The Prisons Memory Archive: A Case Study in Filmed Memory of Conflict

Jolene Mairs Dyer, Conor McCafferty, Cahal McLaughlin (Eds.)

by Sarah McDonagh (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain), Conor McCafferty (Queen’s University Belfast), Amanda Dunsmore (Limerick School of Art), Sarah Feinstein (University of Leeds), Rosie Hickey , Kate Keane (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland), Laney Lenox (Ulster University), Jenny Meegan , Laura Aguiar (Nerve Centre, Belfast), Lorraine Bourke (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland), Laurence McKeown , Cahal McLaughlin (Queen's University Belfast), Joanna McMinn (PMA Advisory Group), Kevin McSorley (Queen’s University Belfast), William Mitchell (Action for Community Transformation ), Melania Terrazas (University of La Rioja, Spain), Elizabeth Woodcraft , Lorraine Dennis (Prisons Memory Archive (2016-2019))

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“The Prisons Memory Archive: A Case Study in Filmed Memory of Conflict” is a highly significant collection of writings that offer a model of participatory practice in filmmaking and history-making, oral history and storytelling, as well as the creation of archives. The juxtaposition of accounts from researchers, who established the Prisons Memory Archive with the reflections from participants, who told the histories and stories of imprisonment that form the Prison Memory Archive’s content, represents the practice of co-authorship that has guided the Prisons Memory Archive project from the outset. The inclusive methodology of the collection is an extension of that of the Archive, and while both will, no doubt, inform the practice of remembering and documenting conflict in Ireland, the development of the Prison Memory Archive methodology and its critically reflective priorities is relevant to archival work and memory work more generally. Alongside the writings of Prison Memory Archive researchers and participants are a series of important essays that position their collaboration in a wider context of writing contested histories, seeking transformative justice, reading architecture and understanding the intersection of the digital and spatial in archival studies.

Dr Louise Purbrick
School of Humanities and Social Science
University of Brighton

The Prisons Memory Archive (PMA) explores ways that narratives of a conflicted past are filmed at the site of the experiences and later negotiated in a contested present in the North of Ireland. Given the state’s failed attempts at establishing an official process for addressing the legacy of the conflict that lasted between 1968 and 1998, there are a number of community and academic initiatives that have taken up this task. The Prisons Memory Archive is one such project, whose aim is to research the possibilities of engaging with the story of the ‘other’ in a society that is emerging from decades of political violence.

The PMA filmed back inside the prisons with those who passed through Armagh Gaol (2006) and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison (2007), which were both touchstone and tinderbox during the 30 years of violent conflict. We applied protocols of co-ownership, where participants become co-authors of their own story, with the right to withdraw up to the point of exhibition; inclusivity to ensure a multi-narrative archive with prison staff, prisoners, visitors, teachers, chaplains, etc.; and life-story telling, where leading questions are eschewed in order to return more agency to the participants.

Currently, the full archive, made up of 160 walk-and-talk recordings totaling 300 hours of filmed material, is available at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, where it is preserved and made accessible to the public, and a website has been designed for educational use of the archive. This collection offers critical reflections on the processes of recording, archiving and utilising the archive in its several manifestations, e.g. feature films, website, and full archive at the Public Records Office. The perspectives offer a range of reflections, including filming, editing, archiving, web design, education, and museum practice.

List of figures

List of abbreviations

List of contributors

A note on the text

Prologue: Reflection on Material and Memory at Long Kesh / Maze prison
Laura McAtackney
Aarhus University

Jolene Mairs Dyer
Ulster University
Conor McCafferty
Queen’s University Belfast
Cahal McLaughlin
Queen’s University Belfast

Participant reflections: introduction from the co-chairs of the Prisons Memory Archive Advisory Group
Jenny Meegan and Joanna McMinn

Chapter 1 Filming in the prisons
Cahal McLaughlin
Queen’s University Belfast

Chapter 2 Politics, People and Places: Personal Reflections on the Evolution of the Prisons Memory Archive
Lorraine Dennis
Prisons Memory Archive (2016-2019)

