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News From Meghaberry Prison

November 1, 2012

liz orndorffThis week we’re getting a double dose from traveling playwright Liz Orndorff, who has lots to say about Northern Ireland, its people, and its art.  I’ve added some pictures, but the words are all Liz’s!

October 25
Hi, folks! Below is my report from my day-long visit with a drama class at Maghaberry Prison (pronounced “me–GAB–bry”). Thought I would give you an update on my visit to Her Majesty’s Prison Maghaberry last Friday, October 19. Very Irish weather this day–cloudy, misty rain, chilly breeze. Fiona Surgenor, the director of good relations for the Carrickfergus Borough Council, took me to the prison, which is about 15 miles outside of Belfast in rolling green farmland. You will not be surprised to learn that it took awhile to get through security when we entered at the wrong gate and they had to track down our contact, who was not a Maghaberry staffer.

Eventually we got to the right gate and found Dr. Ellen Burns waiting for us in the lobby. Ellen just completed her doctorate in applied drama last December. She has been working with prison classes for three years and even did her dissertation on the subject of using drama in prisons. She works for the Prison Arts Foundation, which oversees arts programming at various prisons in Northern Ireland. Maghaberry is surrounded by high concrete walls–very forbidding looking–made me wish for some light-filled razor-wire!
Prisons1
Prisoners are divided up according to certain parameters, not all of which I got. But we did see the building where the paramilitary guys are kept separate from all other prisoners. There are many guards with HUGE German shepheard dogs around that area. Ellen told us that the paramilitary guys (like former IRA members) are on a dirty strike at the moment. I asked her if that meant they were refusing to wash or bathe.No, she said, it meant that they were smearing excrement all over the walls and furniture. Anyone working in that unit had to wear a complete hazmat suit at all times.

Security to get into the prison was tight. In the lobby I had my picture taken and put on a plastic card with a magnetic stripe. Then my right hand was scanned on a metal plate with five pegs sticking up between my fingers. Three times I had to swipe the card and put my hand on the plate so that my fingers touched all the pegs in just the right way before the doors would click and the revolving, intermeshing-bars swung round. There were tiny lockers in the lobby where we had to leave cell phones. Then when we went into the room where we put everything in a bin for the x-ray machine, they patted us down (a woman did it) and asked if we had anything electronic or magnetic on us. I had to send my passport and flash drive back to the lobby to be put in our locker.

The most startling aspect of Maghaberry was that the prisoners do not wear uniforms and most of the time are not wearing ID tags. The guards have uniforms and that”s it. The educational wing is quite nice. It is new and has art studios, a four-unit kitchen for cookery classes, masonry and furniture making areas, a kind of theatre for drama classes, a staff lounge, an interior design studio. The walls are covered in terrific artwork done by the prisoners and there are a lot of very good quotes by famous people, all relevant to the site.There are tons of flowers planted everywhere at Maghaberry, which Ellen said was at the command of the current governor (warden). There were five guys in Ellen’s morning class. They meet for about two hours in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon, so when she goes there she is there all day.

maghaberry2bprisonThe biggest difference between our guys and the Irish guys was the length of sentences. Maghaberry inmates are pretty short-term. In fact, they told us that if someone gets a life sentence he is out in 15 years. They were very surprised when I told them how many years Northpoint guys had spent and were going to spend in prison. They were also under the impression that we execute prisoners all the time. Ellen comes from the acting area of drama, so the writing that her students do is not nearly as advanced as those at Northpoint. Just last week her class produced a 30-minute play written by two of the inmates called “The Seven Deadly Sins.” They do the whole play from memory, using only the class members as actors. I have brought it back with me with the hopes of having our guys do the play next August. Then the guys read Derek Trumbo’s “Conviction” and really liked it, although they laughed at the language because it was so “American!” They then decided to do the play as part of the show they will give in December! They also decided to do the play in American accents. It was a real trip to hear these thickly-accented Irish guys trying to imitate an American accent, most of which sounded Southern and black!

fat gherkinHalfway though the morning and afternoon sessions one of the prisoners got up and made tea and coffee (instant) for everyone. The guys were polite to Fiona and me, but tended to talk all at once, so sometimes not a lot got done. But we were able to visit with them about prison life and the continental differences. One of the guys keeps getting released, robs a business, gets drunk, and ends up back at Maghaberry. It is now his home. He is also an extremely accomplished artist (I saw some of his work) but resists anyone’s attempts to market it. They are housed two to a cell and most of these guys are called “walkers,” which means they can pretty much walk anywhere they want to within the prison. We saw a nice soccer field, where the guys playing wore team uniforms! They have a lock down a couple times a day, which I guess is when they do a count. During the two-hour break between the morning and afternoon sessions Fiona drove the three of us into the nearest town, Moira, and we had a delicious lunch at a little restaurant called The Fat Gherkin.

October 31

northern-ireland-beach-900x600-srgbNancy and I are continuing our good fortune in this visit to Carrickfergus and environs.  The Borough Council is especially generous and take such good care of us that it is hard to think about leaving next week. Let me start this chapter by suggesting that if you are looking for a new place to vacation, then pack your bags for Northern Ireland, Carrickfergus, Belfast and the most beautiful countryside east of Kentucky. There seems to be a real emotional and psychic connection between the people of Northern Ireland and Kentucky. So many of us ultimately came from here–it is heartwarming to be coming back.
 
