This began life as a 365 blog but I realised that I wanted it to reach a broader audience (or perhaps just one more likely to comment): I’ve also been wanting to resurrect the pondering of Carrie for a while and hope that perhaps this will lead on to something bigger and better. I also thought I should wait until all four episodes of the ‘Sons of Ulster’ programme I’m writing about had aired; but social plans will interrupt my TV viewing for the remainder of the week (I am making a mental list of my ‘Sky-Plus’ friends or even just those I know who can work a video). So will too ponderous an intro…
I’ve just finished watching a BBC Northern Ireland programme: ‘Sons of Ulster’. It had been commissioned a while ago but bureaucratic red-tape got in the way. Over the next few nights it is telling the story of a group of young offenders incarcerated in Hydebank Wood Young Offenders’ Centre, being taken under the tutelage of local actor/ director Dan Gordon to present Frank McGuinnesses’ play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, to an audience of their prison peers.
I’m a huge fan of the play; having seen a relatively recent production at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre I have ‘directed’ ( in the Drama teacher sense of the word); two A-level Exam performances of the same play. Each time I presented the story using a group of eight girls. It’s a man’s play; dealing with the complex relationships of Northern Irish World War One soldiers. A play that any synopsis here would do little justice too. It is an obvious choice for the project Dan Gordon is undertaking: it deals not only with male relationships but also political and religious identity, sexual orientation and the inner-struggle each man’s encounters in finding his sense of self and feelings of self-worth as he faces the fear of ’going over the top.’ (So much for avoiding the synopsis…)
I was struck tonight by the humanity of the boys taking part; and how similar they are to the boys in my own classroom. Dan Gordon refuses to deal with the details of their criminal past; wanting instead to offer them a different perspective than whatever one had led them to this frightening and freedom-less place and time. My aunt used to teach in Hydebank and even now is still connected to Prisoners’ Education and I continually ask her how she copes with the idea that the men in her classroom are murderers, rapists, thugs of the highest order and her simple answer is always the same. She doesn’t: she sees them as students; men her education can help in the slow process of re-entering society.
It is easy, to only see the positive here. As a Drama teacher it is easy to applaud the inter and intra-personal skills these boys will gain from their literary and theatrical experience; to write at length of how the exposure to literary culture that is both alien but entirely relevant to their own experiences could be postive in ways beyond measure.
But all crimes have victims and somewhere in the immediate locality are the victims of the crimes (some of them fatal, many of them violent) these boys committed. How do they, and their families’ feel watching these boys being presented with this particular opportunity?
Tonight’s programme posed the difficult question: should prison be punishment or rehabilitation? These are young offenders; boys who are typically victims of social deprivation (and the Northern Ireland paramilitarism that so often accompanied it), boys who the mainstream education system and society as a whole has in some way failed, boys who have made horrifically bad choices; but Dan Gordon certainly believes they are boys who deserve a second chance.
I await tomorrow night’s episode…