Film as a Form of Public Advocacy.
My own research and creative practice has been looking at particular historical events in order to assist victims affected by exceptional traumatic experiences. The role of filmmaking in creating a space for families to take ownership of their own narratives has been central to my work, and promoting wider public acknowledgment of the experiences of bereavement, loss, and the lack of closure and justice, that has been suffered.
The Long Journey Home (2013) and Ballymurphy (2014), for example, both look at significant political events that affected the lives of the West Belfast community in 1988 and 1971, respectively. The films, while redressing an imbalance within public discourse offer a contextual appreciation of both events from the perspectives of the families themselves, an important procedure not previously afforded by institutional broadcasters in cases of state violence.
My new film, Unquiet Graves (2016) investigates the role of the Glenanne Gang in the murder of over 120 people on both sides of the Irish border between 1972 & 1978. It will detail how members of the RUC & British Army collaborated with known sectarian killers in the targeted assassinations of farmers, shopkeepers, publicans and other civilians in a campaign aimed at terrorizing the most vulnerable in society. The group was also responsible for the Dublin/Monaghan bombings in 1974, the incident being the deadliest attack in the Irish Republic’s history.
As with my previous film, Ballymurphy , Unquiet Graves (2016) can be considered to be a form of public advocacy for the families, a lobbying tool to highlight the inadequacies or the limits of the criminal justice system. In April last year, I travelled with the families of the Ballymurphy Massacre to Westminster where a film was screened. The audience comprised a number of politicians from all political persuasions, from the Tories to the Scottish National Party.
After the meeting, I spoke to family members who were moved by the efforts of all the parties involved in taking their time to listen. Pat Quinn, whose brother Frank was murdered in Ballymurphy in a later conversation remarked on the importance of people in listening to their stories, adding that the media subversion and criminalization of his brother compounded the hurt that was visited upon his family. “ It’s bad enough to hear that your brother was murdered but then to witness the lies that were propagated by the media that he was an IRA gunman was worse again”.
The sentiments expressed by Pat have been echoed throughout my work. As we have witnessed the continued failure of both governments in addressing legacy issues, the issue of adequately dealing with the past now takes centre stage as part of the ongoing peace process. For many, a sense of legal redress seems further away than ever.
In conclusion, the work of filmmakers in Ireland now holds greater responsibility than ever, and as we examine films now dedicated to public advocacy, for some it may be their only source of comfort in their wider efforts of achieving truth and/or justice.
A Story from the Crum.
On passing the Crumlin Road jail some weeks ago, I had a friend ask me if I had been inside after the recent refurbishment. It was over thirty years since I passed through those damp Victorian walls when visiting my father as a child. I had thought of other family members on both sides who had been incarcerated there before moving on to a longer sentence in Long Kesh. After the recent anniversary of my uncle Dan McCann it had stoked up old memories and ignited a recollection of a newspaper article that had been printed in a local newspaper a couple of years before. Entitled “Certain people can leave a lasting impression”. It was a personal piece written by someone inspired by two men who had befriended him in Crumlin Road Jail in 1978.
The letter detailed how the two men shared a cell next to his on A1, explaining how both, although visibly injured maintained the morale of the other Republican prisoners. “I spotted these two individuals walking down the wing with a very dishevelled and abused appearance. One of these men was using a crutch and was obviously in a lot of pain. The other had a black eye and was very pale in complexion.” The man with the black eye was Dan McCann, courtesy of Castlereagh, and the man with the crutch was hunger striker Francis Hughes.
Francis Hughs had recently been arrested following a gun battle in which an undercover British soldier was killed. Francis was seriously wounded during the exchange and was captured in a follow-up search of the area. Big Dan had also been arrested after being caught with a detonator in Townsend Street, Belfast a month before, and had received a serious assault by the RUC afterwards in Castlereagh. When visiting my grandmother a number of days ago she had recalled her visit to Dan in the Crum during this period. “I visited Danny with your aunt Sarah and another prisoner caught his eye. It was Francis Hughs. He called him over and introduced us both.” I’m Francis Hughes, he said”, “Are you from Derry”? “No, he replied, South Derry”.
He made a lasting impression on my grandmother and I could hear this in every nuance of her voice. She recalled the time when Francis was named as the next Hunger Striker with Unionist politicians voicing their opinions that the strike would not last. “I remember a senior RUC man was interviewed in a national newspaper in reaction to these politicians. His reply was that if Hughes was on hunger strike, he would die. He would not break”.
Big Dan was also to meet his early death as he was gunned down by the SAS along with his two friends, Mairead Farrel and Seán Savage in Gibraltar in March 1988. I have very vivid memories of Dan as a boy and reminisce many occasions of him at work or visiting my grandmothers. He worked at his fathers butchers at the bottom of Clonard Street, on the Falls Road whenever time allowed, and it is here that I recall one particular story. One day, as meat was being delivered to the butchers, I decided to ‘hop’ the lorry up Clonard Street to get up home quickly. Little did I know Dan saw me and run the entire street up towards the chapel behind the lorry. Dan was well made and a very fit big lad and as I jumped off the lorry he began to chase me around cars parked outside the church. He eventually caught me after getting another guy to block my exit and hit me an unmerciful boot up the backside. This angered me and I began to shout at him that my Da would fix him when he got out of jail. His reply was moving and stays with me to this day, “While your Da is in jail, I’m your Da”. My father did get out of jail months later and a short time after this Danny himself was dead.