JD – Morning Martin how are you?
ML – I´m good thanks.
JD – Where abouts 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 – Great. Can you tell us a little bit about the Chronicles of Long Kesh and the historical context?
ML – Well, um 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… ah… and so it really doesn´t do labels or political parties or philosophies or ideologies. It really just focuses on the personal stories of five or six of those inmates.
JD – Ok
ML – 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 change the name of it.
JD – Ok, was that a kind of PR move?
ML – Yes, I think they were trying to sanitise it and 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 incarceration in general or political prisoners, or the whole thing?
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, and 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 – Ok
ML – They were involved in the official IRA and lots of my friends and associates from around where I lived were all in prison. So throughout the seventies I grew up with the prison and had known prisoners, it was very common and 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 sort of look at it without getting 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 mentioned, and did I think this was how the hunger strikers were treated? And 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… cause the hunger strike was a very very powerful, powerfully emotional development or incidence here in Northern Ireland.
JD – Yes.
ML – On the Catholic side people revered the hunger strikers and on the Protestant side the hunger strikers were hated. Though having said that, the play has done loads of community centres, both in Catholic and Protestant areas, we´ve done the Grand Opera House in the centre of Belfast and loads and loads of people from both sides turned up. I mean the 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, that was in the Thatcher era wasn´t it?
ML – Yes, 1981.
JD – Ok, and 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, and what´s happening, 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. And that it brought back so many horrible memories to them, but also that they enjoyed the play because there´s a lot of 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´s great spirit in this play, it´s about the survival of the men and they created song, and poetry, and all kinds of things, to um… to help them survive.
JD – That ah… leads me on to the next question, is there an overarching message from the play, and if there is, is it 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 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, that Protestants could see them in a new light. And if Loyalists killed Catholics in a bomb, that 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 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, or how and why they ended up there.
JD – That um… reminds me of reading that Thatcher said of the hunger strike effectively, 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 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 places that were former prisons and interrogation centres during the dictatorships of the seventies have become museums and centres to talk about what went wrong and human rights…
ML – Right, right…
JD – … and with the overarching philosophy of ´´Never Again.´´ Is that the kind of thing they´re looking at with 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 our convict past, effectively a prison island for a time, many of which came from your part of the world, you only have to look at the surnames here. Is that something you find interesting, that it is showing over here?
ML – Absolutely. We´re actually coming to Tasmania for Ten Days and to visit some relatives. We´re very much interested in that, and, 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 with the whole Irish connection that some of these people will come and see the play. It’s the sort of play though that steps outside Ireland, we´ve played in Edinburgh, to Canadians, Americans, French, and people just love it. I think it’s a universal story of people incarcerated.
JD – And when are you coming?
ML – We leave here Friday and I think we get to your place on Monday. Our first night I think is Tuesday or Wednesday night, at the Royal Theatre I think.
JD – The Theatre Royal.
ML – We´re very much looking forward to it, and we´re very excited about it.
JD – Well, that´s all from me…
ML – Brilliant James, thank you very much for taking the time to talk on the phone.
The Chronicles of Long Kesh is showing throughout Ten Days on the Island at the Theatre Royal in Hobart – get yourself along to it!