Storytelling as escape from prison of the past

The Prisons Memory Archive is a collection of filmed walk-and-talk recordings from Maze and Armagh

With the North of Ireland emerging out of violence, there is a general, but not yet officially recognized, consensus that storytelling can be one of the ways of addressing the legacy of a conflicted past in a contested present. The Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner’s We Will Remember Them (1998), The Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, the Hass-O’Sullivan Report (2014), and the Stormont House Agreement (2014), all established by the state, call for oral history/storytelling as part of a range of recommendations requiring government support, yet none have been implemented to date. The Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) is just one of the many initiatives by civil and academic communities that have addressed this vacuum.

The archive is a collection of filmed walk-and-talk recordings at the locations of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison, which held male prisoners, and Armagh Gaol, which held female prisoners. The project established early on the need to address the political and psychic sensitivities at work in such contentious locations for both participants and viewers. Ethical protocols of co-ownership, inclusivity, and life-storytelling were employed in order to address concerns about remembering experiences from a conflict that is within living memory and that continues to produce political instability and occasional spasms of violence.

Co-ownership refers to the sharing of the story’s authorship, so that participants were able to remain co-authors of their stories and not give up rights to editing and exhibition. Co-ownership of the material brings both rewards and risks. The rewards include building trust with constituencies who have little faith in, or distrust of, media representations. During periods of heightened political tension in the recent present, some participants have withdrawn permission for their material to be seen publicly. The reward is that it builds trust with participants, a crucial element in finding ways of telling and listening to stories from our past.

Inclusivity refers to the spread of stories, with as full a range as possible of those who experienced the prisons, such as prison staff, probation officers, prisoners, teachers, visitors, journalists, and chaplains. This was not only a requirement by funders, but also an important criteria for the archive team from the beginning.


Life-story telling is an oral history methodology, which avoids leading questions and encourages the participant to set the agenda of what should be addressed. When dealing with sensitive subjects, and particularly when offering co-ownership, the agenda-setting needs to be shared so that participants become co-authors of their stories.

We had a clear idea that the empty prison sites would be used not only as stimulant for participants’ memory recollections, but also as key visual and audio markers for future viewers. In other words, the cells and corridors, the watch towers and exercise yards, the chapels and kitchens were to be seen in the background as the participants walked and talked their way around the site. Of the final recordings that we completed in Armagh Gaol in 2006 and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison in 2007, some lasted only twenty minutes, while others lasted four hours.

Our methodology produced a free-flowing structure, with participants’ stories veering from chronological sequencing to more spatially influenced, with, for example, a memory being resuscitated by the sight, sound or smell of a discovery. In one example, ex-prison officer John Hetherington enters the hospital in the Maze and Long Kesh and pauses, knowing he has the opportunity to reflect, before offering a six-minute consideration of his experiences and contemplation of his memories from the period when 10 prisoners died on hunger strike in 1981. John’s monologue shifts between his recollection that ‘thinking was the enemy’, through having ‘some sympathy’ with the families of the hunger strikers as he wipes away tears, to questioning how memory works, ‘I don’t think we remember ourselves how we were’, and to an observation that, ‘this is the most difficult place I have been for many years’.

Funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund had enabled the original recordings, but it took 10 years before sufficient funding was found for full post-production. By securing the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) as our partner, the renamed National Heritage Lottery Fund renewed their interest in the project and funded a project team to achieve the ‘preservation, access, and engagement’ of the material. Currently, 160 recordings of 180 participants are available at PRONI, with the website offering access to the feature and short films, over 100 short extracts, and an educational element linked to the school curriculum.

The independent consultant employed to evaluate the project noted the advantages of the PMA and PRONI relationship: ‘(w)ith PRONI holding official state records, the PMA adds a new layer and richness to that public record combining a mostly a top-down official history with the PMA’s bottom-up narrative, countering and completing what PRONI already holds.’

When empathy from viewers of the material at community events over the years was forthcoming, it was often tangentially. One of the most common responses highlighted the re-stimulation of memories of the viewers. Several women were reminded of their own communities’ experiences during the Troubles; one person wrote on an evaluation sheet, ‘I was tense throughout because of the memories it evoked, but I am so grateful to hear these stories and to have this record’.

The educational value of the newly designed website has had positive reviews. According to a response in the evaluation report from the History Teachers Association of Northern Ireland, ‘There is a massive interest in learning from stories form the past – we have been waiting for years for politicians to do this, but the PMA forged ahead. There is real value in the PMA with key elements of archive relevant to schools.’

To ensure that the participatory practices were extended as much as possible in the longer term, we had established a Management Group, which later became the Advisory Group for legal reasons, made up of representatives of the participants’ constituencies, which ensured that the strategic decisions, for example, where the full archive might be hosted, were discussed and agreed.

Most users’ responses to the archive and films have so far validated the methodology and outputs, where the range of stories provoke, stimulate and challenge us to consider the importance of hearing as wide a range of experiences as possible in a society where we continue to contest the meanings and legacies of the past in present circumstances, and where no official process of addressing this legacy exists at the time of writing, twenty four years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

Cahal McLaughlin is Professor of Film Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, and director of the Prisons Memory Archive. Along with some of the participants in the project, the team of archivists, managers, outreach workers, and editors, have reflected on their experiences in a new publication, The Prisons Memory Archive; a case study in filmed memory of conflict (Vernon Press, 2022), which was launched at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland on September 14th.