Participant reflections
Larry Carragher and Paddy Smyth

Chapter 3 Constructing meaning within ‘The Maze’: using the Prisons Memory Archive to ‘read’ the architecture of the H-Blocks
Rosie Hickey
Independent Scholar

Participant reflections
Michael Culbert

Chapter 4 Strip Searching in Armagh Gaol
Elizabeth Woodcraft

Participant reflections
Harry Donaghy

Chapter 5 Accumulative Legacy Practice: Art Making as Longitudinal Social Archiving and Reflection
Amanda Dunsmore
Limerick School of Art

Participant reflections
Colin Halliday

Chapter 6 Not Just My Story
Laurence McKeown

Participant reflections
Dick Henderson

Chapter 7 Eighteen and a half years old – ordinary young men, extraordinary times
William Mitchell
Action for Community Transformation, Belfast

Participant reflections
John Hetherington

Chapter 8 Re-shaping the digital archive: from the Prisons Memory Archive to We Were There
Laura Aguiar
Nerve Centre, Belfast

Participant reflections
Jenny Meegan

Chapter 9 Armagh Stories and We Were There: gender, change and cultural memory
Melania Terrazas
University of La Rioja

Participant reflections
Joanna McMinn

Chapter 10 Social capital and archives of place
Sarah Feinstein
University of Leeds

Participant reflections
Eleanor Mulligan

Chapter 11 Audio describing the video tours of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison: key considerations, challenges, and opportunities
Sarah McDonagh
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Participant reflections
Gerard Murray

Chapter 12 Engaging the non-linear past and transformative justice: The Prisons Memory Archive and Stiftung Gedenkstätte Lindenstraße as pluralistic memorial tools
Laney Lenox
Ulster University

Participant reflections
Valerie Owens

Chapter 13 Do no harm: the challenges and opportunities of archiving contested histories
Kate Keane
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Participant reflections
David Smyth

Chapter 14 Life in the compounds/cages of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison: editing and screening a short documentary from the Prisons Memory Archive
Kevin McSorley
Queen’s University Belfast

Participant reflections
Dee Stitt

Chapter 15 Finding a home for the archive: the perspective of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
Lorraine Bourke
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Participant reflections
Ronnie White

Chapter 16 Reframing the archive: applying the ethical framework to the Prisons Memory Archive website
Conor McCafferty
Queen’s University Belfast


Jolene Mairs Dyer PhD is a Lecturer in Media Production at Ulster University. She edited material from the PMA to create ’Unseen Women: Stories from Armagh Gaol’, a 26-minute documentary and multi-screen gallery installation shown at Belfast Exposed in June 2011. Her most recent work, ’Women’s Vision from Across the Barricades’ (2015) and ‘Women’s Vision in Transition’ (2020), used collaborative photography to explore socio-economic issues affecting women living in interface areas of north Belfast. She is the Director of Belfast Feminist Film School.

Conor McCafferty has worked in research, management and creative roles in academia and arts and heritage organisations. He holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast – his research and professional interests revolve around archival collections in the arts and architecture, and public engagement and outreach through digital media. Conor was Project Manager of the 'Visual Voices of the Prisons Memory Archive' project at Queen's University from 2019-21 and is now a member of the PMA Advisory Group.

Cahal McLaughlin is the Chair of Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and director of the Prisons Memory Archive. He has produced films from this archive and written about the PMA for 'Memory Studies' and 'Oral History Review'. His most recent film is ‘Right Now I Want to Scream: Police and Army Killings in Rio – the Brazil Haiti Connection’ (2020).

Northern Ireland/North of Ireland, life storytelling, inclusivity, co-ownership, shared/safe space, ethical filmmaking, contested memories, conflicted past

Bibliographic Information

Book Title

The Prisons Memory Archive: A Case Study in Filmed Memory of Conflict





Number of pages


Physical size



19 B&W

Publication date

September 2022