Audio-describing the Maze and Long Kesh prison

By Sarah McDonagh

A wide panoramic view of the entire Maze, Long Kesh prison.

With its extensive concrete walls, wire fences, exercise yards and administration buildings, the prison appears entirely grey.

The Maze and Long Kesh prison.  

A row of disused and abandoned Nissen huts.  

An empty fortified prison gate.[1]

The Maze and Long Kesh prison has long been a recognisable symbol of the conflict in Northern Ireland. While most of the site has now been demolished, some of its most iconic structures are preserved in the video tours of the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA). The PMA holds over 175 recordings of the prisoners, visitors and staff who passed through during the conflict.

The decision to record participants in the physical space where remembered events took place is key to the archive’s work. It allows participants to use the materiality of the site to discuss their experiences of life inside the prison. The archive also contains a collection of video tours of the prison’s most important sites, such as the H-Blocks, Hospital and Compounds. These offer an important audiovisual record of the prison, its architecture and layout. As debates over the future of the site remain at a political impasse, the PMA video tours offer audiences unique access to parts of the prison that have since been demolished or rendered inaccessible.

The videos keep information about the spaces featured to a minimum, allowing audiences to interpret them on their own terms and purely through the onscreen visuals. While this is a reasonable precaution given the ongoing contention over the significance and meaning of the prison, the lack of additional information or narration risks excluding those who cannot access or understand this material directly through the visuals. This places people with varying degrees of sight loss and other more complex access needs at a disadvantage.

To redress this lack of access I have created a series of audio descriptions (AD) for a number of the video tours, the results of which form the basis of my doctoral research. As an assistive tool, AD makes audiovisual content accessible through the addition of a verbal description, which provides important audio and visual information to audiences. AD paints pictures with words. However words are inherently divisive in the context of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The naming conventions of the prison itself reveals how much terminology is bound up in longstanding political debates. As Laura McAtackney notes, which name you use is often considered as ‘a signifier of preference or adherence to chronology, status of imprisonment, or acceptance of a particular narrative, official or unofficial’ .[2] The lack of agreement over names is representative of the wider breakdown of consensus over how we deal with the past.  Language is politicised in a way which erodes any presuppositions of neutrality. As journalist David Beresford points out: ‘There is no neutrality in Northern Ireland, at least in the terminological sense: the use of the term Northern Ireland places a writer on one side of the conflict because to an Irish Nationalist there is no such entity’.[3]

This is only one example, but it demonstrates how words can function as more than geographical indicators in the context of Northern Ireland. The words we use can indicate our religious, political and social background. A speaker’s use of a term can also commit them to a particular set of values that have developed over time and through the history of their use.[4]

Even letters can highlight the dividing lines of conflict in Northern Ireland, none more so than the letter H. The pronunciation of this letter has traditionally been viewed within the prism of socio-religious identity; with the aitch typically associated with a Protestant speaker and haitch a Catholic one. This is what is known as a “shibboleth”; a custom or tradition, usually a choice of words, phrasing or pronunciation that distinguishes one group from another. Given that AD is written to be spoken, these small but significant differences can have an impact on its reception.

It also raises questions over accent and pronunciation, questions which are bound up in the identity politics of the region. I experimented with different local voice actors, both male and female, who differ in their pronunciation of the letter H, and tested them on audiences of varying visual abilities across Northern Ireland. While some felt that accent mattered to the description of the video tours, particularly in relation to tone, most felt that intelligibility, and not the perceived community of the speaker, was the most pressing concern.

Taking this all on board, providing access to the PMA video tours for people with sight loss calls on the audio describer to make decisions on the word choice, phrasing, and content of their descriptions, as well as how to voice them. It is also important to re-examine the site of the Maze and Long Kesh and unpick the layers of meaning attached to it. Acknowledging the connections between the physical structures of the prison and the memories they provoke in a post-conflict Northern Ireland is key to interpreting its recent past. One example is the Hospital building, which has become closely aligned to the history of republicanism given its centrality to the Hunger Strikes. However, while it is widely accepted that the spaces and buildings featured in the video tours bore witness to some of most difficult periods in Northern Ireland’s recent past, they also relay the everyday experiences of those who were detained, worked and visited the prison. The Hospital building continued to treat prisoners, both republican and loyalist, following the Hunger Strikes right up until the prison’s closure in the early 2000s.

In this respect, the video tours cut through a myriad of experiences, some of which remain marginal. The practice of AD offers a means to engage and acknowledge these marginalised voices through descriptions with oral testimonies from a wide range of people who passed through the prison. We can hear the stories of loyalist and republican prisoners, alongside those of prison officers and visitors. Indeed, the combination of oral testimonies, together with the AD, demonstrates the multiple ways in which the Maze and Long Kesh prison can be interpreted. To this extent, there is not one all-encompassing narrative of the Maze and Long Kesh, but many. All reveal the complexity of the prison experience during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and show the work that needs to be done in interpreting its legacy. Providing access to the PMA video tours for people with sight loss allows us the opportunity to see the prison in a different light and find new meaning in its structures. We are forced to examine and challenge our assumptions about the past as well as invite others to join the conversation.

[1] An excerpt from the audio description of the PMA trailer.

[2] Laura McAtackney, An archaeology of the Troubles: the dark heritage of Long Kesh/Maze prison, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 16.

[3] David Beresford, Ten dead men: the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike (London: Grafton, 1987), 1.

[4] Thomas McLaughlin, ‘Introduction’, in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (ed.) Critical Terms for Literary Study. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4.

(Image: Photograph of the watch tower at the Maze and Long Kesh prison, taken from the Prisons Memory Archive, used with permission.)

Sarah McDonagh is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. Her doctoral research investigates the audio description of politically sensitive material related to the Maze and Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. Her research reflects on the process of audio describing politically sensitive material for a digital archive, with the scope of her analysis expanding onto issues of language and identity in the context of Northern Ireland. Her principal research interests include media accessibility, particularly accessibility in the arts and digital heritage sectors. She has been involved in the EU-funded Accessible, Culture and Training (ACT) project and has also worked with the Prisons Memory Archive to design accessible content for people of varying sensory abilities.

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