Silent Grace and silenced women’s voices

Writer and director Maeve Murphy on the fate of her 2001 film about women IRA hunger strikers as it premieres on Irish TV

Orla Brady as Eileen in Silent Grace

Orla Brady as Eileen in Silent Grace

 

TV3 is giving my debut fictional feature film, Silent Grace its Irish broadcast premiere on TV3’s Be3. Due to the wider audience the film will receive, it will go some way into writing the women prisoners who were involved in the 1980 dirty protest/hunger strike back into history. And the film Silent Grace with it. This enlightened move by TV3 can only be welcomed and praised. As Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda says in his 2017 Peace Proposal: “Building a society that upholds the rights of all people will only be possible if women’s rights are given explicit recognition...”.

I was 21 when in my mum’s study in Belfast I came across by chance Nell McCafferty’s slim pamphlet/book called The Armagh Women. It blew my mind. Not just the poignancy of their story, but also their bravery, fighting for political status in those circumstances. But I was also amazed. How or why did I not know about this? The dirty protest and hunger strikes were headline world news. They had gone through all of that, and yet somehow had been forgotten by the general public? I lived in Northerm Ireland during that period, yet I did not know women were involved.

That was the first time I realised that an unconscious undervaluing of women, whether it be as protesting political prisoners, or as artists or as nurses, is real and can exist

I think that was the first time I realised that an unconscious undervaluing of women, whether it be as protesting political prisoners, or as artists or as nurses, is real and can exist. That somehow women’s contribution can be seen as less: less valuable, less important, of less weight, or somehow seen, as Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, says, as “secondary”.

I know that Silent Grace was lucky to get a small cinema release, let alone to now be shown on TV. I know how hard it is to get any film made and released. However, it clearly has something. It was chosen by the UK selector for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, until it was realised it was in fact an Irish film and had already screened in the Cannes market.

It was also nominated for the Conflict and Resolution Award at the Hamptons International film Festival USA in association with the Nobel Peace Laureates Foundation. And all five of the nominees got a special video address from President Clinton encouraging us with our work.The late Irish Times critic Michael Dwyer said in his original review: “It surmounts its very low budget emerging as a work of sincerity and concern”. Tara Brady wrote in Hot Press that the film was “wonderfully humane... brilliantly confounds expectations... with no South African-style peace and reconciliation tribunal in Northern Ireland, Silent Grace may be the next best thing... I urge you to seek it out.”

Maeve Murphy: It adds layers of complexity to the dirty protest/hunger strike narrative when some of the women are mothers or leaders. The terrain broadens to become human, not just masculine
Maeve Murphy: It adds layers of complexity to the dirty protest/hunger strike narrative when some of the women are mothers or leaders. The terrain broadens to become human, not just masculine

And yet for years, it hasn’t really felt like that. I wonder if I even started to internalise the external landscape, and started to feel the film, and the women, were less, didn’t really matter, or not as much.

But at 21, feeling fuelled to do something, I met one of the ex-prisoners and talked to her about her experience and taped it and brought it to my fellow members of Trouble and Strife, a women’s theatre company. We co-wrote a play about one day on the dirty protest called Now and at the Hour of Our Death, and then a screenplay focusing mostly on the dirty protest.

Then the Good Friday Agreement happened, and I was inspired by that; it had a transformative power. It offered change where no change seemed possible. Hope when everything seemed hopeless. I wanted to write that into the narrative arc of the film. The devastation of the hunger strikes did lay the seeds for change, as political routes began to be explored.

Silent Grace trailer

So I adapted the material, creating a story with the character of fictional female hunger striker, the IRA Officer in Charge Eileen, at the core. Eileen shares a cell with a young outsider, Aine, and though they have different political viewpoints, a deep bond of friendship is formed.

I was lucky enough to attract the superb acting talent of Orla Brady to play Eileen, along with the class acts of Cara Seymour, Cathleen Bradley, Dawn Bradfield, Carol Scanlan, Conor Mullen and Patrick Bergin. I directed the film (which as a woman is still statistically a highly unusual occurrence). We received completion funds from the Irish Film Board, had a very small cinema release and that was that.

I noticed we weren’t being mentioned anymore when people wrote about the hunger strike films. It was like the film had been erased just like republican women prisoners had been

And then Hunger and then 66 days... And then something not quite right started to happen. I noticed we weren’t being mentioned anymore when people wrote about the hunger strike films. It was like the film had been erased just like so often the republican women prisoners had been. I spoke to Orla and she agreed – something was amiss. As did Cara Seymour.

So I contacted all the UK and Irish broadcasters but they all said no, though were complimentary about it. Then out of the blue, someone told me that Silent Grace had been mentioned in a 2015 Irish Times article about “voices that aren’t being heard speak volumes.” My fighting spirit woke up.

The Waking The Feminists movement, about the inclusion of women playwrights in the 1916 celebrations in the Abbey, started around that time. I felt in rhythm and encouraged by them. I rang up TV3 and spoke to their acquisitions team. They had done an instant broadcast with my previous film Beyond The Fire and indeed they were open. But I couldn’t manage to close the conversation with a concrete acquisition, though the conversation continued.

Then in 2016 The Irish Times ran a second article, Dr Emilie Pine’s powerful “Time to stop force-feeding us a male cultural history”. She highlighted the exclusion of women and women’s voices from Troubles films or hunger strike films, and Silent Grace was again mentioned and in detail.

I sought support and Gar O’Brien, programmer at the Galway Film Fleadh where Silent Grace premiered, gave a quotation: “It’s a film that is due a wider audience... especially with the topic of women being man-washed from history.”

Oscar nominated director-producer Andre Singer loved it as a humanist political film, “a brilliant evocation”. A review was published in the Huffington Post. The tipping point had finally arrived. The distributor from before got involved again. As he actually owned the rights, I needed him.

The situation changed; TV3 acquisitions now wanted the film, which they had always liked. I also had extinguished any internal sense of being secondary. It was hard to keep going, but I knew the story of Silent Grace would not be complete until there was a wee bit of justice.

Silent Grace gives a fresh perspective. Our eyes are not used to images of women confined in shit-smeared cells, or protesting women prisoners entering a state of starvation. It also adds layers of complexity to the dirty protest/hunger strike narrative when some of the women are mothers or leaders. The terrain broadens to become human, not just masculine.

Our stories are valuable. Let’s not let ourselves or each other be written out of history.

There is enough space for all of humanity in the story-telling circle. Step in.

- Silent Grace shows on Be3 on Saturday, June 24th at 9pm

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