The Crack in Everything: Bearing witness to truth
by Allison LIRA for Shared Future News
7 December 2018
Held at the Brian Friel Theatre, Belfast Jo Egan’s The Crack in Everything delivered a powerful message about the inextricable link between truth and justice, while producing a creative space within which the audience could “bear witnesses to the pain of others”. In the Director’s Notes, the highly acclaimed director and playwright, Jo Egan, echos Ghandi’s words by writing, “The act of bearing witness … is in itself a truth force: a resistance to oppression using the force of truth.”
The Crack in Everything, presented by The Playhouse Theatre and Theatre Peacebuilding Academy, told the story of six children who were killed during The Troubles between 1971 and 1981. The play was debuted at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry-Londonderry, before touring to Belfast. The cast consisted of a unique mix of those personally connected with the stories told, including Sarah Feeny-Morrison, Maria McGavigan, and Marjorie Leslie, supported by a superb set of professional actors, including Damien Hasson, Colette Lennon Dougal, and Micheál McDaid.
Where are the witness statements?
The cast stood on a raised stage fashioned to look like the solemn remnants of a bombed building, and street lights lining the sides of the theatre emitted a dim, yellow glow. The six cast members stood in two staggered lines, their hands clasped neatly in front of their bodies or hanging loosely by their sides as they played a dynamic range of family and friends telling the stories of their loved one’s tragic deaths. While the circumstances described and the personalities played out changed with each story, one message stayed the same: a deep yearning for justice.
For the Cunninghams, this yearning has manifested itself in a multi-decade mission to secure a new investigation into the killing of 16-year-old Henry Cunningham in 1973. Sitting in the passenger’s seat of a van on his way home from work, Henry was killed by UVF gunmen as they shot into the van from an overhead footbridge. Very little was done to investigate the murder. No witness statements were ever taken from the other men who were sitting in the van along with him, and the case was ruled an open verdict only a few weeks after his death. It was only years later that the Cunninghams learned that the shooters were UVF, and although they suspected that the RUC knew this all along, nobody had ever notified the family. Although repeated requests for a new inquest have been delivered by the Cunninghams over the years, these requests have never been approved.
Sadly, the experience of the Cunninghams is not unique. In the case of all six children killed, the inquests regarding their deaths were often settled before the police investigations were even finished, and the families were often insufficiently incorporated into the decision-making process. In many cases, like in the case Damien Harkin, an 8-year-old boy who was killed by a British Army lorry in 1971, the family wasn’t even formerly informed of the inquest, only finding out about it the day of, from a person in the neighborhood. Despite an implied understanding that Damien’s death had been a result of reckless driving (the soldier manning the lorry was fined 10 pounds for the incident and his license was suspended for three months), no public acknowledgement of wrongdoing was ever issued. The court chose to rule the cause of Damien’s death as a “traffic accident”. Given that the family wasn’t even properly informed of the inquest, the Harkin family were given no recourse to protest this decision.
For the families involved in this play, their requests for justice came in the humblest of forms: a simple acknowledgement of wrongdoing, a public affirmation of the truth. One audience member succinctly summed up the reason why giving the family’s justice in this way is so important: “We can’t move forward until we deal with the past.” How can we expect the families of these children to heal if they alone have to shoulder the burden of carrying the truth?
Forgiveness: A consolation prize
Damien Harkin’s mother wrote a letter forgiving the British soldier who hit and killed her son with a lorry in July 1971. She wrote the letter, in large part, as an attempt to slow the quickly deteriorating peace in Bogside, Derry-Londonderry. That month of July was one of the hottest of the year and was already shaping up to be a very volatile one. Desmond Beattie, a Bogside resident, had been shot dead by the British Army earlier that month, and the smell of smoke and anger hung thick in the air. Riots were frequent and when Damien was killed, conditions only worsened. Given that there was no public acknowledgement of wrongdoing, the Harkin family used the act of forgiveness to attempt to do what the judicial system refused to do: give the community and themselves what they needed to heal.
Similar to Mrs Harkin, for Kathleen Feeney’s father, forgiveness seemed like the only way out. Kathleen Feeney, who was killed in 1973, was shot by an IRA sniper who fired at a British Army checkpoint but hit her instead. A few years later, despite confessing to being at the scene with the intent of firing at the British Army checkpoint, the man suspected of killing Kathleen Feeney was acquitted. For Mr Feeney, the loss of his daughter taught him that “the only closure we’re going to get is with ourselves”. However, for others, finding forgiveness is not enough. For Kathleen’s sister, Kathleen’ unjust death could not go unknown and unacknowledged: “They need to hear our story too.” Kathleen’s sister wrote letters to representatives of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, until one day a public apology was issued by the Provisional IRA, claiming responsibility for the death of Kathleen Feeney and unconditionally apologising. This act of courage and determination resulted in a small amount of closure and space to heal.
The ripple effect
Healing, exacerbated by the imperfect conditions outlined above, was not an easy task. The pain and the trauma inflicted on the children’s loved ones did not just go away with time or even with one person, but instead travelled down through the generations.
Many of the family members struggled with depression in the aftermath of the loss of their loved ones. Damien Harkin’s mother fell into a deep depression after the loss of her eight-year-old son. For a period of time, her sister had to move in to take care of Mrs Harkin’s children, including her youngest that was just a baby at the time. Julie Livingstone’s sister spoke of struggling with depression from a young age and worried about whether her depression had affected her ability to raise her own children.
Julie’s sister also talked about how she thought that her parents took Julie’s death especially hard because Julie was the youngest. Julie’s sister expressed her opinion that if she had been killed, it would have been easier on her parents because she wasn’t the youngest. Many others expressed survivor’s guilt also. Kathryn Eakin’s brother expressed guilt about having been the one to spray the window where his sister Kathryn had been cleaning when the bombs went off that killed her. Kathryn Eakin’s father expressed his guilt at having been part of the UDA and was therefore a target for the IRA bombs that killed Kathryn.
The loss of the children fundamentally changed their relationships with each other and with those that they would later on meet. It’s a trauma that ran deep, and for some became a core aspect of their identity. Annette McGavigan’s brother noted that he was very bitter, especially towards British soldiers. For others, the loss was something they were not able to talk about, as was the case with Kathryn Eakin’s father.
Spaces like the one created through The Crack in Everything are needed to bear witness, in doing so, creating a space of acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and hopefully a space of healing.
Is ignorance bliss?
Is forgetting possible?
After the performance, a young person in the audience expressed gratitude to the show for opening his eyes to experiences that, despite having lived in Northern Ireland his entire life, he had never been exposed to before.
It seems that for a growing generation of young people, forgetting is not only possible, but probable. But is it preferable?
The Crack in Everything cautions those who think of the forgetful nature of the passage of time as the way of getting past Northern Ireland’s violent history. Despite attempts to ignore the consequences of The Troubles out of existence both then and now, the trauma sustained during the conflict persists. Given the demonstrated intergenerational nature of the pain inflicted, it is unclear how far unaddressed grievances will travel into the future.
The performance, however, demonstrated that spaces of healing can also transcend time by creating a moment for the past, present, and future to exist in the same room together. The past was up on stage, providing knowledge; the present existed in the audience, providing acknowledgement; and the future sat in the back row. The future consisted of a group of high schoolers too young to remember The Troubles, their eyes glued to the stories of the pain and trauma that were being acted out in front of them. They represented the promise of a future done differently. The performance managed to provide the essential components to healing and in doing so, generated a tentative hope for a Northern Ireland defined by healing and remembering, rather than forgiving and forgetting.