Silent Grace: the 1980-81 Republican No-Wash/Dirty Protests and Hunger Strikes in Armagh Prison

I originally put this blog post together a while ago for another site, but it is highlighting women in STEM rather than the arts and humanities just now, and I thought it might be useful to share it here. This case study forms part my larger discussion on moving image production concerning memories of imprisonment in post-conflict Northern Ireland in Old Borders, New Technologies: Reframing Film and Visual Culture in Contemporary Northern Ireland.

In their article on managing political prisoners during the Northern Ireland conflict, Brian Gormally, Kieran McEvoy and David Wall state that ‘the prisons in Northern Ireland have in many ways formed the key ideological terrain on which ongoing struggles, between those engaged in political violence and the authorities, have been waged’. However, their extensive research contains minimal statistics and the barest of acknowledgements of women’s involvement.

Although peripheral to industrial production, Maeve Murphy’s films tend to engage head on with Irish society’s more marginal, forgotten and vulnerable figures. Silent Grace is an independent film written and directed by Murphy that tells the largely unknown story of the women’s republican protests in HMP Armagh in the early 1980s. Filmed in Dublin in 2001, and not released in the UK until 2004 – indicating the difficulty for independent films of this nature to find distribution – the film predates more widely-received dramatizations of the men’s protests in the Maze/Long Kesh such as Hunger (dir. Steve McQueen, 2008).

The two problems that prompted Murphy to tell this story, firstly in a theatrical production before making the film, were the fact that she had grown up in Belfast unaware of women’s active roles in the conflict, and the severity of the health problems caused by the conditions in the eighteenth-century prison. On this oversight, Murphy states that she ‘found poignancy in these women going through all of this and yet being forgotten. It felt unjust – the women had been written out of history’. Her film is an example of ways that the arts can highlight repressed truths, even though the medium or reach may itself also be marginal.

Murphy’s feature begins in a similar way to H3, and to an extent Hunger, in that the viewer is drawn into the enclosed world of incarceration alongside a new prisoner. (Incidentally, H3 was also filmed in 2001 and had some film festival screenings, but it was not released in the UK until 2010. It was directed by Les Blair and written by Brian Campbell and former republican hunger striker Lawrence McKeown). Silent Grace enters Armagh alongside the rebellious teenager Aine (Cathleen Bradley), who is sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for aiding and abetting her boyfriend’s theft of a car. Upon entry, she announces that she is a republican, and so the governor, Cunningham (Conor Mullen), places her in A-Wing as a ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ with the five women under a ‘no work’ protest to regain their political status (this number would have been up to sixty). Eventually, she is moved to Officer Commanding Eileen’s (Orla Brady) cell where she is educated on and becomes embroiled in the militant republican cause and the no wash/dirty protest. However, Aine continues to effuse youth culture; all she cares about is music, fashion trends, makeup, sex and the amusement of being anti-establishment – all at the dismay of her supportive, apolitical mother.

The film’s parallel opening showing the republican prisoners Aine joins utilizes the audio of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 ‘crime is crime is crime’ speech given in response to the republican hunger strike that was initiated by Bobby Sands in the Maze in late 1980. The archival sound clip accompanies an establishing sequence showing the initial five republican inmates participate in a paramilitary display in the prison yard wearing makeshift uniforms and holding Irish tricolours. As they hold a minute’s silence for a fallen comrade, they are observed from above by Cunningham in his office. Their demonstration leads to the beginning of their dirty protest; after their cells are searched for the illegal paramilitary uniforms, they are locked in and unable to slop out.

Here, Silent Grace begins to draw attention to the complex feminist issues encountered by the republican women and how they were manoeuvred out of history as it unfolded. Their chaplain, Father McGarry (Rob Newman), delivers communications from the men in Long Kesh, and informs them when the men begin rolling hunger strikes. (New strikes began at two-week intervals; an earlier mass attempt had failed as it was easily managed by the prison authorities.) Eileen is incensed at the news as her group was not consulted. Word is later sent from Long Kesh that the women are expected to take supporting roles rather than join the strike. In a doubly significant protest, Eileen resists the men’s orders to become the first of her group to refuse taking meals. At one point, Aine reports to the starving Eileen that marches are taking place in New York for the Armagh women, and Eileen corrects her; they are for the men only – no one knows about them. Her protest is as much about gaining due attention and recognition from their male comrades as it is about making demands to the British government.

Eileen’s starvation almost kills her, and she is read the last rights in the prison hospital. Her life is saved when her partner in Long Kesh calls off the strike after the British government yields to their demands following the deaths of ten men. Meanwhile, Cunningham, who develops respect for Eileen throughout the film, orders her release by invoking the Cat and Mouse Act passed in 1913 in an attempt to manage – that is, wear out – imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike by releasing them on licence while weakened and re-arresting them when they committed more violence, repeated in a vicious cycle. Notably, while male hunger strikers may have been force-fed, the Cat and Mouse clause was never applied to them. No matter what the women in the film do, their lives are controlled by the decisions of men, ironically making them at their most liberated and organized when they plan and debate strategies in pairs in their cells.

