Northern Ireland’s Unlikely Spirit of Freedom: The Art of Laurence McKeown

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“Do you think it will ever end?” one character asks another in Laurence McKeown’s 2016 play Green and Blue. He is referring to the Troubles, the decades of violence in Northern Ireland that saw over 3600 dead, 16,000 shootings, and at least 10,000 bombings. McKeown is a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977 for attempted murder. He joined the IRA at 17 after seeing people he knew interned without trial and feeling that his freedom amounted to hypocrisy. He was released in 1992 following a campaign that framed IRA prisoners as political hostages kept behind bars indefinitely while ordinary “lifers” were set free after 7 or 8 years. Today, at 62, McKeown works as an artist, producing films, books, poems, and plays aimed at responding to the political struggle that has shaped his life. 

For centuries Ireland had been under British rule. English aristocrats claimed Irish land, pushing their tenant farmers into poverty that would last generations. In Ulster, the province that makes up the nine northeastern counties, the British established plantations and sent planters from Scotland, usurping the local population. The planters were Protestant while the locals practiced a mix of paganism and Catholicism. When the Catholic Church asserted itself in response to the plantations and the northern ascendency of the Presbyterian Church the indigenous mix morphed into a rigid conservative form of popery. . 

In 1922 the six Protestant-dominated counties of Ulster were carved off from the newly independent Irish Free State. The result was a civil war but the six counties that became known as Northern Ireland remained part of Britain (and still do). An enduring Protestant near-monopoly on government, policing, good jobs, and housing led to civil rights protests of the 1960s. In 1972, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians, killing thirteen. This was one of the seeds that led to young men, and some women, flocking to the then-moribund IRA. Protestant paramilitaries were already organized and engaged in evicting Catholics from social housing. This is how the young Bobby Sands lost his family home.

McKeown’s play, Green and Blue, explores the parallel experiences of a Unionist (Protestant) police officer in the North and his counterpart on the other side of the border, where bodies were regularly dumped. “I may have definite opinions about the Royal Ulster Constabulary,” says McKeown, “but I knew that it was ordinary individuals who ended up in these positions.” The play has toured widely and in June 2017 opened the Dresden Arts Festival.

Portrait, photo courtesy of Dara Mac Donaill, Irish Times

Most of McKeown’s art aims to humanize people involved in the conflict: “In novels, for instance, Republicans were physically deformed, they were psychopaths and criminals, but this had no bearing on the people I knew. The people I knew were real people. So in my film, H3, you have young Declan, who’s newly arrived in prison, talking about the English Premier League rather than carrying a shillelagh [the walking stick of Irish folklore]. I’m trying to raise real issues, social justice, racism, and so on but through the fact that these were ordinary people.”

McKeown’s art has its roots in the misery of Long Kesh, the Belfast prison where he lived for so many years. In 1981, ten young men, led by Bobby Sands, died by hunger strike. McKeown would have been number 11; he fasted for 70 days until his mother ordered life support for him. “You have to do what you have to do, son,” she famously told him, “and I have to do what I have to do.” 

The prisoners had been striking for reinstatement of the political status they had enjoyed which allowed them to wear their own clothes, refrain from prison work, freely associate with one another, organize educational activities, and receive one weekly parcel and visit. When political status was revoked in 1976, they refused to wear the prison uniform and were kept in their cells, denied exercise and socializing, with nothing to wear but prison blankets. Having nowhere to put it, they smeared their body waste on the walls.  They did this for 5 long years before launching ultimately futile hunger strikes. Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused their demands over and over again and, as Prince Charles married Lady Diana, the men died one by one. They had argued that they were political prisoners, not criminals, and the hunger strike proved that point at least.

McKeown explains, “If they criminalized us, they’d be criminalizing the centuries-long struggle against British rule in Ireland. The demands we made were tied up with much bigger things. We saw ourselves as active volunteers in a much wider struggle at home and abroad.” 

Last year, working with others, McKeown, who has a PhD from Belfast’s Queens University, designed and produced clothing made from the prison blankets. A red thread runs through the brown-grey scarves, jackets, and vests, recalling the way the men shot notes across the hallway from cell to cell. They had educated themselves in prison. Yelling to each other at night when the guards went home, they became fluent in Irish. This encouraged those outside who began to see speaking the language as a revolutionary act and a victory over their common adversary. Prisoner Séanna Walsh, now a Belfast City councillor, insisted on perfect grammar, sentence structure and spelling. Others instructed on the dying art of roof thatching and on farming techniques. When they’d had political status, jailed IRA commanders mandated lessons in Irish history. 

“When we lost political status and were deprived of these things, you had people like Bobby Sands and Pat McGeown, who was also on hunger strike in 1981, helping us unlearn a lot of crap,” says McKeown. “When you were growing up, you were just like a sponge, soaking in opinions that you just held for no reason. You thought things about the [Catholic] church, like contraception and doctrine, that you unlearned in Long Kesh. What are facts? Who says what are the facts? And you learned about wealth and its origins. You learned to question banks and you came to realize that the only innocent person has his backside falling out of his trousers.” 

At times, there were 400 prisoners on the blanket protest. As McKeown says, they weren’t all writing poetry but some were: “People were writing and singing songs. We wanted to rise above our circumstances. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about it but we had a spirit of freedom.” 

McKeown’s blanket-based clothing now holds a place in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, selected to be part of the National Treasures Project. The clothing and a related calendar subvert the images of filthy walls and turn the blanket into something to be proud of for those who once wore it. McKeown and other men posed for the calendar as did women who’d been prisoners in Armagh Jail. 

It’s hard to get away from that over-used word ‘healing’ when pondering McKeown’s art. “The blanket, it’s just a piece of clothing,” he says. “But there is a lot of feeling with it. Some of the women got emotional posing for the pictures. I got emotional. One of the women said she was thinking of how we could easily not have been here but here we are, all together.”

In answer to the Green and Blue character, the armed conflict did end but Northern Ireland’s problems persist. Not least among them is Brexit which threatens the all-island economy and perhaps even the still fragile peace. McKeown says that Brexit has prompted a deeper understanding of colonialism Ireland-wide. The country remains divided into two states, 26 counties and six counties, with much of its fate depending on what happens next in Westminster. 

“Art can play a role with regards to Brexit,” says McKeown, “Art has brought the colonial aspect to the fore. In the past art has raised issues about the church, about survivors, and about victims of the conflict. Artists erected fake customs posts at the border, highlighting what could happen with Brexit. Art doesn’t solve our problems but it certainly raises awareness.” 

Laurence McKeown wearing blanket clothing, courtesy of Laurence McKeown
Photos:
Actor Vincent Higgins, playwright Laurence McKeown, and actor James Doran, Green and Blue, photo by Neil Harrison, courtesy of Laurence McKeown
Laurence McKeown wearing blanket clothing, courtesy of Laurence McKeown
Portrait, photo courtesy of Dara Mac Donaill, Irish Times

Maura Hanrahan, PhD, is Board of Governors Research Chair and Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. Her new book is Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. She also has a chapter in Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk (Fiona Polack, editor): “Good and Bad Indians: Romanticizing the Beothuk and Denigrating the Mi’kmaq.”