Unseen Women


Author: Jolene Mairs
Format: Collaborative post-conflict documentary
Duration: 26′ 14″
Published: July 2013

Research Statement

Questions and Context
Unseen Women: Stories from Armagh Gaol, is a 26min documentary containing the stories of seven women who were connected to Northern Ireland’s only female prison during the Troubles. The documentary contains the stories a former prison officer, a loyalist former prisoner, three republican former prisoners and two Open University tutors. It was edited from interviews filmed on-site at Armagh Gaol in 2006 for the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA), a collection of approximately 175 filmed recordings of people who experienced Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh Prisons during the Troubles (McLaughlin, 2010, pp. 83-107). Recorded in 2006 and 2007, six years after the Maze/Long Kesh closed its doors in 2000 and twenty years after Armagh Goal closed in 1986, PMA participants walked and talked their way around the derelict prisons without the use of a formal interview, using the site itself as a stimulus for their memories. The PMA director, Cahal McLaughlin, employed specific collaborative protocols, namely: shared ownership of the recorded material, shared editorial control, transparency of approach and the right to withdraw from the project at any time. This contrasts with traditional models of documentary filmmaking where the subjects usually relinquish all ownership of recorded material to the production company (Pryluck, 1976, 28:1:27). The collaborative approach adopted by the PMA aims to reduce the power imbalance between those who share their stories and those who record them.

The conflict in Northern Ireland, commonly known as ‘The Troubles,’ refers to the period between 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when violence between loyalist and republican paramilitaries and the British state resulted in the deaths of almost 3,700 people. The cumulative effect of intense violence over a 30-year period within this small geographical area has left an indelible mark, often referred to as its ‘legacy.’ Despite political consensus being reached, violence has continued with two Catholic police officers, two British army soldiers, one Catholic community worker and one Protestant prison officer killed in the ‘post-conflict’ period. Fifteen years after the signing of the Agreement, Northern Ireland is in the midst of finding ways to ‘deal’ with the aftermath of conflict, methods and motivations of which are fraught with political, economic and psychosocial complexities (Dawson, 2007: 17-19, Hamber, 2009: 53-54). Within the context of Northern Ireland’s contested historical narratives, broadly, but not exclusively, categorised as Catholic Irish Nationalist and Protestant British Unionist, practices that remember, or commemorate, past events in Irish history can consolidate divisions and emphasize selective cultural memories:

“The commemoration of death and suffering strengthens the political identity of the separate traditions. The impact of trauma within selective narratives of political memorialising or amnesia, makes it extremely difficult for either Northern Irish tradition to recognize the trauma of the other” (Leydesdorff et al., 2004: 22)

What and how to remember, not only in terms of the recent conflict but many significant events in Irish history, are therefore contested.

Since the ceasefires of 1994, community groups and grassroots movements have utilised various forms of collaborative storytelling as a tool to record their experiences and memories of the Troubles. Some of the first organisations include An Crann ‘The Tree’, which utilised workshops where a variety of creative arts such as drama, textiles, creative writing and photography were employed; The Ardoyne Commemoration Project, which produced a book, Ardoyne: The Untold Truth (2002) commemorating all of those who lost their lives in a predominantly nationalist area of North Belfast; and The Duchas Living History Project, an oral history archive developed by the Falls Community Council in 1999 to record the stories of those affected by the conflict in West Belfast. All employed collaborative methodologies similar to that adopted by the PMA whereby, ‘interviewees receive a copy of their recording on tape and a full transcript of the interview. They are given the opportunity to delete any part of the interview directly following the interview or after hearing it or reading the transcript’ (HTR, 2005: 48). Similarly, McLaughlin’s approach in recording the PMA attempts to give participants a greater degree of control over how their story is (re)presented. When recording sensitive material in contested spaces, the approach prioritises ethics over aesthetics.

Selecting material to exhibit from the PMA within this context of emerging collaborative storytelling practices, selective cultural memories and commemorative practices, and where the reception of the stories of former political prisoners and prison staff is uncertain, made the editorial task complex. Whose story should be told? What was the remit and focus of story selection?


