The 2016 meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies transformed the University of Notre Dame into a uniquely performative space.
Aside from the flourish provided by the launch of the film 1916: The Irish Rebellion and its companion book, this year’s national conference offered numerous opportunities for engagement beyond the traditional, expository paper. On-campus offerings included special exhibits within the Hesburgh Libraries’ Rare Books and Special Collections Department and the Snite Museum of Art. McKenna Hall exhibited 1916 ephemera, innovative printmaking, and information on the role of the Irish language in the Easter Rising, respectively. Several poetry panels transformed audiences from individual onlookers into collective witnesses. In particular during readings by Sinéad Morrissey (Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, QUB) and the Wake Forest University Press poets, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Conor O’Callaghan, and Caitríona O’Reilly. These poets demonstrated the link between the composition of poetry and its presentation—an important feature for future conferences, surely.
I was most impacted, however, by Director Cahal McLaughlin’s presentation of history and memory from the vacant, though subconsciously evocative space of Armagh Gaol. His film, Armagh Stories: Voices from the Gaol, is an oral history of the Troubles set in the Victorian correction space, which closed its doors in 1986. Armagh Stories is a truly distinct oral history experience. As a methodology, oral history may be corrupted by subjectively-selected witnesses. These witnesses may be presented with leading questions posed in psychologically safe spaces; i.e., removed from the sites of memory. McLaughlin’s detached observation of the reunion between historical space and personal witness is unusually balanced. Interviewees included various members of the predominantly female prison population (political and criminal class, Unionist and republican, Protestant and Catholic), a chaplain, a solicitor, and warders. These people were re-introduced to the space of their confinement or workplace. The film demonstrates that these spaces themselves acted as agents of historical interrogation. While there were many powerful recollections of prisoners being roughly searched, stripped, beaten, denied exercise, and generally humiliated, other stories instanced banal, everyday prison life. Political discourse and the negotiation of prisoner rights went hand-in-hand with talk of television programs and methods used to smuggle cigarettes. This seemingly distanced interview method nevertheless revealed how the film attempted to draw out varied experiences of the Troubles. Most obvious was the class distinction between the film’s participants, distinctions that appeared couched in a methodological desire for inclusion and objectivity. Most interviewees personified the type of working class background and outlook inherent of the period’s interned political prisoner class. The fact that several women had returned to a site of—no doubt—intense emotional and psychological pain in casual dress perhaps suggests that their prison experience was not divorced from their character and did not require inflated importance. Acknowledging the powerful place to which ex-prisoners would be returning (physically and psychologically), the crew arranged for on-sight counselors to identify and treat signs of post-traumatic stress. Such services were also available after the filming had concluded, though it was revealed during the panel’s question and answer session that no one availed of the offer. Despite from the film’s brevity (a one-hour presentation edited from over three hundred hours of footage), McLaughlin conveyed how the consideration for witnesses did not end when the cameras were cut.
Overall, exhibits, documentaries, and interactive panels allowed this year’s national conference to communicate Irish studies in new ways and to new audiences (#acis2016). As McLaughlin’s film demonstrated, and as ACIS 2016 reinforced, a particular space is as vital to the forging of intellectual and social connections as it is to being an initiator of memory and reflection.