The panellists included Billy Hutchinson, Jennifer McCann, and Seanna Walsh while OU lecturer, Gabi Kent, facilitated the discussion. OU taught prisoners in Northern Ireland from 1972-2000. This discussion examined the ways books and ideas transform an individual and inspire possibility in the world beyond.
The event began with a short film that highlighted former prisoners’ reflections on influential books — books that inspired them to become community leaders, activists, and peacebuilders. Addressing the panel, Kent asked which books were most meaningful to them during their time in prison and why.
According to Hutchinson, Rape and Plunder of the Shankhill by Rob Wiener stood out most because it targeted issues close to his heart: the so-called ‘upward mobility’ pushed by city planners in under-resourced areas that actually served to further marginalise working class people. Uncovering the ways in which city planners often neglect the needs of local communities inspired him to become a city planner himself, working to protect and give voice to the disenfranchised — infusing his unionism with socialism, an identity that he assures us is not mutually exclusive.
For McCann, Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward resonated with her by highlighting women’s pivotal role in the struggle for Irish Independence, as well as other uprisings across the globe. “Women were hidden from plain sight, but were always there: they weren’t just the backbone, they were front and centre.” The courses McCann took with OU while in Armagh Gaol inspired her to connect with other women through their shared experiences. For her, Unmanageable Revolutionaries promoted unity when Northern Ireland was driven by division.
Seanna Walsh was influenced most by two books: Albert Camus’ L’etranger (The Outsider) and War, Peace, and Social Change — an OU undergraduate module coursebook. Walsh conveyed an overwhelming sense of detachment, and subsequent isolation during his time in prison was mirrored by L’etranger. Ordinary emotions became blunted within the context of perpetual crisis, but the book provided a solace that allowed him to reflect and regain the attachment he had lost. Similarly, the coursebook highlighted the cyclical nature of war and peace within the western world — Walsh saw parallels between the Treaty of Versailles and political dealings in the 1980s. While it was discouraging on some levels, he saw hope for the end of this conflict and began reappraising how to move forward.
Kent followed up with the panel, asking them about the process of recalling and reflecting on these influential books. For Walsh, the books were motivations to look forward, not backward. McCann has been motivated by women’s rights and social justice since her youth, a fact that was iterated by her recent reflections. She wanted to recognise women’s pertinent role in Irish society and in the world at large, as the struggle for equality still exists today. For Hutchinson, he was reminded of the poverty he grew up in — his motivation for working with city planners. He wanted to create a society in which communities were empowered to do things for themselves, using his knowledge and experience to fuel proper social mobility.
As the session concluded, each panellist reflected on Northern Ireland’s current state of affairs, which they agreed remains significantly divided. Without significant change, such as a complete governmental reconstruction, oppressive systems and structures are likely to remain in place. Poverty, education, health, and housing can hardly be addressed when identity and the issues of past remain so contentious.