In this latest Blog Post, Dr Johanne Devlin Trew, from Ulster University & the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Funded Living Legacies World War One Engagement Centre, talks all things ‘Republican Crafts’.
On Wednesday March 14, 2018, a community conference and exhibition entitled Irish Republican Prison Crafts: Making Memory and Legacy was held at Belfast’s historical Crumlin Road Gaol. It showcased the Heritage Lottery funded project of Coiste na nIarchimí [Republican ex-prisoners organisation], supported by Living Legacies, Ulster University and The Open University. The goal of the project was to create a virtual archive of conflict-related Republican prison crafts that are in the possession of prisoner families and to capture the stories surrounding these objects of memory. The project took as a model the virtual archive developed by Living Legacies to record WW1 material sourced from the general public.
During the first year of the First World War Engagement programme funded by the AHRC, the Living Legacies team led a series of public digitisation workshops or ‘road shows’ entitled ‘WW1 and You!’ in Northern Ireland’s public libraries (with eight taking place from October 2014 to May 2015 – see Figure 1).
Members of the public were asked to bring the WW1 memorabilia (photographs, documents, artefacts) pertaining to their families, much of which had been carefully conserved in attics, back rooms, or trunks under the bed for generations. Due to issues of stigma and shame relating to participation in the British army in certain sections of the community, a significant proportion of this material had been kept carefully hidden in families and rarely if ever discussed over the past one hundred years.
The items were photographed or scanned, the originals returned to their owners along with digital copies, and stories of the items were carefully recorded. The creation by Living Legacies of a digital virtual WW1 archive developed from these memories, objects and documents contributed by the public at these events and can be accessed at: http://www.livinglegacies1914-18.ac.uk/CommunityResources/DigitalArchive/
The Coiste na nIarchimí [Republican ex-prisoners] organisation, having become aware of the Living Legacies WW1 online archive, made contact with Dr Devlin Trew in 2016 to ask for advice about seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to undertake a similar project, entitled Irish Republican Prison Crafts: Making Memory and Legacy. This would involve the creation of a virtual archive dedicated to the material culture of the conflict, specifically crafts made in prison by Republican prisoners, currently in the possession of prisoner families. The aims of the project were to photograph Republican prison crafts and to record interviews with the makers of the crafts or with family members who owned them, with a view to gathering the stories surrounding the objects, including their meaning and legacy for subsequent generations. The photographs and interviews would be disseminated via a virtual archive on the internet and a short publication would also be prepared.
Upon notification of their successful HLF bid, and with Dr Devlin Trew of Living Legacies as a member of the steering committee, the Coiste Making Memory and Legacy project was launched in September 2016 at Conway Mill in West Belfast. Outreach was directed at prison craft makers and prisoner families who came forward to participate and community volunteers were recruited and trained to conduct the interviews. The target was to gather information on objects from approximately 30 prisoner families in West Belfast at which point the steering committee would organise an exhibition of the objects and invite the families and the general public to a mini-conference about the project.
The project exhibition and mini-conference took place on March 14, 2018, in the Crumlin Road Gaol, a significant choice of venue where several former prisoners had been incarcerated. Prisoner families and Republican organisations from West Belfast and further afield in Armagh and Tyrone were asked to bring their prison crafts for display – many more were brought in than expected – and a few local collections also contributed Republican crafts for display.
The exhibition was opened by Stormont MLA Gerry Kelly, himself a former Republican prisoner (Figure 2) and was followed by a presentation by artist Alison Mac Cormaic entitled, The Gifting and Display of Long Kesh / Maze Handicrafts, 1971-2016.
Next on the programme was a panel discussion involving one prisoner family member, a volunteer interviewer and a craft maker [ex-prisoner] who related their personal experiences of participating in the project and their views on the importance of the recovery and preservation of Republican heritage of the Troubles period (Figure 3).
The objects in the exhibition had been crafted by both male and female Republican prisoners, were dated from the 1950s to the 1990s (see Figure 4), and comprised objects made of wood, leather, textiles, calligraphy and paintings, and other artefacts included photographs, poems, letters and cards. Several of the craft items had been inspired by the 1916 period including a commemorative quilt to the Irish women of 1916 made for the centenary by members of the ex-prisoner family support group, Tar Anall (Figure 5). The project interviews reveal family histories of participation in earlier conflicts such as WW1 and WW2, as well as the more recent Troubles.
Finally, the virtual archive, Ceardaíocht [craft], which will be completed by July 2018, was demonstrated by Dermot Glackin of the steering committee (see Figure 6), followed by a Q&A session which generated much response from those attending. The steering committee and community volunteers were gratified by the level of community response and the strong desire expressed in the closing discussion that the project be extended to cover a wider territory of the North of Ireland.