Someone who had a close relative killed violently in our awful Troubles said this: “The loss of a loved one is devastating. I can hardly explain it in words, but it has a shuddering effect on your whole nervous system.”
Another person said this: “It’s something you have to live with. It’s a cross to bear to the day you die.”
Remarkably, these words were spoken with quiet dignity and without a trace of anger in Brendan J Byrne’s new film “Hear My Voice”. It is based on artist Colin Davidson’s 18 portraits in a collection called “Silent Testimony.”
Both are powerful and emotional; art and film are important pieces of work in reminding us of the deep human cost of the violence which blighted our society for decades.
Far too often, in my opinion, consideration of our victims enters the political bearpit of controversy, and memorialisation ends up in one side or the other using pain to make a point; often that the pain of “our victims” is more just and valid than the them ‘uns because it was inflicted by a morally-bankrupt and evil enemy. But there should be no hierarchy of victims, every family’s pain is personal and real.
I’ve had the opportunity to see Byrne’s film and one of the many interesting things about it is the absence of any reference to who or which organisation the perpetrators were from.
It focuses very firmly on the victims, whether bereaved relatives or injured, and in so doing tells the story of the burden that changed their lives.
“It’s a living hell every day, a horrible nightmare,” says another victim.
Society naturally moves on, and rightly so, but these voices should be heard as a constant reminder, and a lesson of how far in human misery we sank.
We heard quite a bit recently about the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, and it was a healthy illustration that despite all the controversy today and a depressing lack of political will to progress, we have come a long way.
But we also need to be reminded that, actually, many of our people who suffered most directly are still living with the physical and mental scars.
Colin Davidson speaks in the film about his motivation for this wonderful exhibition, and referring to the Good Friday Agreement, he says it was “probably going to be great for most of us, but there was probably nothing in it for the people who suffered loss.” He says that acknowledgement of this is one of the most important aspects of dealing with the past.
His portraits vividly show their stories, 18 of them but they are representative of the suffering of 3,700 victims and numerous more who were injured or suffered loss.
Indeed, the voices we hear speak quietly but powerfully about what he described as the “graphic horror” that the conflict imposed on ordinary, loving people, including some described as “a really kind human being”…”my father, a very affectionate man”….”he would’ve helped anybody”… “one of the jolly ones who laughed all the time.”
Art, film and photography are now performing a marvellous service in highlighting the awfulness of what some people had to endure. In Dublin’s Hugh Lane gallery, Amanda Dunsmore uses video and framed portraits in her exhibition “Keeper” to document the peace process.
If you are of the view that we should just draw a line and move forward, all these works about our difficult past could, perhaps, weigh us down. I disagree profoundly. We should learn the lessons, we should listen to the voices and be inspired to make people’s lives better for future generations.
I wonder about the notion of making things better for people; aside from the legacy of our violent past, there are many sections of our own people who don’t have a great life in a country which seems to have greater division of wealth and wellbeing than ever.
Last night, thousands of people across Ireland, north and south, were homeless. Some people had to find somewhere to sleep out in the cold. There are families, even with a person in employment, who rely on food banks to feed the children, and some of our elderly face a choice of heating or eating.
In the north, the news focused on the trauma faced by people possibly misdiagnosed by a neurology consultant and the scandal of deaths through cervical cancer in the south; while in truth, many people in pain and worry are waiting for surgery every day.
A young man was physically attacked in Enniskillen a few weeks ago simply for being gay, as we continue to marginalise many people in our own communities.
And so it goes on, the lack of compassion and the lack of will for us and those in authority to do something about it.
Instead, we still focus on the wider national identity question, how we make a line on a map hard or soft, whether a leader from a different part of the island has manners or not. These are the issues on which we vote; and while I am not dismissing sincerely-held views, can we not just sort out the many day-to-day problems that our people grapple with?
One of which, surely, is the healing of the hurt of yesterday caused by our collective failure to live together and respect each other.
If present-day politicians can’t be visionary enough to take us forward, they should at least beware of the dangers of dragging us back into a horrible past and remember the words of these victims; including the one who described “incredible pain, so deep inside you that you really did think your heart was going to break.”
It is not trite to say that the best tribute to the victims is to ensure that we never return to those dark days; but to really get the message of how bad it was, let’s listen to the victims.
“Hear My Voice” is showing at the QFT in Belfast later in May.