Chronicles of Long Kesh
Martin Lynch talks about his first play for two years
Written and co-directed by Martin Lynch, and set to premiere in the Waterfront in January 2009, Chronicles of Long Kesh tells the story of Long Kesh/The Maze Prison from its opening in 1971 to the day it closed in July 2000.
Lynch interviewed over 40 ex-prisoners, prison officers, welfare workers and families affected either directly or indirectly by life in Long Kesh before penning his first play since Holding Hands in Passiondale for the Lyric Theatre in 2006. Chronicles of Long Kesh, he insists, serves no political cause or single faction but instead explores the human impact of the prison.
'Long Kesh is something that's always been bubbling away in my head for a long, long time,' Lynch told CultureNorthernIreland between rehearsals in McMillan Hall, just off the Ormeau Road. 'The notion of prison and prisoners is always something that I've been fascinated about.
'I grew up as a kid with my Da telling us stories about the men who were interned in the 1940s and 50s. I had a great uncle who was interned on the Elrada prison ship in Stranford Lough. I had two brothers who were interned.
'In the '70s I was involved in the official republican movement, so a lot of the people who were in jail I would have known. Everybody around you was going into jail and coming out with these stories. Sometimes you'd be filled with horror, other times you'd be doubled over in laughter about the nature of men coming together in confined spaces - who are essentially strangers to each other - and all the things they get up to created a fascination for me.
'A prison like Long Kesh... when you look at it in the wider context in terms of it's impact on this community, over 20,000 prisoners saw the inside of it, from both backgrounds, Catholic and Protestant. Then you had something like 5,000 warders who worked in the prison, and when you add up all the numbers of family members who visited the prison, you're probably talking upwards of 80,000 people who have all been inside the confines of Long Kesh.
'So it's a huge political, sociological dimension to our society, and it's a story that I've wanted to tackle for some time.'
Thousands of men, prisoners and prison officers, spent the best years of their lives in Long Kesh/The Maze – most lifers spent an average of 17 years behind bars, usually between the ages of 18 and 35.
Whilst dealing with all the major events at the prison such as the 1974 burning of the camp, the Dirty Protest, The Hunger Strike and The Great Escape, Chronicles of Long Kesh concentrates on the individual experiences of the inmates.
'The interview process, for me, was an extraordinary experience,' Lynch continues. 'I saw a side of these men that I hadn’t read about in any of the books written so far. I heard stories that had me close to tears and others that had me doubled over with laughter. Long Kesh seemed to be that kind of experience. I hope I’ve done the story justice.'
As author of The History Of The Troubles (accordin’ to my Da) Lynch knows a thing or two about showing the funny side of life in his work. Those who have seen The History of the Troubles, will remember the scene in the prison in which the inmates pretend to send out for a chippy dinner. Although Chronicles of Long Kesh has a humourous side, Lynch is quick to quell any rumours that his new piece will have the same tongue-in-cheek tone.
‘This play has a stronger combination of the natural and the stylised. And also a pretty balanced mix between drama and humour. We deal quite extensively with the H Block protest and the Hunger Strike and the impact they had on individuals and families. So there’s pretty strong drama there, and there’s confrontations and conflict. The History of the Troubles just didn’t have any of that.
‘I wanted a play that covered Long Kesh from when it opened in 1971 until the day it closed in 2000. So you’re into History of the Troubles territory where you have to get a lot done in a short period of time. You’ve got to find a way of firing the story along to get it into a two-hour time frame.
'The other thing I wanted to do was use loads of music, so I have a guy who’s a Smokey Robinson fanatic, he has the guys doing all the Temptations routines and Tamla Motown stuff, because the prisoners survived with song and story. So there are similar elements [between the two plays].’
In keeping with Lynch's preoccupation with involving different communities in theatre, Chronicles of Long Kesh will premiere in St Kevin's Hall, North Queen Street, Belfast, on Friday 9 January 9 2009 with complimentary and subsidised tickets available to community groups, before transferring to the Waterfront Hall Studio from January 15.
The debate concerning the future for Long Kesh/The Maze Prison continues to rage in the meantime. Should it be levelled to make way for a modern football stadium, or left alone as a visual reminder of Northern Ireland's troubled past?
'With regards to the football stadium, I don't care where it is, as long as there's a football stadium very soon. I think they've arsed about incredibly badly for such a long time, and I wouldn't mind if it was at the Maze or in my Ma's backyard in Turf Lodge - it doesn't matter to me, as long as they go and build it.
'I do think the site of the Maze, or an element of it, should be preserved as a museum to commemorate the conflict here. It doesn't have to be a shrine to any particular faction, it can simply be a very broad-based, interpretive museum.
'As part of the process of writing this play I brought five ex-prisoners from the different factions on a tour of the prison, before most of it was knocked down. I had at least one major sceptic out of that group, who thought that [the prison] was a sore or a blemish on our society - this is going up on the minibus. He felt it should be wiped away. After the tour there wasn't one single dissenting person who didn't think that something had to be retained.'
Chronicles of Long Kesh will be directed by Lisa May and Martin Lynch. Cast include Marty Maguire (On Eagle's Wing), Marc O’Shea, Laine Megaw, Andy Moore, Chris Corrigan and veteran actor, Billy Clarke.