Laura McAtackney, An Archaeology of the Troubles: The Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison.
Prisons are enigmatic sites. Events that unfurl behind the prison walls mostly escape public attention; the rituals of punishment enacted within them remaining generally hidden from public view. Laura McAtackney's Dark Heritage of Long Kesh/Maze Prison demonstrates that the mass imprisonment or internment of those fighting for a particular cause or political motive--as was the case in Northern Ireland during the Troubles--brought prison events to the fore of public attention. In many ways, the Long Kesh/Maze Prison serves as an iconic site of the Troubles, providing a physical reminder on the Northern Irish landscape of political and social turbulence. Although Long Kesh/Maze is best remembered for the contentious death of Bobby Sands, other key events of the Troubles took place at the site including the controversial internment of key paramilitary prisoners throughout the 1970s and the mass escape of Provisional IRA prisoners in 1983. A number of former prisoners are now key players in the ongoing peace process. Writing at a time when the future of the original site is subject to considerable debate, McAtackney makes the convincing point that the disposal of sites so intrinsically linked to the Troubles represents a general move in Northern Ireland towards attempting to forget rather than engage with painful truths and accepting responsibilities. When viewed in this light, the eradication of architectural remains emblematises a move towards a more peaceful, post- conflict future. The remaining structure of Maze Prison has inherent heritage potential, yet the issue of remembrance remains fraught in a country still coming to terms with its turbulent, and still provocative, recent past.
The Troubles has inspired a relatively rich historiographical and journalistic literature that often maintains an emphasis on key individuals such as Sands. In contrast, McAtackney adopts a highly unique and innovative approach by addressing complex Northern Irish political and social issues from an archaeological perspective. McAtackney suggests that critically examining a wealth of existing material culture relating to Long Kesh/Maze reveals physical evidence of day-to-day prison life, prisoner interactions with their physical environment and the complex relationships forged not only between prisoners and staff but also between inmates and a wider society that, at times, expressed deep interest in their fate. McAtackney opens her study by situating Long Kesh/Maze in a broader history of the Troubles, detailing its use as an internment camp in the early 1970s and the eventual construction of the infamous H-Blocks in which the hunger strikes of 1980-81 occurred. She connects prisoner experiences to unfolding events outside the boundaries of Long Kesh/Maze while demonstrating that the high public profile of the site guaranteed that events at the site impacted profoundly on the political, social and cultural milieu of the surrounding region. McAtackney then provides an overview of archaeological and multi-scalar approaches to her topic, before giving a detailed analysis of the various types of archaeological remnants that form the basis of her study.
In a particularly informative chapter, McAtackney treats official and nonofficial documentation as an archaeological resource that can be dissected to offer insight into perspectives on, and experiences in, Long Kesh/Maze. Making innovative use of recently opened official files, McAtackney provides details on the preservation and destruction of certain files, tensions between the Northern Irish and British governments, the sense of control (or lack of it) that prison staff had over the recalcitrant prisoners under their charge and shifting official emphases as the course of the Troubles unravelled. McAtackney contrasts this resource with prisoner communications (or 'comms'). These consist of scraps of paper containing notes smuggled out of the prison, scribblings on cigarette papers, artwork, and commentary on the emotional experiences of the imprisoned.
In a subsequent chapter, McAtackney examines the confiscated artefacts still extant from Long Kesh/Maze, focusing on their function as an element of subversion within the prison, used by prisoners to protest and challenge the authoritarian ethos of the institution. At Long Kesh/Maze, meal trays were transformed into spades, metal furniture fixings into weapons and bunk beds into ladders. This allowed tunnels to be built, prison officers to be attacked and escapes to be plotted. This analysis is followed by examination of the buildings constructed at Long Kesh/Maze and their role in structuring prisoner experiences throughout the conflict. A further chapter explores the landscape of Long Kesh/Maze, positing that the remote rural location of the site formed part of a broader tradition in Ireland of depositing highly politicised prisoners in places firmly out of direct public view. McAtackney uses oral history interviews conducted on-site (with both prisoners and staff) to highlight the multifaceted nature of interactions between the landscape of Long Kesh/Maze and those imprisoned or working there. In a concluding chapter, McAtackney addresses issues relating to the 'dark heritage' of historic prisons. Matters relating to the retention or destruction of particular buildings at Long Kesh/ Maze remain inherently complex, given their multifaceted political and cultural meanings in Northern Ireland. In response, McAtackney provides a thoughtful discussion of the problems inherent in preserving and displaying iconic artefacts including the bed that Bobby Sands starved himself to death upon.
Laura McAtackney's An Archaeology of the Troubles provides a creative, provocative and emotive interpretation of the Northern Irish Troubles that successfully expands upon traditional historiographical approaches to add new insight into a conflict that had a profound regional, national and international impact. Her study is meticulously researched, innovatively presented and thoughtfully written. It provides an important contribution to literature on Northern Irish politics, the prison and archaeology.
Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University of Ulster
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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