As a practice-led PhD student at the University of Ulster working alongside McLaughlin, an opportunity arose to find ways of bringing the PMA material to the public. Out of 175 recordings made by the PMA, 34 of those were people who had experienced Armagh Gaol, including male and female republican and loyalist former prisoners, female former prison officers, tutors, solicitors, visitors, doctors and chaplains. Given the smaller number of recordings made at Armagh Gaol, and its tendency to be overlooked in favour of the Maze/Long Kesh male political prisoner experience (Corcoran, 2006: xvii), I felt that the first exhibition of material from the PMA should focus on female political prisoners and staff. We had recently completed a project working with a group of individuals who had either lost a loved one or were themselves injured as a result of the conflict where we developed a methodology of editing six 5min self-contained stories placed alongside one another with a short gap between each one to form a linear film (McLaughlin and Mairs, 2012, pp. 29-41). This editorial structure worked well when working with politically sensitive material as it allowed the audience to view contrasting narratives whilst allowing each story to maintain its own integrity. The same editing structure was applied to the Armagh material: six stories were selected from the 31 recordings (some of the 34 participants recorded their stories together) and a short story was edited from each recording approximately five minutes in length. These six stories were placed alongside each other, again with a small gap separating each story, to form a 26min linear film. This novel structure rejects the usual propensity in documentary filmmaking to intercut stories to form a single narrative.

Following the principle of inclusivity that drove the PMA, I decided to include women’s experiences from multiple perspectives, including former political prisoners and prison staff. A further selection strategy was to choose clips that would reduce the practice of ‘othering.’ In Northern Ireland the I/other dichotomy is based on political and religious power structures, ranging from Protestant/Catholic, British/Irish, nationalist/unionist, prisoner/prison officer, victim/perpetrator where ‘political legacies (of the conflict) include increasingly polarized identities, defined in opposition to the other who is perceived to be responsible for the violence’ Dawson (2007: 9). Given this context, I sought to avoid and even reduce this process by choosing clips which humanised and personalised each woman. The clip of the loyalist former political prisoner highlights her position as an isolated minority within the prison system as there were relatively few female loyalists in comparison to republican female prisoners:

Their number at any stage was very low. There was no formal (loyalist paramilitary group) structure. (…) The rare presence of women in loyalist active service units and prison structures, their minority status as a prisoner group (…) and the lack of acknowledgment they received from their community provided clear reasons for their insularity (Aretxaga, 1997: 131).

The prison officer clip shows her describing balancing family life with shift work. This story of domestic routine is likely to be familiar to the audience, challenging the dominant, negative representations of prison officers as a ‘reactionary and obstructionist core, inimical to progress and motivated by sectional interest’ (Corcoran, 2006: 168).

The inclusion of two female tutors discussing how they taught gender studies to female political prisoners using a children’s book that provided examples of gender stereotyping fitted in with a further emerging theme of how women simultaneously adopted and adapted traditional female roles whilst in prison. One issue that seemed to be central to the experience female political prisoners was strip-searching which Corcoran (2006: 184) situates within the wider political climate of punishment:

“All the prisoners (…) considered the practice to be a defining example of State violence against women in prison. Whilst the compulsory exposure of their bodies was unambiguously connected to sexual domination, its timing, conflictual context and the zeal for implementing it led prisoners to place strip-searching firmly in the sphere of political retribution and deterrence.”

