- 13 Jul 04
Silent Grace, the new movie about the hunger strikes and dirty protests by women in armagh prison, brilliantly confounds expectations. Tara Brady meets its director Maeve Murphy
aeve Murphy must be some kind of genius. I mean, going into her new film Silent Grace – the director’s take on ‘dirty protests’ and hunger strikes in The Armagh Women’s prison of the turbulent early eighties – your correspondent not unreasonably expected something worthy, but dull. The alternative seemed bleak; an unsavoury helping of political dogma. Wrong, and double wrong. This wonderfully humane, even-handed and quietly joyful work will have you skipping from the cinema. That’s damned impressive for a movie which doubles as a history lesson, don’t you think? Especially when you consider the traumatic events being covered.
In 1981, Republican prisoners went on hunger strikes determined to win political status. Their aims were simple – the right to wear civilian clothes, the right to free association, the right not to do prison work, the right to education and recreation facilities and the restoration of the lost remission of sentence. The then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher predictably responded by reiterating that her government “would never concede political status”, and by October that year, ten men were dead.
While much has been written about the H-Block hunger strikes and the now iconic Republican martyrs, the women who joined the protest in Armagh jail have all but been written out of history. Indeed, were it not for the tireless efforts of Nell Mc Cafferty, few would even know such individuals existed. “I remember thinking – Hang on a minute”, says the Belfast born director when I caught up with her recently, “I’ve lived through this period in Northern Ireland, I’m a well-informed individual. When this was going on, I was very interested, I listened to all the news reports, but I don’t know anything about this. What happened? Is it a case of women being, as James Connolly puts it ‘the slaves of slaves’? I don’t know, but it’s so strange that everyone has overlooked this episode.”
This anomaly isn’t merely a case of history eclipsing her-story. After all, one can read any number of articles about women in the Hezbollah. The idea though, of females transgressing to a degree that involved ‘dirty protests’ and self-starvation is undoubtedly a ‘hard-sell’.
“With the male protesters, people saw their actions and read them as heroic sacrifice,” explains Maeve. “But unclean women with shit and menstrual blood on the walls is something people find appalling. It’s really breaking more than one taboo.”
One of the most fascinating elements of Maeve’s suitably amazing Grace is its depiction of gender discrimination within the IRA. The 1916 declaration may be a solid blueprint for a feminist, socialist, Republican state, but going by the pressure brought to bear on the Armagh women to call off their hunger-strike, not everyone was paying attention.
“I’m pointing the finger at the IRA specifically,” says Maeve. “Discrimination against women exists everywhere, that’s why they get marginalized in history. Sexism is an international language.”
Remarkably, Silent Grace is such a compelling coming-of-age drama that you’ll forget all about the unfortunate cell décor. Though firmly rooted in fact, Maeve’s fictionalised version of events centres on Aine – a glue-sniffing, joy-riding, Motorhead-worshipping hellcat (essayed with snarling élan by Cathleen Bradley), whose rebelliousness extends to whooping it up for the IRA in front of a judge. Needless to say, she’s promptly sent down for a year. She continues her bad girl antics before the prison governor, who decides to teach her a lesson by confining her to the Republican wing of the jail.
At first, she’s treated with suspicion by the other inmates, but that gives way to bemusement. When one of the other women dares to suggest that Lemmy is something less than a vision of loveliness, Aine screeches back that “HE’ S GORGEOUS”. (One suspects that even Lemmy’s Mama wouldn’t fight her corner on that one.) Eventually, she forms a bond with Republican leader, Eileen (the magnificent Orla Brady). She’s everything that Aine’s not; a study in quiet determination and Zen-like inner tranquillity, Eileen’s thoughtful and thought-provoking approach to life soon has the young turk reading James Connolly and playing football like a responsible adult.
When Eileen goes on hunger-strike, Aine becomes understandably distraught. Somewhat surprisingly, so does the prison governor, who finds himself sympathising with “this remarkable woman’s” plight, yet remains powerless to intervene.
This is far from your average women-in-prison flick, then. With few exceptions (perhaps Jackson County Jail), the genre is notorious for utilising its all-girl location for the purposes of seedy, lesbian soft-porn. Given that films about women taking militant political stands are even thinner on the ground (I can think of The German Sisters, and not much else), what movies, I wonder, did Maeve turn to for directorial inspiration?
“The three films that influenced me greatly were Some Mother’s Son – because it’s a fictionalised story, but based on real events – Kiss Of The Spiderwoman for the flights beyond the prison walls. But because I wanted to make something about very different people bonding, and survival and humanity, I looked to Midnight Cowboy too.”
Indeed, the most striking thing about Silent Grace is its tender humanity which skilfully avoids partisan judgements and stereotypical characterisation. The inmates may be steely Republicans, but they can still be giggly girls. (Eileen at one point admits to a crush on Conor Mullen’s man-in-charge.) Even the stern screw wearing an accomplished Prisoner Cell Block-H ‘vinegar tits’ expression is permitted an occasional smile.
For Maeve, who describes herself as a Catholic nationalist, it was vital that the film avoid demonisation of either side.
“As a filmmaker, your primary interest is people, not ideology,” she says. “And it was important to me not to demonise anyone, because that’s been a huge part of the problem; the demonisation of the other side, of the enemy - whoever you felt that was, it could be the IRA, it could be a representative of the British government. And people totally lost sight of each other’s humanity. Some people want to see a side in this film, but my take was concerned solely with shedding a light of humanity on this period of Anglo-Irish history. I wanted my film to acknowledge that these women were kept in pretty horrible conditions, but also to acknowledge that killing a prison-warder because of that was pretty horrible too.”
Ultimately though, Silent Grace is less concerned with gruesome exchanges, than it is with projecting hope onto the past. “So much of it is about finding joy in the midst of suffering. People can, and they do,” says Maeve Murphy. With too many vested interests to allow for a South African-style Peace and Reconciliation tribunal in Northern Ireland, Silent Grace may well offer the next best thing. I urge you to seek it out.
Silent Grace is on selected release from July 2nd