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The Prisons Memory Archive: Walking through place to address legacy of conflict

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The Prisons Memory Archive: Walking through place to address legacy of conflict
by Constance Victor
27 November 2020 

The Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) is an inclusive collection of walk-and-talk recordings with those who had a connection with the prisons of Armagh Gaol and Maze and Long Kesh during the conflict in Northern Ireland. The project has done exceptional work in bringing together former prisoners, prison officers, visitors, journalists and educators who recounted their experiences whilst visiting Northern Ireland prisons. 

The project’s goal is to educate and raise awareness of the experience lived by many during the Troubles, as well as to preserve and archive their memories of the conditions and circumstances that brought them there. 

The experiences were recounted through the use of the oral history tradition of life-storytelling. Two prisons are featured in the Prisons Memory Archive:

Armagh Gaol. © Prison Memory Archive

Armagh Gaol, located in the city of Armagh, was originally built around 1780 and remained unchanged for many years. During the 19th century, prison inspectors repeatedly found the prison to be lacking space and adequate amenities for the prison population. From 1920 onwards the prison was primarily for women. During the Troubles, it housed many female internees and political prisoners. The prison was officially closed in 1986.

Maze and Long Kesh Prison. © Prison Memory Archive

The Maze and Long Kesh are located in the city of Maze. Long Kesh was a disused World War II airfield that was used as an internment camp when the process was introduced in August 1971. It was considered as a maximum security prison, as the entire site was encircled by watchtowers and a perimeter wall. The prison created blocks (with the shapes of the letter “H”) to disable the opportunity for loyalists and republicans to meet. The prison was also infamously known for detaining ten republicans in 1981, who died in a hunger strike whilst in prison. 

“Archiving began in 2006,” recounts Cahal McLaughlin, the Director of the Prison Memory Archive.  “In the 2000s, prisoners were interested in visiting the prisons once more, and we thought it would help them adapt better to life outside by bringing them back to the site of experiences they had.”

“The objective was to be a co-author of the stories shared by the many participants, with the least intervention from the journalists as possible,” Cahal added. 

The project and its website offers a large collection of archives, including a selection of specially-commissioned essays and movies that navigate through the testimonies of various individuals, as well as narrating the history of the prisons. 

The project was inspired by a documentary produced by Rithy Panh, a French-Cambodian filmmaker, who interviewed Cambodian ex-prisoners who suffered from the conditions of the s-21 interrogation center during the Cambodian Civil War, in which many others died. 

“This documentary showed that when the prisoners were brought back to the interrogation centre, it impacted their memories. They began to perform their memory,” Cahal said. 

The essays and films of the PMA Project attempt to highlight the significance of oral history in dealing with the conflict and its legacy. 

“We learn a lot from oral history,” Cahal McLaughlin replied when asked why this method is important in order to archive memories and testimonies. He added: “It isn’t meant to bring closure; it provides a platform where people can begin to make sense of their past. By simply asking people to tell their stories, they can put together their fragmented past, helping them address their trauma.”

For example, the essay “Inside Stories: Memories from the Maze and Long Kesh” investigates the effect of place upon memory. Ex-loyalist and republican prisoners were brought back to Long Kesh, and were asked to walk once more within its spaces. It made it possible for them to remember details, past experiences and emotions that they were unable to relive until they were physically brought back to the place where they were imprisoned during the conflict. This essay is meant to remind the reader of the importance of the access to sites of history in order to collect crucial memories. On one of his first films of the project, “Inside Stories”, Cahal talked about the importance of minimising the editing of the film, in order to allow for “inclusive subjectivity”. 

Cahal has received many responses from people who have gone through the project, such as a prison officer saying that the project allowed him to heal, to cut off his memory. “There was a degree of healing involved in a safe space for the prison officer, and that was a reward, a validation of what we were trying to achieve.”

Additionally, Cahal regrets the lack of governmental resources provided for people to talk about their memory: 

“After the Good Friday Agreement, there were many local bottom-up initiatives from communities all around Northern Ireland, but they lack the resources to sustain themselves,” said Cahal. 

For the most curious who are willing to extend their knowledge on the project, the interactive website offers an extensive number of secondary data and resources to accompany academics, on the education page. 

The archives have already been used for secondary education and are being updated regularly. On the question of the involvement of younger generations in the archiving of memories, Cahal believes it’s important for the youth to realise that “people involved in the conflict were very young, and when they [young people] realise that, it affects their ability to open up their curiosity about the past.” 

If you are wondering about the meaning or significance of a word used in relevance to the project, a glossary is available. There are more than 300 hours of material available on the website, including full recordings and recently added information on the experience of women in men’s prisons and in women’s prisons. 

Cahal concluded with expressing his hope for upcoming exhibition events linked to the Prison Memory Archive, during which the role of prisons during the peace process will be explored.

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