A republican prisoner who spoke about her experience of strip searching was therefore also included. The second clip from a republican former prisoner was selected as she was one of the few people in the Armagh recordings to describe the experiences that brought her into prison. She describes how the development of her republicanism was not historically informed, but grew from directly witnessing acts of injustice to her community by the British state. This counteracted reductive images of republican prisoners, maintained by mainstream media to reinforce the view that they had no legitimate agenda other than ‘terrorism’ (Aretaxaga, 1997: 92). The final choice was a republican former prisoner who tells her story of being pregnant when coming into jail, giving birth to her child, keeping him with her in prison for a defined period determined by the State and finally handing him over to her family until she served the remainder of her sentence. This experience, which was unique to the female political prisoner, regardless of being loyalist or republican, was again included in order to create an empathic response in the audience. Identifying titles (other than the women’s names) were deliberately avoided when they first appeared on screen. Each woman’s position in the prison is revealed in the course of her testimony; whether she was prisoner or prison officer, loyalist or republican. This was intended to make audiences aware if they were trying to contextualise the woman in terms of her role in the prison as staff or political prisoner whilst watching her story. The editing strategy therefore encouraged the audience to respond to the women as people first, and loyalist, republican or prison officer second. Additional layers of mediation such as voice-overs and visual cutaways were also minimised. Whilst the overall recording and editing methodolgies adopted cannot guarantee ‘collapsing the distance between reality and representation’ (Bruzzi, 2006:8), the overall aim was to maintain emphasis on the participants as storytellers.

Collaborative protocols extended to the editing process whereby participants were asked to (re)view their edited clip and were given the opportunity to remove any section they wished or withdraw it in its entirety. Four of the seven participants made use of the right to self-edit. They removed small sections where they had talked about either a colleague or fellow prisoner and were uncertain if the information they had given was accurate. Whilst these changes had the effect of creating cuts that may be aesthetically and narratively displeasing to the audience, in a politicised post-conflict context it represents the compromises necessary when providing access to contrasting narratives takes priority over aesthetics. Whilst the overall changes were minimal, the implications for the participants were significant and ensured all seven women felt comfortable showing their story publicly.

This work adds to the field of collaborative filmmaking practice by devising an editorial structure, consisting of self-contained short stories within the linear documentary, which allows contrasting narratives of a contested space to occupy the same filmic space in a post-conflict context. The 6x5min framework offers a potential production model for similar work, however it is not without limitations. Short summations of complex narratives may be viewed as reductive as they limit in-depth explorations of single narratives and may not provide adequate contextualisation: ‘Collaborative work both opens up possibilities and is constrained in what it can achieve’ (Pink, 2007:112). The collective viewing experience offered by the screening of inclusive audiovisual material in the Northern Irish post-conflict context creates a shared mode of remembrance that seeks to reduce, as opposed to reinforce, the sense of the other. Transforming the individual experience to collective, cultural memory is central to audiovisual storytelling: ‘Since its invention, the camera has figured centrally in the desire to remember, to recall the past, to make the absent present. Photographic, cinematic, and video images are the raw materials used to construct personal histories. (…) The memories constructed from camera images are not only personal, but collective’ (Sturken, 1996: 1). The overall role of inclusive audiovisual storytelling of this kind has the potential to contribute to the process of what Rigney (2012: 253) terms ‘slow’ memory, whereby ‘new narratives (…) develop in the public sphere and then, through various media and agencies, become integrated into subjectivities.’

The recording of the PMA was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Screenings and installations:
15 May 2013, Sliabh Beagh Women’s Group – Rosslea, Co. Fermanagh
13 April 2013, Contemporary Gendered Performance & Practice Conference – Belfast
November 2012, Sliabh Beagh Women’s Group – Knockatallon, Co. Monaghan
October-November 2012, Installation – Illuminations Exhibition, NUI Maynooth – Maynooth
19 April 2012, Truth, Dare or Promise Conference: South London Gallery, London
15 March 2012, Woolfson and Tay Gallery, London
8 March 2012, International Women’s Day, Monaghan County Museum, Monaghan
19 October 2011, Armagh Irish and Local Studies Library, Armagh
24 November 2011, Foyle Film Festival, Derry
1 – 2 August 2011, An Culturlann Gallery, Feile an Phobail Festival, Belfast
1 – 25 June 2011, Belfast Exposed Gallery (multi-screen installation)

Conference paper and screening:
Paper title: ‘Unseen Women: Stories from Armagh Gaol – the use of collaboration in the recording, editing and exhibition of contrasting memories of a contested space.’ Challenging Histories Conference, 23rd-25th February 2012, City University, London.

