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More about the movie
When the Belfast women remember their time in prison, they laugh a lot, recall forbidden parties with smuggled-in alcohol, the baby which was born in custody and stayed as everybody´ s darling with its mother in Armagh till her release. Proudly they tell us about a successful outbreak from the prison and describe how they outwitted the guards...
Trauma and War
Only later, in an interview with one of the women, Evelyn, it becomes clearer what war and custody really meant to her.„ It does not sound like much“, Evelyn says soberly and describes the story of her life: With 22 years of age she is arrested for IRA support and separated from her two small daughters who had to live for years with their grandmother. The father of the children has left the family a long time ago– in the 1970ies anything but a rare case in Catholic Northern Ireland where young lovers often “have to marry” at a very young age.
As also two of Evelyn´ s sisters are in prison at the same time, Evelyn´ s mother has to look after eight grandchildren. Evelyn can hardly stand the pain of being separated from the children. But seeing herself as a " soldier" she hides her feelings. Only 25 years later, after one of her adult daughters committed suicide, Evelyn allows herself to mourn – even if her life was „nothing special“ in her own eyes.
In small house in the same neighbourhood, we meet a group of women who want to publish a book about their time as prisoners in Armagh. They already started the project years ago, but gave up on it again. Our interest in the subject inspired the women to get back to work. With the book, they want to introduce their voices into historiography. Writing about the past experiences proves to be painful, but also liberating.
These women and others tell us about their lives as a "soldiers" or as a supporters of their communities during the Troubles. Again and again, we notice that even becoming a “soldier” was something that simply “had to be done” in the eyes of the women as their families always had been rooted in Republican or Loyalist circles. Affiliation with the IRA or UDF could mean patrolling the streets, smuggling arms or supporting husbands or sons who were actively involved with the armed struggle.
The Equality Myth
Footage and articles from contemporary media allow the audience an insight in the historical background, show women on marches, in prison and on patrol in their neighbourhoods. Private letters, drawings and photos of the protagonists let their experiences in this time come alive again.
The media contributed to the myth of the strong and merciless female IRA soldiers. But in their own ranks, women often were treated as inferior by the men. They were also subjected to harsh double standards: Republican groups frequently expelled women who were pregnant and unmarried, while their boyfriends had nothing to fear, Nuala remembers while browsing through old articles. And Protestant women made similar experiences. They defined themselves mostly as solely supporters of the men and did not make any direct contributions to the armed struggle. Yet, they were frequently active on all levels like their Catholic counterparts.
As we walk around the neighbourhood with Veronica and Nuala, we pass nurseries and playground where mothers watch their children play. Caring for the children remained a female duty on both sides. Soldier, wife, mother, daughter: "Women were playing so many roles", reflects Nuala. All are proud of their diligence and tenacity in the years of war. But often the many roles nearly destroyed the women and marriages did not survive the conflict. As the Troubles brutalized society, domestic violence grew to a pressing problem in many homes.
War as Emancipation?
Nevertheless, even this ghastly war was not only a cause of suffering for the women. “It is a strange thing to say but the war was actually in many respects good for the women”, summarizes Veronica. The conflict impaired the absoluteness of traditional role models: While many men did time in prison, the women provided for the family on their own. And in the context of the conflict, many women who had lived solely as housewives before, faced entirely new tasks, from the organization of marches to the smuggling of weapons. On our walk we pass the very streets where the first marches took place, and the corner where Veronica used to watch out for British soldiers. The women themselves were surprised what they could achieve - „the wee women in the house “ - as Northern Irish women ironically call themselves.
Today, it is as natural for Belfast women to lead an independent life as it is for other women in Europe. As the Protestant musician Emma walk home from university with her flute, she does not look different from other students. She acts and speaks with self-confidence. We accompany Emma from the city centre to her own neighbourhood. In the Village, a Protestant stronghold in Belfast. We see many girls younger than Emma who are pushing prams through the park. Northern Ireland has got one of the highest number of teenage pregnancies in the European Union today. So young girls often early chose the traditional role as a mother, and do not see other perspectives for their lives.
Death and the Scarred City
The Village as full of crosses and murals remembering victims of violence. Like in Falls Road and Ardoyne, death is everywhere. Murder, violent death, suicide and long separations from loved ones shaped everyday-life in Northern Ireland for decades. Hardly a family did not loose at least one member. In the times of the Troubles, there was no time for mourning. Many Catholics and Protestants did not shed tears over the death of loved ones till after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.The majority of them still fights with depression or the posttraumatic stress syndrome today. Many of our interview partners are also addicted to tranquilzers or painkillers and have survived long years of alcohol or drug abuse. Their symptoms resemble those of army veterans. „This is the price we have to pay, I suppose “, comments the former IRA member Evelyn dryly.
They all paid a high very price. As we enter in Thelma´ s neat little house we feel ourselves suffocated by her depression. The house is spotless, crammed with kitschy bric-a-brac. And the Protestant housewife nowadays rarely leaves home anymore, she has no hope for her future. Her son, a young policeman, was killed by the IRA in the 1990ies. On every whole pictures of the young man seem to watch us. Thelma does not come to terms with the past. In her eyes, her deceased son was an innocent victim of the Troubles. But hardly anyone is solely innocent or guilty in Northern Ireland: For decades, more than two thirds of all policemen were also members of the forbidden paramilitary groups UVF or UDA. It is in fact likely that Thelma ´s son was a so-called „double member “, too. All three sons of the family decided to join the police or the military which surely lets Thelma´ s representation her family as apolitical and loving seem questionable. And nearly all Culprits in Northern Ireland are also victims at the same time.