Last Wednesday we met with a drama class at Carrickfergus Grammar School and discussed the premise for a 10-minute play that would use the four girls and one guy (all about 13 or 14 years old) as actors. We arrived at the story of the guy seeing himself as a real stud who was ultimnately double- and triple-timing the girls. Next week we return to see the finished product. The kids and teacher Heather McCaughan (pronounced “mick cock-in”) were delightful, as we have come to expect from Carrick students and teachers.
 
Wednesday evening we were the guests of the Carrickfergus Art Club and were treated (front row seats) to a live demonstration by water-colorist Grahame Booth, who created a wonderful farm scene (complete with farmer and dog) right before our eyes. Afterwards we had a beautiful tea with the leaders of the club and Grahame, who is from County Down and now lives in Belfast. You can read more about him and see his work at his web site (just Google him).
 
theatre at the millOn Thursday we took a taxi to a nearby theatre–the Theatre at the Mill (left)–a new theatre that is state of the art (about 250-300 seats) and saw “The Odd Couple.” I was afraid I would not understand the Irish accents of these professional actors, but they did the show in very authentic New York speech. Turns out that Nancy was seated beside “Felix’s” parents and she enjoyed visiting with them. Afterwards we had our picture taken with the stars!
 
Friday evening we enjoyed the opening of the Carrickfergus Art Club show at the library, where we saw a very high quality of artwork.
At dark we made our way to  “The Big Lamp” on High Street where we joined with 14 other hardy souls (it was a wild and windy night!) for the Historical Ghost Walk, led by re-enactor Ann, who had been our guide when we first arrived here. Ann took us around the oldest parts of the city, including Saint Nicholas’s Church, where we ran into graverobbers; to the jail, where we met an executioner, a prostitute, and a fresh head that had just been separated from his body! Then we came upon a witchcraft trial and saw two witches put into the stocks, and the hangman told us about his lovely work.  All the people were members of the local re-enactors group and did a great job with incredible props and costumes. Living theatre at its best! Followed by pumpkin soup at Dobbins Inn, the oldest inn in Northern Ireland.
 
folk parkSaturday we re-visited Ryan and Amy at their Uplift classes and watched 4-year-olds practicing for the Christmas show. Then we were picked up by our new friend Jillian McCallion (whom we had met at Joymount Church), who drove us to the other side of the lough (“lock”) to see the Ulster Folk Museum and the Museum of Transport. It was a lovely sunny, though chilly, day and we had the best time. The Ulster Folk Museum (left) is a recreation of an Irish village with churches, banks, weavers, shops,police station–everything authentic but brought from different places and re-assembled here. It was fascinating and quite informative and fun.  At the Transport Museum we saw a huge Titanic exhibit and then four floors of historic automobiles, buses, trucks, trams, commercial vehicles. All beautifully showcased. It was fun to see European antique cars for a change. We finished by hacing lunch at the Culloden Hotel pub, which was luscious!
 
Nancy and I have dubbed Sunday our “perfect day.”  We started by going to church at Saint Nicholas’s, an 800-year-old Church of Ireland (I think I underestimated its age last week). It was fun to sit in the massive stone and stained glass building and watch the minister with his Apple laptop on the pulpit, screens hanging from the rafters with words to the songs, and a fiddler and a drummer accompanying the piano.  We had our second Boys Brigade service, so because of that, and a Harvest Service the previous week with a guest preacher, we have yet to hear a Carrickfergus preacher actually preach!
 
At 3:00 on Sunday we went to see the new James Bond movie across the street. “Skyfall” is the best non-Connery Bond yet. Go see it!  Then we had a lovely dinner at our favorite restaurant, The Wind Rose. Then home to see “Downton Abby” (the one you haven’t seen yet!)
A perfect day.
 
Monday we had Amy and Ryan Moffett of Uplift over for a spaghetti dinner. These two graduates of the Young Americans touring company are talented and fun–we want to get them to Kentucky sometime soon, perhaps in an artist exchange. They were married last year in Saint Nicholas’ Church and had their wedding pictures taken at the Carrickfergus Castle.
 
belfast opera houseTuesday eveing the mayor of Carrickfergus and his wife, Billy and Beatrice Ashe, took us into Belfast to the Grand Opera House (left) to see “Paisley and Me”. It was a packed house with a thriving bar and the opera house itself is a gilt-covered paen to the opulence of centuries past.  The play was a powerful and moving examination of the effects of one charasmatic preacher/politician on the people around him, for good or ill. I had a good chat with the Mayor about the possibility of bringing a theatre to Carrick (a topic I also discussed with the Moffetts) and he helped me see the lay of the land. Carrick is situated so close (20 minutes) to the theatres and other resources of Belfast that at this point it is not economically feasible to introduce more theatre. But there’s room for more discussion about this, I think.
 
Today, Wednesday, 31 October, I spoke to the Carrick Rotary Club and showed a slide show of Danville.  They were very keen to know how we handled economic and development problems and I think the conversation could have gone on if we had not had time constraints.  Tonight we go to Larne to see a play with Fiona Surgenor, the good relations officer who took me to Maghaberry Prison.
Another great week, and now we begin our final week. We’re waiting for Janet Crymble to arrive from Danville so we can do more touring!