Ardoyne Commemoration Project (2002) Ardoyne: The Untold Truth. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications.
Aretxaga, B. (1997) Shattering Silence. Women, Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland.Chichester: Princeton University Press.
Bruzzi, S. (2006) (2nd ed.) New Documentary. Abingdon: Routledge
Corcoran, M. (2006) Out of Order. The Political imprisonment of women in Northern Ireland 1972-1998. Devon: Willan Publishing.
Dawson, G. (2007) Making Peace with the Past? Memory, Trauma and the Irish Troubles. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Hamber, B. (2009) Transforming Societies after Political Violence. Truth, Reconciliation and Mental Health. New York: Springer.
Healing Through Remembering (2005) Storytelling’ Audit. An Audit of Personal Story, Narrative and Testimony Initiatives Related to the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Belfast: Healing Through Remembering.http://www.healingthroughremembering.org/images/pdf/storytelling_audit_reprint_june_2007.pdf
Leydesdorff, F., Dawson, G., Burchardt, N. and Ashplant, T.G. (2004) ‘Introduction: Trauma and Life Stories’ (pp. 1-26) in Rogers, K. and Leydesdorff, F. (eds) Trauma: Life Stories of Survivors. New Jersey: Transaction
McLaughlin, C. (2010) Recording Memories from Political Violence. Bristol: Intellect.
McLaughlin, C. and Mairs, J. (2012) ‘Unheard Voices: Recording Memories from the Troubles’ (pp. 29-41) in MacKeogh, C. and O’Connell, D., (eds) Documentary in a Changing State: Ireland Since the 1990s. Cork: Cork University Press.
Pink, S. (2007) (2nd ed.) Doing Visual Ethnography.London: Sage.
Pryluck, C. (1976) ‘Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming. Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 28: 1, Winter 1976.
Rigney, A. (2012) ‘Reconciliation and remembering: (how) does it work?’ Memory Studies 5(3) 251-258.Sturken, M. (1996) ‘The Politics of Video Memory: Electronic Erasures and Inscriptions,’ pp. 1-12, in Renov, M. and Suderberg, E. (eds.) Resolutions.Contemporary Video Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows

Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This is one film from a larger project, the Prison Memory Archives, which records testimony from all those who had any experience of the inside of Northern Ireland’s gaols during the Troubles. The film’s strategy is very simple, a series of interviews with the women in the abandoned space of Armagh gaol. The camera is hand-held, and follows the women around or moves around their position if they are more or less static. We see each interview sequentially, rather than cutting between them. The strength of this is that you really observe and become aware of the different ways they bodily inhabit this space. There’s a fascinating contrast for example between the first two interviewees. Daphne, who introduces us into the space of the gaol and the second woman, Angela. Daphne was a prison guard, and she introduces us to the space, ‘the circle’, where duties were assigned to the guards and where prisoners first arrived. Daphne inhabits the space confidently, moving to its centre and around it where as Angela, a former Republican prisoner stands to one side in a corner, static, her bodily gestures far less expansive, her voice slightly trembling. This pattern is repeated in other interviewees. Even Jackie, who endured a difficult time on one wing as the only Protestant prisoner surrounded by Catholic and presumably Republican prisoners, is demonstrably less troubled by the memories of the past and less pained by it than the former Republican inmates.

The simplicity of the approach is effective, especially when contrasted against the conventional intercutting of television documentary. However arguably the film could have benefitted from also integrating more stylised strategies to evoke the prison as a repository of the past – now partially abandoned, perhaps a metaphor not of remembering but a more general amnesia? For the whole process of reconciliation raises the tempting possibility that silence and willed forgetting might be better than unearthing the past. The place of the prison in the landscape of memory could have been visually evoked and there may also have been greater possibilities in the evocative use of sound in relation to the visual track. Another difficulty with the simple cutting style is that the filmmaker is reliant on interviewees to tell their stories concisely and with a minimum of digression, otherwise she is forced, as with the Open University tutors, whose memories are clearly less intense than the others, into a series of unfortunate fade to blacks which interrupts somewhat the single take style the film is going for in the other testimonies. The film raises lots of questions about memory, place, trauma and history and how film can or should provide a document of these issues as Northern Ireland works to resolve the issues which generated the Troubles in the first place. But a more mixed modality in the film’s aesthetic strategies could have expanded the scope and ambition of the film. In terms of the exploring the hopes, possibilities and difficulties of reconciliation, it might have been interesting for example to have had some of the Republican and Protestant ex-prisoners return together after their solo statements. If there is a correlation between the range and combination of aesthetic strategies a film deploys and the extent to which it can dig into any complex process, history or event, then a self-denying attachment to one formal approach will necessarily limits what a film can explore.

