Difficult History, Difficult Women, Difficult Research

By Áine McKenny

In one of the first posts on Writing the ‘Troubles’, Eli Davies wrote ‘the starting point for my research is an observation, and it’s by no means an original one: that women’s experiences of the conflict in Northern Ireland are excluded in mainstream discourse’. This observation is also the starting point of my own research – examining exhibitions on the ‘Troubles’ and how women’s narratives, memories and experiences are/aren’t displayed.

Since the start of my research, I have frequently and repeatedly been drawn to the term ‘difficult’ to explain the ‘Troubles’, with its complex nuances and interpretive challenges. Roger I. Simon uses the term ‘difficult knowledge’, Sharon MacDonald uses ‘difficult heritage’, Julia Rose uses ‘difficult history’.[1] I think I am drawn to this word due to its simplicity in indicating a complex set of issues: deciding how to display the ‘Troubles’ can be difficult; visiting an exhibition on the ‘Troubles’ can be difficult; researching the ‘Troubles’ can be difficult.

In recent years, many people have taken on the task of excavating the memories, narratives and histories of women in the ‘Troubles’. They have accepted the challenge of giving the ‘Troubles’ a gendered analysis, which has been absent from mainstream discourse for so long. It is these people’s work that has allowed me to reconfigure my own understanding of women’s roles and contributions to the conflict. Indeed, this has also challenged my sense of what should or could be included in exhibition displays on the ‘Troubles’. It is through their work that I have come to understand that women cannot be homogenised, that the experiences of women in the conflict were vast and varied. That such experiences may be difficult to display in exhibition spaces. But I have also seen the importance and the absolute need to rectify past ignoring, undermining, marginalisation, underfunding, oppression and silencing.

In this post, I am going to talk about the exhibition and film entitled The Long Note (2018) by Helen Cammock. It is about the role of women in the civil rights movement and the ‘Troubles’ in Derry. The exhibition was commissioned and displayed in Void Gallery, Derry in 2018; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin in 2019; it was then nominated and co-won the Turner Prize 2019 and was displayed at the Turner Contemporary, Margate.

Running at one hour and forty-two minutes, The Long Note is dense with imagery, editing and audio to analyse. It is comprised of edited archival footage, original footage, archival interviews, original interviews, text, music and narration. Central themes include the notion of voice, authorship, protest, civil rights and the complex temporalities of history. The film draws out many key issues including how women were involved with the civil rights movement, questions of redefining contribution and roles in conflict and how the ‘Troubles’ can be presented within exhibition spaces.

The women who speak in the film are all unnamed. You’d have to know about them to recognise them. This moves the focus from the individuals to the larger movement being discussed. Each woman tells of their own memories of certain events or experiences, they each contribute to the bigger story, the collective narrative. There are also women who share their stories but did not want their voice in the film, and Cammock lends her own voice to those women by reading their experiences aloud. Though these women’s stories of the conflict cannot represent the experiences of all women, they are an example of excavation work in collecting experiences of the conflict. The women’s stories and the film itself are contributions to a larger narrative.

When one thinks of women and the ‘Troubles’, a name that will likely come to mind is Bernadette Devlin. She is interviewed in the film; at one point she acknowledges her position as a symbol in memory narratives of the conflict and says that she was often misappropriated. She recalls many occasions when somebody has credited certain actions or words to her, when in fact it was another woman. She theorises that once she became this female symbol, the works, words and actions of other women all amalgamated into one character – the only visible one. Bernadette says she was the exemption to the rule, not proof that the rule does not exist.

At another point, Devlin highlights an ongoing issue when analysing women and the ‘Troubles’ – the actions of women in the civil rights movement and conflict was often not seen as vital work, despite it being absolutely essential. She explains, when you have a war with secret armies, it cannot operate or be sustained without community tolerance, which does not exist without the tolerance of women. It was women who sustained the communities, it was them that kept communities intact. When civil resistance and political protest progresses into war, there is a shift in logic and morality. What is violence and nonviolence is redefined and what is acceptable changes. It was women who minimised the impact of this during the conflict and it was women who were key in moving back out of that.

In Northern Ireland, like many places in the world, a woman’s place has historically been relegated to the home. And for a long time, this was considered to be a domestic sphere, differentiated from the political sphere. As if the home is not political. As if the home was not a site of war. As if the home was not a site of resistance. The home, and the right to one, was central to the protest demands that led to the ‘Troubles’. Eli Davies’ research on the domestic space as a site of war and resistance explores such aspects. In her recent talk for the Linen Hall Library, she presented moments of nurturing and care as radical acts. Using Only the Rivers Run Free, Peggy Deery: A Derry Family at War, Price of My Soul and two novels by Diedre Madden, she highlighted descriptions of nurturing that happened within the home to show how it was a space of resistance.[2] Cooking was a political act. Keeping a clean home was a political act. Raising children was a political act. [3]

Much of the content in The Long Note still resonates today. Especially the discussions of protesting and civil rights during a time of emergency powers. I am painfully aware that as I write this people are angry, people are protesting, people are questioning the point of protest, and the human right to protest is being threatened. Cammock is interested in the interconnectedness and complex temporalities of histories, and the film’s parallels of the past to the present holds a powerful potential for a wide range of audiences.

I am interested in the issues of how to display such narratives within exhibition spaces and why has it been difficult to do so. Is it that the participation of women was not and is not recognised as participation? Is it that by presenting the positioning of women in the past, creates an uncomfortable reflection of the position of women in the present? Is it that violence of the ‘Troubles’ is acceptable to present when its categorised as political or paramilitary violence, rather than violence inflicted specifically against women? I think the answer to all the above is yes. What the film, and the interviews within it, bring to the surface is the messiness and “difficulty” of representing women’s conflict experiences through a straightforward narrative. The complexities and ambiguities of women’s lives amidst conflict have perhaps encouraged the long-standing unwillingness amongst curators and commentators to tackle their representation in exhibition settings. But for me, that is what makes representing them so vitally important. They are worth representing, precisely because their messiness may prove unsettling.

[1] Roger I. Simon, ‘A Shock to Thought: Curatorial Judgment and the Public Exhibition of ‘Difficult Knowledge’’ Memory Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, Oct. 2011, pp. 432–449; Sharon MacDonald, Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond (Routledge, 2009); Julia Rose, Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

[2] Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough, Melanie McFadyean, Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland – The Women’s War (Pluto Press, 1987); Nell McCafferty, Peggy Deery: A Derry Family at War (Virago Press, 1989), Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul (Pan Books Ltd, 1969); Diedre Madden, One by One in the Darkness (Faber & Faber, 1996); Diedre Madden, Hidden Symptoms (Faber & Faber, 1988).

[3] See also Mad, Bad & Dangerous – A Celebration of ‘Difficult’ Women to hear Nell McCafferty and Bernadette Devlin speak to Lelia Doolan and discuss how their homes were spaces for the foundations of their politics to develop. 

Áine McKenny is a third-year PhD researcher based in the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories at the University of Brighton. Her research interests include war and conflict, memory, oral history, cultural representations of the past and the display of these subjects in exhibition spaces. Her PhD research examines the representations of women within exhibitions on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Follow her on Twitter @ainemckenny


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