Silent Grace also holds up for scrutiny the prisoners’ brutal treatment at the hands of the warders, and the language used towards them is particularly derogatory. The women’s protests are regarded as baser than those of the men because of their sex – an attitude voiced by Father McGarry during his visits. Laura Weinstein points out in her important research that menstrual blood in particular made visiting priests uncomfortable as it drew attention to the women’s sexuality when the ‘girls’ really ought to have been back at home in clean kitchens preparing food rather than refusing it.

In drawing attention to the effects of imprisonment on the prisoners’ families, the film joins H3 and Hunger in depicting female family members largely as indirect victims – the visitors are mostly, if not all, women. Aine’s mother’s distress is heightened by her knowledge that her daughter is not a republican at heart, to which Aine admits at the end of the film when she signs the ‘Ordinary Decent Criminal’ form that grants her release. Margaret (Cara Seymour) is visited by her sister accompanied by Margaret’s young daughter who believes that her aunt is her mother. The inclusion of such instances in the film expresses the wider repercussions of the activities in which these women have been involved. While they experience the same sacrifices and familial guilt as the men for enlisting in the cause, being an unruly daughter or an absent mother is a source of deeper shame and emotional punishment than that seen in their male equivalents in the Maze films because there are higher expectations regarding their familial duties and public conduct.

Silent Grace also highlights the difficult working conditions for prison officers living under the constant threat of attack outside and in; one scene shows a guard being murdered at the prison gates, and subsequently helicopters are seen and heard circling the prison. They also risked their health by entering cells coated with human waste while under orders to keep prisoners locked in for twenty-three hours a day – issues that are also acknowledged in Hunger. The governor Cunningham finds himself in a quandary over Eileen’s hunger strike, stating that he is only trying to do his job, clearly caught between a rock and a hard place in having to follow orders while wanting to save the life of someone he admires while not agreeing with her principles. This is the apex of his impossible position between his respect for the humanitarian plights the women feel they have no choice but to face, and the pressure placed on him by the Northern Ireland Office to ‘break’ the prisoners into submitting to prison regulations and agreeing to become ‘ordinaries’, i.e. renouncing the political motivation for their actions as merely ‘criminal’. Whatever choice these women make results in exclusion.

Although Murphy’s film is not widely known, its significance lies in the many strands of the story it tells and the time in which it was made. First screened in Ireland in 2001 during the delicate years after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, Silent Grace resisted the tone and function of what Martin McLoone identifies as ‘millennium’ films, a cluster of British and European-funded productions made in Northern Ireland, largely directed by, specifically, English film-makers such as Michael Winterbottom. Romantic comedy-dramas like With Or Without You (1999) intended to raise the profile of ‘New’ Belfast as the city underwent regeneration to mark its transformation into a post-conflict, post-industrial city full of commercial potential.

With Silent Grace, Murphy can be counted among a range of practitioners who understand that for a society to truly move forward, everyone’s stories must be acknowledged and shared. Her film not only draws attention to important issues concerning women prisoners during conflict more generally, and in the specific context of Irish republican women in tension with religious and political patriarchies, it also constructs a window through which to consider life under Thatcher from a time when the UK was under Tony Blair’s New Labour government. Bearing the production and distribution years in mind, it is perhaps worth noting the coincidence that Blair’s administration also made decisions that affected ongoing conflicts outside of Britain into which the British army was inserted. Here, Silent Grace joins Hunger in its potential to be read as a critique of Thatcher and her administration that also individualizes and represents conflicted bodies in revolt beyond the surface politics of the ‘Troubles’.

These films are difficult because they are not sanitized accounts. In viewing Silent Grace, the viewer is strongly urged to acknowledge that women can possess ideological positions so strong that they are willing to engage in violence to effect change, and that starvation is just as violent an act on a woman’s body as it is for a man’s. In this context, hunger is a form of protest when all other tools are lost and not a bid to become socially accepted as ‘thin enough’. Viewers of this film must also accept that women need to go to the toilet, and when the bucket is full and slopping out is denied, spreading shit and menstrual blood on the wall is the lesser evil in terms of health and storage, while having the bonus of causing problems for representatives of the enemy.

Regardless of being low-budget independent films, Murphy’s work is important in redressing omissions in the knowledge of women’s more rounded roles in conflict, and recognizing that women are more than victims and fretting wives and mothers. Women combatants not only fought/fight for their political viewpoints, but to be taken seriously within their own factions in the male arena of political conflict. The road to gender equality in Northern Ireland remains a long one, and one which must acknowledge and encompass all manners of difficult issues.


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