Also, the brief mention of ‘competing narratives of the past’ is very interesting and raises many interesting questions around memory, trauma, reconciliation, and so forth which could be developed. The paragraph on context is also brief, so it is not clear how the research makes a contribution to collaborative filmmaking. Can the filmmaker specify a bit more what is collaborative about this aesthetic strategy? Collaborative filmmaking would usually refer to the working relationships that underpinned the practice, or it might refer to the pursuit of a common goal between filmmaker and interviewees. Overall I think the statement could be developed fairly substantively, especially with some explicit reference to relevant theoretical work.

Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This is a fascinating film that engages with important, sensitive issues in a thoughtful and delicate way. The women’s stories are sufficiently rich to carry the sparse, ascetic form of the film, and the editing strategy was indeed successful in allowing the subjects and their stories to co-exist. In fact, so rich is the subject of the film that its simple formal approach, characterised by first-person, handheld camerawork, limited camera movement and no artificial sound, positively electrifies its content. The pulsing, industrial sounds that accompany the first woman’s (Angela Nelson) approach to the prison, for example, are merely background noises, yet they constitute a subtle yet suitably harsh aural context for the images. The static, handheld camerawork as she enters the space, which throughout the scene maintains its focus on the subject in mid-shot, as she addresses the camera directly, is also appropriate for the gravity of the moment. This kind of sparse formal approach enables their stories to be conveyed as straightforwardly as possible, and they lose none of their implicit power as a result.

Given that the work is attempting to present the contrasting stories and subjects simultaneously and without judgement, the lack of information given about the characters (we see only their names on screen) is understandable. Nevertheless, I would have appreciated some more introductory content in the inter-titles – specifying the status within the prison, for instance, would be helpful (it was not immediately clear that the first character was a prison officer, for instance). Also, given that the prison environment is so significant for the film, more articulation of this space could potentially add rich material to the work. Again though, establishing shots and the like could well contradict the ambitions of the piece, detracting from the simplicity of its chapter-like structure.

Unfortunately, the film’s light formal touch also applies to the accompanying written work which, while it evidently holds much potential, would benefit from much more detailed elaboration. For example, though I am familiar with Cahal McLaughlin’s work, I have not come across the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) and the statement would benefit from a paragraph or so that explained what this project is, how it came about, what the filmmaker’s involvement with it is, and so on. Similarly, the statement claims that the film ‘contributes to exploration of the role of documentary filmmaking/storytelling in post-conflict Northern Ireland’, but gives no background to this already existing body of work. This does not have to entail huge amounts of extra labour on the part of the author: examples fleshing out the brief paragraph that is offered would suffice. So, for example, mention is made of the CAIN website but no detail of this is given for the reader that has not encountered it before. Likewise, the statement mentions that since the ceasefires of 1994, community groups and grassroots movements have utilised audiovisual storytelling as a tool to record their experiences and memories of the Troubles, but no examples of these are given.

More significant is the lack of acknowledgement of existing scholarship in this area. In this respect, the author has failed to situate their work in relation to that which already exists. Without mentioning a single piece of relevant research, it is a stretch to claim this as theorised practice. While this renders the work a long way from best practice, I would nevertheless recommend its publication in Screenworks subject to the inclusion more information about the PMA and other community groups working in the area (as requested above).

The above reviews refer to the original research statement which has been edited in response.

Back to Volume 4

Go to top