Martin Lynch has been one of the leading playwrights in Northern Ireland for around 30 years. His plays have been produced in all the leading theaters in Ireland as well as in the UK, Europe and the USA. He has been Resident Writer at the Lyric Theatre Belfast, the University of Ulster and most recently with Greenshoot Productions, Belfast. Martin is the co-author of the most successful play in recent Irish theatre history, The History of the Troubles (accordin’ to my Da), which has been seen by 125,000 people.
Martin authored the Chronicles of Long Kesh – the story of the infamous prison camp outside Belfast. This interview was conducted over the phone from Hobart to Belfast a few days before Martin travelled to Tasmania for Ten Days on the Island and performances of the Chronicles at Hobart’s Theatre Royal.
JD – Good morning Martin, how are you?
ML – I´m good thanks.
JD – Where are you just now?
ML – I´m in my office in the centre of Belfast, just doing a little bits of writing, tidying up a few scripts I´ve been working on.
JD – Can you tell us a little bit about the Chronicles of Long Kesh and the historical context framing it?
ML – The play is the history of a prison. Long Kesh was a prison that was created in 1971 by the British government to intern or house republican activists, and the prison then stayed as a kind of political holding centre until it closed in the year 2000. Our play centres on five or six of those prisoners who spent quite a long time in Long Kesh, so it really doesn´t do labels or political parties or philosophies or ideologies. It just focuses on the personal stories of those five or six inmates.
Can I also tell you James that the prison´s name changed in the late seventies from Long Kesh to The Maze. There was a new regime that brought in a new penal system and they gave the whole thing a clean sweep and changed the name of it.
JD – Was that a kind of public relations move?
ML – Yes, I think they were trying to sanitise it, clean it up and tell us that it wasn´t a prison camp anymore, that it was a modern prison, but I don´t think it worked too well.
JD – No, you normally have to do more than change the name.
ML – Yes.
JD – What was your personal motivation for doing this play? Was it primarily to discuss ´´The Troubles´´ in Ireland? Or did you want to explore incarceration in general or concept of political prisoners? Or was it simply the whole story?
ML – No I don´t think so. Obviously I´m interested in the notion of incarceration and all that kind of stuff, but the play was motivated James because about six or seven years ago I was in a pub, as you do, and I met an ex-prisoner who´d done seventeen years in Long Kesh. He started telling me stories from the prison, some of which made me laugh helplessly, while others had me close to tears. And it kind of coincided with my own view of things in the sense that, you know, I had two brothers interned without trial back in the 1970s.
JD – Oh yes?
ML – They were involved in the official IRA and lots of my friends and associates from around where I lived were in prison. So throughout the seventies I grew up with the prison and had known prisoners. This was very common. It was central to who I was.
So when this guy started telling me these stories I thought, you know this is really a good time now that the prison´s closed down, now´s a good time to tell its story, and the stories of the men who were in it.
JD – How has it been received in Northern Ireland? Have things changed enough? Is there an ability for people to look at it without becoming too angry or segregated?
ML – Yes I think so, I think so. I mean there are always some people who carry this stuff on. Like we did a performance in Dublin, on Friday night, and two guys came up to me at half time and started on to me about the hunger strike, and did I think this was how the hunger strikers were treated? I said, look would you wait until you´ve seen the rest of the play before you comment on it? But they left at half time, so there are some people how are still very emotionally…, you see the hunger strike was a very, very powerful emotional development or incidence here in Northern Ireland.
On the Catholic side people revered the hunger strikers and on the Protestant side the hunger strikers were hated. Having said this, the play has been performed at loads of community centres – both in Catholic and Protestant areas – we´ve done the Grand Opera House in the centre of Belfast and loads of people from both sides turned up. I mean the Opera House is a thousand-seater and it was filled every night, so loads of people from all persuasions came to see it. So, I think it is quite safe at this stage James, to tell that story.
JD – That´s good. The hunger strike was during the Thatcher era wasn´t it?
ML – Yes, 1981.
