the north of Ireland in black and white

Works on the Northern Ireland conflict: Murder#4; Sands Hughes O’Hara McCreesh McDonnell Husron Lynch Docherty McElwee Devine; Blanket Man; Untitled (Belfast 1970)

 ‘I can hear the curlew passing overhead. Such a lonely cell, such a lonely struggle.’ Sands, Bobby, ‘The Diary of Bobby Sands’ (1981). Available at  

Northern Ireland, as an occupied state required, ‘violence or the threat of violence to attain its goals. People do not hand over their land, resources, children, and futures without a fight, and that fight is met with violence’(Dunbar-Ortiz R (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon). This, arguably, was the reason for the series of prisoner led Republican campaigns in the 1970s and 80s. The state’s organising framework was in conflict with Republican freedom on the streets, in homes and in prisons. These works are about the brutality of that fight and the people who fought it. They don’t seek to ‘explain’ or even contextualise: they exist to create or to excavate memory, to honour the constituted being. 

Bobby Sands – Blanket Man

“I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign, independent socialist republic” (Bobby Sands as quoted in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981 (IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau). 

Sands and his comrades set up alternate systems inside prisons, they had hierarchy and leadership. Those who were chosen for the hunger strike were carefully selected. It wasn’t anarchic, it was precisely planned and executed. Learning from the errors of the previous hunger strikes, the death of one striker would result in a new strike commencing. As incarcerated people, they had limited control over their day to day activity. 

‘Prison writings originating in the Cages of Long Kesh provide dramatic evidence of how Republican prisoners co-opt and appropriate the space of the prison to at least partially invert the disciplinary structures intended to break them and isolate them from their comrades’  Whalen, Lachlan. “Our Barbed Wire Ivory Tower”: The Cages of Long Kesh. Available at: fight for freedom was not (merely) the freedom of the body to exist with agency in physical space, but the freedom of the body’s ability to fight for such freedom. It exists in the doing of the pursuit of freedom.

Patsy O’Hara – Murder#4

 In Patsy O’Hara’s words (the fourth of ten political prisoners who died in the 1981 hunger strikes):

 “We stand for the freedom of the Irish nation so that future generations will enjoy the prosperity they rightly deserve, free from foreign interference, oppression and exploitation. The real criminals are the British imperialists who have thrived on the blood and sweat of generations of Irish men. They have maintained control of Ireland through force of arms and there is only one way to end it. I would rather die than rot in this concrete tomb for years to come” (Published in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981. IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau). 

To create memories for and of O’Hara, his image was created and recreated using large format photocopies, traced in black paint, with his words placed around and throughout his representation. In layering words and images, these are stories, half stated, half remembered. 

 ‘His corpse was found to be mysteriously disfigured prior to its departure from prison and before the funeral, including signs of his face being beaten, a broken nose, and cigarette burns on his body’ (Feldman, Allen (1991). Formations of Violence. The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 264, 302).  

The body has become a site of retribution, holding the marks of pointless punishment. The state’s actors of violence could only make their mark in death. Or put differently, what they could not do in life, they did in death.

What of the connections between political activism/ political performance, and creativity/ imagination?  Thinking and imagining are creative processes with social connotations. The social fabric within Long Kesh, tightly controlled though it may have been, was a place of learning and collaboration. The imprisoned created ways to share  and evolve that were constructive, disruptive and imaginative. 

‘Sands… read voraciously – his favourites including Frantz Fanon, Camilo Torres, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, George Jackson and, of Irish writers, Connolly, Pearse and Mellows’ ( Beresford, David (1987). Ten Men Dead: Harper Collins. p. 60).

The ingenuity of prisoners in finding ways to communicate has the potential to speak to us about how creativity, repression and political activism interact with and feed each other. Building and creating worlds of safety, a kind of poiesis, perhaps. Irish republicans used codenames to protect identities both within and without prison walls. Radios, code named ‘Mrs Dale’ (a popular radio soap at the time) were smuggled into Long Kesh. Is this not a kind of performance in action?  

We can’t, of course, label everything that has an action a performance. How do we, then, define what is an act of creation, an act of the imagination? How do we consider violent acts within a process or act of the imagination?

 These are collective actions by committed people. The transformation that is possible through collective acts is underpinned by creative self expression. Both are seemingly necessary for self constitution.  

George Mangakis wrote of his experiences in jail: 

‘Self-defence.  That is why I write.  That is how I manage to keep my mind under control.  If I let it loose, unsupported by the frame of the written thought, it goes wild.  It takes strange sinister by-ways, and ends up begetting monsters (George Mankaris quoted in Soyinka, Wole (1985). The Man Died: Spectrum Books, Ibadan. p.12).

There is an ecology at play here – between individual creative acts, and overt political and collective acts – both are creative and imaginative. For these works, both acts are honoured and acknowledged. The collective actions and the internal processes.

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