Growing Up in the Divided City
Exactly truths like these are the reason for the women´ s strong attachment to their respective communities. Only at home, everybody understands the pain, the doubts and the feeling of guilt. With our Catholic protagonists, we explore their communities and walk though Falls and Ardoyne: Grey little houses line narrow roads, and the solid iron gates in the Peace Wall close in the evenings. A siege mentality shapes the neighbourhoods even more than ten years after the peace treaty. Most women and men are convinced that only the wall preserves the fragile peace.
On the other side of the wall, the Protestant Janis invites us for tea in her kitchen. She lived in Shankill Road all her life, with the Peace Wall in her backyard. As we walk into her tiny garden Janis grabs a ladder. Sometimes, she has a look over the wall these days. Over things have changed too: For many years, plastic replaced the glass of her kitchen windows, as frequently stones and occasionally even Molotov cocktails fly into her house.
But only when she lived abroad with her husband, a British soldier, she became aware of the restrictions that had shaped every single day at home. Then, back to Belfast after four years, she worked in an army store for British soldiers.
As most of our interviewees, Janis´ sense of belonging was never questioned: She grew up in a close-knit Protestant community and spent every Sunday with her family at events of the Loyalist Orange Order.
Belfast Today: Orange Order Bonfires and City Splash Tours
In the evening, Janis takes us to the Orange Order bonfire celebrations in her street. Watching the bonfire burn feels like a harmless, festive ritual at first. But as more and more empty vodka-bottles litter the side-walks, angry young men start chauvinistic songs of Protestant superiority. Later, they will march to Falls, looking for trouble. We follow them in any distance. Soon, the police stops them on their way. Back in our flat, we listen to the news: In other neighbourhoods in Belfast and Derry, the police obviously was too late. More than 50 people are still in hospital after fights all over Northern Ireland.
Confessional identity is still the key point of life in Northern Ireland. It defines affiliation and solidarity, but also determines limits and taboos. Young women like Emma draw attention to the contradictions: „This is not peace, if I know I still cannot go to lots of places in my hometown!” The young musician lives in the Village in Belfast, a Loyalist enclave like Janis´ home. She leads a double life, as her boyfriend is a Catholic. But Emma, too, does want to leave her grey city.
We encounter a group of young “terror tourists” in her neighbourhood. The young Italians enjoy exploring the Republican or Loyalist strongholds, and found last night especially exiting.
The city centre is only a short walk from the ViIlage but seems to be another world. Only newspaper headlines remind of the violent outbreaks yesterdays. In the shopping areas customers browse the shops and enjoy a latte. We mount a a “Belfast Splash“- tour bus with a group of tourists. The chat and laugh, and when the amphibian buses are diving in to the river Lagan, everybody shrieks. Underwater we cruise the river and watch the dirty water on the other side of our windows.
We surface near the old harbour which is humming with activity. As the “Titanic” was built in the local shipyards, a “Titanic”-museum and amusement park have just opened at the waterfront. This perky new Belfast shall be a vision for the future. But can the divided city ever forget its past?
Stories and History: The Denied Power of the Women
In Ardoyne, the colourful murals that remind of the Troubles are still the only decoration. Few are dedicated to the women. “It is always: the men into the jails, the men underground, always, always… the men”, says Nuala, showing us around. The women feel written out of history and try to make their voices heard.
In Loyalist circles, they do not complain openly. We meet the protestant Debbie again at her place of work, a community centre. She points out that many women in her community were active members of Loyalist groups. Later, they distanced themselves from their engagement, and did not want to speak about their participation in the armed struggle: „It is also about not taking that away from their men,” says Debbie. Smoking countless cigarettes, she tells us about her marriage to a man who had served nearly ten years in prison for UVF membership. The marriage failed because of his violent outbreaks. Today, Debbie tries to help other men who cannot cope with their past as a social worker.
But also among Catholic women, there are large differences. In a Cross Community Project we meet Joanna who grew up in a Republican stronghold. For a long time, she did not speak about her life. Her family belonged to the relatively small group of Catholics who tried to avoid involvement in the conflict as far as possible. But nevertheless the civil war shaped Joanna´s life: One of her brothers was shot dead on a march, another brother committed suicide. After years of silence, she finally started to talk to other women about her pain - difficult for her at first, but important in order to gain conscious insight into the past. Joanna says that the conflict became „an intrinsic part of the life, that you did not actually notice it was there.”
Perspectives for the Future
Many of our interviewees are active in Cross Community Projects like Joanna. These shall overcome the gap between Protestants and Catholics and are financed by the European Union. We are invited to a meeting of Protestants and Catholic women by Joann. Only few women dare this bold step. For most of them, it is the first time that they meet women from the other side of the “Peace Wall”. Awkwardly, they women try to get in touch... Silence and nervous laughter show their uneasiness. But the women know that they need to talk. Their problems today are the same: domestic violence, juvenile delinquency and child pregnancies are a heritage of the conflict. If they want to live in real peace and find new hope, they have to connect across the sectarian divide.
Our interviewees are also very curious what the women from “the other side“ have to say. We will invite all of them to watch a short first cut of our film together. Most women will meet then for the first time in a garden of the pub in the city centre. The pub is a so-called “neutral” place and frequented by students and tourists. We will later include these scenes in the documentary.
We will also compose the soundtrack for the film together with our interviewees. Up to now, however, the women do not want to work as one group. As the film crew, we try our best to make a collaboration of all women possible. These discussions prove again that a united Belfast is still utopia. But the first steps are taken...