Glencree’s main event this year on 25th June was ‘a magic day’, a stimulating mix of talk, discussion, music, song and theatre and an emotional rollercoaster at times.

A large tent or marquee in the centre of Glencree was a hive of activity from early morning as the mini buses puffed up and down from Enniskerry ferrying participants from all over the island to a warm welcome from Glencree staff.

This event was entitled ‘Imagining Reconciliation: Creative Arts and Peacebuilding’ and was intended to be an exploration of how cultural practice can contribute to building peace. The event was part of the Southern Voice for Peace Programme and it reminds ‘us here in the south’ that a lasting peace on this island is a work in progress and demands our focused attention, creativity and ingenuity.

Twinsome Minds and Divided Communities

When words fail us as they often do, music, art, theatre, film making, acting, singing, sport often help us to see beyond the labels  and perceptions we have of each other.  Shaped by the circumstances of our birth, the stories we have been told about ourselves and the stories that have been told about the ‘the other’, can often remain unchallenged and unquestioned.  Key note speakers, philosopher Richard Kearney and Nerve Centre education Director John Peto challenged us to examine and question the accepted narratives adopted around our histories and education. Both emphasised, that young people, given creative tools like film and digital arts can excavate old stories of conflict and division and create deeper understanding of complex and often opposing narratives and create new stories.   A common theme of the Guestbook Project founded by Kearney in 2008 is hosting the stranger through text, performance, film and digital media. An ongoing artistic academic and multimedia experiment, it has engaged young people from ‘opposing sides in conflict areas’ to tell their versions of stories to each other.  In the telling of those stories they often discover new information, empathy for the other which can contribute to breaking the cycle of transgenerational woundedness.   Conscious of Northern Ireland’s divided past and present, Derry’s Nerve Centre presented ‘Teaching Divided Histories’, a three year all island project which is tapping into the creative desires of young people by using digital media to make learning history more interesting, deeper and more relevant.  John said that, ‘making a film about a historical event encourages deeper understanding of the subject matter’ and really harnesses the enthusiasm of young people in a way that books fail to do.  The project also supports teachers to learn how to teach history using those skills and also learn how to interpret and present history in divided societies.

The Irish Language

After lunch there was a session on the role of the Irish language in fostering reconciliation. Linda Ervine, Director of the Turas Irish Language Programme which now teaches Irish to people in the heart of Loyalist East Belfast spoke with great enthusiasm to the Glencree audience about her own discovery of the Irish Language and her love of passing that on to audiences not regarded as traditional Irish speakers.

With great courage and determination she frequently confronts bigoted voices who claim the language as ‘theirs and theirs alone’ and also challenges those who see use of the language as a betrayal of their own culture. It ‘saddened her’ she said that ‘something that I love so deeply can offend’. An enthusiastic speaker in high demand, Linda sees the Irish language as a mechanism to create bridges between cultures and heal divisions.

She has encouraged thousands of people to discover and rediscover not only the Irish Language but music, dancing and song.    A recent winner of the 2015 Community Relations Award, it recognises her bravery in challenging myths and stereotypes in the face of opposition.  .

Manchán Magan then spoke about what Irish has meant in his life growing up in a family that viewed the language as a weapon in the nationalist struggle against the ‘colonial master’. Though an Irish speaking family, they were descendants of The O’ Rahilly and this highly politicised attitude to the language put him off completely. As a consequence he left Ireland to explore other cultures and languages. Returning some years later he reengaged with Irish and has made documentaries about the potential and uniqueness of Irish and what it might be. Manchán sees the language as intrinsically bound up with an ancient sense of Irishness that predates political struggle and allows us to connect with nature and the poetic sense of who we are as a diverse people who have found a place to belong though we come from many different places and migrant backgrounds. In this way Irish is a unifier of people and he found Linda Ervine’s work as evidence of this. The Irish language offers opportunities and new possibilities that have hardly been explored and Manchán talked about the possibility of a state prize for film in Irish that could make the language attractive and even offer global opportunities. His talk made connections with the theme of ‘twinsomeness’ and the realm of the fifth province.

Theatre of Witness

‘I once knew a girl!’  The opening lines of a stunning Theatre of Witness performance at Glencree as two women, Kathleen Gillespie and Anne Walker acted traumatic events in their own lives on stage for the Glencree audience.  Time stood still as Kathleen, whose husband Patsy was murdered in a brutal fashion and Anne Walker who was recruited to the IRA when she was nineteen years old recounted their stories to a rapt audience.

Pauline Ross, Artistic director of the Playhouse in Derry explained that Theatre of Witness is a model of performance developed by Teya Sepinuck in 1986 that gives voice to those whose stories have remained unheard.

The life stories of people from diverse backgrounds are performed by people themselves, so that audiences can collectively bear witness to the suffering experienced.  Theatre of Witness productions performed in spoken word, music, movement and cinematic imagery, put a face and heart to societal issues of suffering, and celebrate the power and resilience of the human spirit to overcome adversity.

Kathleen described meeting her husband Patsy when she was sixteen, marrying when she was twenty, having her two boys and her husband’s longing for a daughter which she later gave birth to. Her ‘near perfect life’ was shattered when he was abducted by the IRA and forced to drive a bomb into an Army Barracks where he worked as a civilian. He was blown to bits along with soldiers.

Her graphic description of telling her eighteen year old devastated son who was in the UK at the time of his father’s death resonated around the tent.  Anne Walker described her pride is being asked to ‘defend her community’ and serve in the IRA and her slow realisation that this ‘life was not for her’.  At the question and answer session, Anne described her friendships with Loyalists and others she would once not have thought possible and mentioned almost as an aside that some of her young son’s friends now see dissident Republicans as people they look up to.

Former Co-ordinator of the LIVE (Lets Involve the Victims Experience) programme Jacinta De Paor, was present to hear Kathleen pay tribute to the work of Glencree in helping her to process her grief and heal.

At the end of the performance, there was a standing ovation from those present.

Music and Song

An important dimension of the creative arts at this event was of course music.  Musical interludes happened throughout the event with Second Wind starting off the day and Glencree’s Val Kiernan accompanied by her son Dylan, doing a song she wrote in response to the Troubles. Claudia Crampton also provided an essential youth voice with her passionate spoken word piece.  Before lunch there was the magical singing of Anna-Mieke Bishop to allow the audience to engage with the emotion and depth of song and the places it can take us. Following Theatre of Witness, Colum Sands took us on a journey into the tricks of language as both a way to ‘say nothing’ and everything. His comical and mesmerising storytelling and songs brought us back to the ‘fifth province’ as a place where we can really understand in the midst of our confusions, reminding us ‘where we’ve ended up now’. A fantastic ending to a great day as we went out with Kiruu’s special global musical treatments.

Eimear Mc Nally was busy throughout all the sessions creating a graphic representation of what was going on. This provides us with a beautiful record of the event with key highlights and nuggets and you can see images of the final product below.