JD – I read that there are around 20,000 former prisoners and 5,000 former warders in Northern Ireland from that era. Has there been much response from former inmates and warders?
ML – Oh yes, I mean every night the play´s on people come up to me afterwards if I´m there, or to the actors, and they´ll say, “Oh I did ten years in Long Kesh”, and this that and the other, and usually we get complimented on how accurate the play is, in terms of language, the incidents, the behavior. When we did the Grand Opera House in Belfast, there were loads of prison officers who came up to me and to the actors and made themselves known, and how much they enjoyed the play. Many also said it brought back so many horrible memories to them, but also that they enjoyed the humor in the play.
I think I have to make it clear to you James that this is not a horrible story about men and coppers incarcerated, where beating up goes on and just that. There is a great spirit in this play – it´s about the survival of the men. The prisoners created song, and poetry, and all kinds of things, to help themselves survive.
JD – That leads me on to the next question. Is there an overarching message from the play, and if there is, is it to do with human spirit?
ML – Yeah, I think the message is that no matter who these people are, and why they went in to prison, they´re all human beings. And when you´re in a situation like that in Northern Ireland, a very unusual… well not unusual, but you have community conflict that all kinds of young people get involved in, that it’s not criminals, it´s not the worst elements of society that end up in prison, you have a widespread representative group of people who end up in prison. So I wanted to try to show people that even people who were IRA then and murdered Protestants, could be seen in a new light – even by Protestants. And if Loyalists killed Catholics in a bomb, perhaps the Catholics could see the Loyalists in a new light.
So I think it actually works, people love the five characters on stage. By the end of the play they´re with them, they understand, they´ve gone through hell with them, they´ve gone through joy, the through singing, laughter and tears, and they´ve loved the characters no matter what, regardless of how and why they ended up there.
JD – That reminds me of reading that Thatcher said during the hunger strike, that there is no such thing as political prisoners, only criminals. I guess that relates to what you´re saying there – that when there is a conflict like that prisons aren´t just full of criminals, they are full of all sorts of people.
ML – That´s right, that´s right. Especially when you have a very unusual situation like you did in Northern Ireland. James I was only a kid when ´´The Troubles´´ broke out and my whole community was thrown upside down. Men were roaming the streets who don´t normally roam the streets, wanting to kill people, or wanting to defend their community. There was a huge amount of emotion going around. A lot of people got involved and did stupid things when they were very young and ended up in prison. This play is trying to say to people, ´´Please understand that, and understand that it could´ve been you.´´
JD – For sure, and I´ve read that the former prison is to become a ´global conflict study centre´. I was recently in Chile and Argentina and saw that in Santiago and Cordoba, buildings that were former prisons and interrogation centres during the dictatorships of the seventies have become museums and centres for talk about what went wrong. There’s an overarching philosophy of Nunca Mas (Never Again). Is that the kind of thing they´re looking at for the former Long Kesh site?
ML – They are trying to do that here James, but it has run into great difficulties. There is a great divide in Northern Ireland about what to do with the prison. Republicans think it should be retained as a museum and a post conflict study centre and Loyalists think it should be knocked down because they think it will become a shrine for the hunger strikers or to Republican icons. So there´s been a lot of dispute on that, but quite recently there´s a coming together again and I think we´re going to get something new out of it soon. I think it will be along the lines of a ‘reconciliatory centre’ at some stage.
JD – And just finally, I wondered if you were interested in the play coming to Tasmania and how it will be received here given it was effectively a prison island for a time, and indeed many of our convicts came from your part of the world – you need only look at the surnames in our phone book. Is that something you find interesting, that it is showing over here?
ML – Absolutely, we´re actually coming to Tasmania for Ten Days on the Island and to visit some relatives. We´re very much interested in that, we´re keen to play in Tasmania, and we´re keen to explore the island and find out about the whole Irish connection as well. And we´re obviously hoping the Irish connection will bring some of these people along see the play. It’s the sort of play that steps outside Ireland, we´ve played in Edinburgh, to Canadians, Americans and French. I think it’s a universal story of people incarcerated.