The play Chronicles Of Long Kesh started as a miniscule thought as I sat at home watching the last political prisoners being released from Long Kesh/The Maze* way back in July 2000. Having had their sentences cut short, they were being released under the terms of The Good Friday Agreement. As they poured out through the prison gates into the prison car park to be met by families, friends and in some cases burly minders, my mind went into overdrive.
I studied as they carried their worldly belongings in large black plastic bags and smiled broadly, hugged wives and young children and climbed into a variety of motor vehicles. Who were these men? What had their time in prison been like? Had prison changed them, made them more embittered and intransigent, or been the catalyst for real change in their lives? I was also mindful that whilst this phase of release numbered in the hundreds, there had actually been over 20,000 Northern Irish men who had made the same journey over the previous 30 years of the Troubles.
In 2007 I resolved to write a play about the men who inhabited Long Kesh. This meant not just the prisoners but also the prison officers. Luckily, I wasn’t an interloping playwright arriving from nowhere to start the process of learning from the first dot.
I was brought up in working class Belfast, firstly the docks and then the West Belfast council estate of Turf Lodge. I had two brothers and an uncle interned in Long Kesh in the early 1970s as suspected members of the Official IRA, and as a member of The Official IRA myself in the 70s I knew a lot of people who had been in and out of the prison. Later on, my work in the Belfast Community Arts movement had brought me into contact with paramilitaries in both Protestant and Catholic communities, so my contact book was full.
Over the next two-year period I interviewed 56 individuals. Some interviews were short-ish as some men were inarticulate or – even though they agreed to be interviewed – reluctant to really talk about their experiences. Others were treasure troves, not only relating very factually what they experienced, but pouring their hearts out at the same time, bringing me to tears and laughter in equal measure.
When it came to prison officers it was me who was reluctant. Coming from the background I came from, I wasn’t easily disposed to ‘screws’ as all prison inmates referred to them. But was I won over! I met some prison officers at great length who gave me a completely invaluable insight into things on the other side, as it were. Up until the age of 55 I had only ever heard prisoners’ stories. Now, I was hearing screw stories for the first time. It was a revelation and, I believe, had a huge impact on the final outcome of the play.
Many people, when they hear Chronicles is a play about Long Kesh, immediately turn their eyes up, dismayed at the notion of another Troubles play. And worse still, it might even glorify paramilitaries, the men who were responsible for so much suffering. All I can say is that when I set out to write the play I had my mind firmly on the aim of exploring the human dimension of the hell-hole that was Long Kesh. I wanted to get behind organisations, institutions, badges, politics and go in search of the human being in every person. I was also struck by how the prisoners entertained themselves through incredibly long sentences in the most austere, depressing conditions and this led to music and song featuring significantly in the final play.
I think I can confidently say that with the play having been seen by over 35,000 people in Ireland and around 5,000 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with standing ovations and sold out notices at almost every single performance, the comments and responses lead me to believe that our audiences believe we got something right.
*The prison was called Long Kesh from 1971 until the 1976 when the British Government changed it to The Maze Prison.