Internment exhibition inspires at Derry’s Playhouse

Launching the photographic exhibition Voices Interned at The Playhouse are, from left, Ria Kelly, Michelle Smyth, Donna Smyth, artist Geraldine Gallagher, Rosemary Lawlor and Jacqui Devine. (0210PG01)

Launching the photographic exhibition Voices Interned at The Playhouse are, from left, Ria Kelly, Michelle Smyth, Donna Smyth, artist Geraldine Gallagher, Rosemary Lawlor and Jacqui Devine. (0210PG01)

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Internment and the trauma it can inflict upon human beings is not something that needs to be explained to the people of Derry.

When it was introduced by the British Army in August 1971, internment saw scores of men and women of all ages taken into custody by the R.U.C. and the British Army.

Artist Geraldine Gallagher, right, with Jacqui Devine who worked on the Voices Interned Project. (0210PG02)

Artist Geraldine Gallagher, right, with Jacqui Devine who worked on the Voices Interned Project. (0210PG02)

The trauma inflicted by internment is arguably immeasurable and many families living in Derry will be all too familiar with the horror, anger and destruction that internment can bring.

The stories of the interned have been told in many forms over the years but seldom have those who were left behind when their loved ones were taken away had the chance to recount their experiences.

That’s now changed with ‘Voices Interned’ - a project that has been delivered by Derry’s Playhouse Theatre’s International Culture Arts Network (I.C.A.N.)

The main aim of the project is to use art as a way of building peace amongst communities. I.C.A.N. provides a platform to explore community relations issues and promotes social inclusion through the exchange of experiences and practice amongst participants from local, national and international backgrounds.

Artist Geraldine Gallagher, left, with Ria Kelly and one of her photographs exhibited as part of the Voices Interned Project. (0210PG03)

Artist Geraldine Gallagher, left, with Ria Kelly and one of her photographs exhibited as part of the Voices Interned Project. (0210PG03)

On Thursday night at the Playhouse Theatre five women from West Belfast shared their experiences and memories of internment with a variety of different people.

Those in attendance included political ex-prisoners, families of army personnel, police personnel and prison officers.

“The great thing about this project is that it encourages the discussion of shared experiences between people of very different backgrounds - it’s very much a cross community project,” said I.C.A.N. Project Co-ordinator Elaine Forde.

“The methodology offers an opportunity to enable families, regardless of political persuasion or occupation the chance to talk about the past in a creative and thought provoking manner,” she said.

Michelle Smyth, left, with artist Geraldine Gallagher and one of the photographs exhibited at the Voices Interned exhibition in The Playhouse. (0210PG04)

Michelle Smyth, left, with artist Geraldine Gallagher and one of the photographs exhibited at the Voices Interned exhibition in The Playhouse. (0210PG04)

‘Voices Interned’ is a project created by artist Geraldine Gallagher. The project focused on the families of ex-prisoners in the North of Ireland. It enabled participants to share their stories with their own family members, communities and people from other communities.

The women from West Belfast all had their own individual memories of internment and through ‘Voices Interned’ they passed on their experiences to their own family members by involving them in the re-enactment of their memories using photographs.

Many of the women’s memories are from over 20 and 30 years ago so to re-enact the memory, younger family members stood in and played the part of the women.

Jacqui Devine, one of the women from West Belfast, recalled how on the day of her first Holy Communion she visited her father in Long Kesh. Jacqui played her mother in the photograph, Mary, Jacqui’s cousin played Jacqui whilst Jacqui’s brother John played her father.

Geraldine Gallagher with Donna Smyth who participated in the Voices Interned Project. (0210PG05)

Geraldine Gallagher with Donna Smyth who participated in the Voices Interned Project. (0210PG05)

“I remember at the time feeling that it was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Jacqui.

“I was in a lovely dress and I was with my mummy and I saw my daddy - I was so happy.

“Now that I am older, that memory has become a sad day for me but I was glad that I was able to live it over again in the photograph.

“My brother John who plays my father in the photograph even wore the jumper my daddy wore that day. John also wore my daddy’s wedding ring.”

Donna Smyth was 18 years-old when she got engaged to her husband in Crumlin Road Gaol. Four months before her fiancé recieved a life sentence Donna and her fiancé became the first couple to be married in Long Kesh in 1985.

Donna’s husband served almost 12 years in prison before being released on licence. The couple have been together for 34 years and have three daughters.

Rosemary Lawlor, right, beside one of her images on display in The Playhouse, pictured with artist Geraldine Gallagher. (0210PG06)

Rosemary Lawlor, right, beside one of her images on display in The Playhouse, pictured with artist Geraldine Gallagher. (0210PG06)

Donna’s daughter, Oonagh, played Donna in her photographic re-enactment of a prison visit during the early 1980s.

“We were always open about what happened with the children but I think that Oonagh’s involvement helped her to get a proper insight into what it was really like back then.

“Everyone knows about how hard it was for the prisoners but it was also extremely tough for the families keeping everything together on the outside.

“We had to carry on - we had to endure the long dark days walking on our own to the prison, we had to make the parcels - we had to write the letters.

“Although a lot of our memories are extremely emotional and at times tough to re-live, I found the whole experience very useful and I think that by recalling and not forgetting the past it can help to make a better future,” she said.

Rosemary Lawlor’s memories of the Troubles are still fresh in her mind. Rosemary was forced from her home in the Ormeau Road when she was only 20 years-old and she moved back home and lived with her mother in Ballymurphy.

“We don’t want to live in the past, that’s not what we are saying here but lest we forget it,” said Rosemary.

“I have vivid memories that will be etched into my memory forever but I found taking part in the project very beneficial.

“One of the memories of mine that we re-enacted was of the march to break the Falls Curfews. We took bread and food for the people of the Falls. There were hundreds of women with children in prams, all the way down the road, people fell in and joined the march.

“My memory of the Falls Curfew March was re-enacted by a community worker playing the role of a soldier and Jacqui stood in for me,” said Rosemary.

Michelle Smyth was only 16 years-old when she was arrested and taken to Castlereagh. Michelle’s mother went along with her but when they arrived, she too was arrested.

“I was terrified when I was arrested. My mum came with me for support as I was underage. When we arrived at Castlereagh they arrested her too. She sang the song ‘Evergreen’ to me from the next cell to let me know everything was ok. Donna’s daughter, Oonagh, played me in the photograph.

“We launched the exhibition a few weeks ago at An Culturlann in Belfast and on the day of the launch I told my eight year-old son Rossa that I had been arrested when I was 16. I told him that I wanted him to come to the exhibition that night to see my photo and God love him, he got all scared because he couldn’t understand that it was a re-enactment - he actually thought he was going to see him mummy in jail.

“The project was a great experience. A)ll of us were hesitant at the start but I think we all agree that it was very worthwhile.”

Ria Kelly said that whilst she found the whole experience emotionally draining she would encourage people to talk about and share their memories.

“I re-lived memories that I’d thought I’d long forgotten about. Like the rest of the women, I was hesitant at the start but I am glad I took part. It took a lot out of me but I’d encourage anyone with similar experiences to ours to do the same - it definitely helps.”

I.C.A.N. is a three year project which has been part-financed by the European Union’s Regional Development fund through EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (PEACE III) managed through Special EU Programmes Body.

The ‘Voices Interned’ exhibition is open to the public at the Playhouse Theatre on Artillery Street until Thursday October 4 and admission is free of charge. For further information contact Elaine Forde on 02871 268027 or email elaine@derryplayhouse.co.uk