by Seamus Sweeney
Nth Position Book Reviews
Prisons often have strangely poetic names. Think of Strangeways in Manchester or Parchman in Mississippi, think of Sing Sing or Spandau. Even Wormwood Scrubs has an evocative ring – the juxtaposition of the Book of Revelations book Wormwood and an image of the mundane labour of scrubbing. Some prisons display reverse nominative determination – Mountjoy in Dublin is anything but joyful. But no prison that I know of has as apt a name as The Maze near Belfast.
I had always assumed “The Maze” was so called because it was literally a maze, a medieval sounding fortress-prison. In fact, the townland on which the prison was built was known as “An Má” – the plain – as Gaeilge, which became “The Maze” over time. Yet the Maze is exactly that. Like something out of a Borges story, the building is deliberately designed to baffle and confuse. Entering the world of Donovan Wylie’s photographs is to enter a world of “steriles” and “inertias” – open spaces, the former a stone surfaced space designed to immobilise the prisoners, the latter a void running immediately along the wall of the prison designed to detect any movements near the seventeen-foot high perimeter wall. It’s a world of roads that are almost all cul-de-sacs, where any one point in the prison looks exactly the same as sundry other points.
The Maze, from the evidence of Wylie’s photographs, was and is a prime example of a distinctive architecture those familiar with the Northern Ireland landscape will instantly recognise. The watchtowers, many now dismantled but many still present across the landscape, the courthouses and police stations surrounded by high walls and enmeshed in barbed wire – British Army Gothic, it could be called. For many who didn’t have to actually live there (and, I suspect, not a few of those who did) the apparatus of militarisation gave driving through the North a certain frisson of excitement. It was part of what made Northern Ireland distinct, and for this Free Stater, part of the sense of the place not being the same as Galway or Cork. There was a certain heaviness in the air, palpable at the sight of one of these inscrutable structures. Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism that Northern Ireland was as British as her constituency Finchley was widely ridiculed, but to call it as Irish as Spiddal or Mullingar betrays an even tinnier ear to the unique atmosphere of the Six Counties/Ulster/Northern Ireland.
As that last splurge of strokes indicates, it’s almost impossible to write about the wider topic of Northern Ireland for any length without betraying yourself – I use the word “betraying” judiciously. One’s allegiances are revealed in the very terms used to describe the Troubles/conflict/armed struggle/security situation. Even the attempt to be linguistically neutral will probably alienate both sides more than anything else.
Dr Louise Purbrick, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, provides a clear-sighted essay on the photographs that manages, on the whole, to avoid the partisan traps language sets for the unwary (although – here’s the inevitable “although”) her account of the start of the “Troubles” is a bit simplistic. Like a lot of penological literature, there’s a strange void in Purbrick’s essay – no mention of what the prisoners had actually done to end up in jail. One almost feels a deus ex machina has deposited them there.
Purbrick is strong on the history of the Maze, and the thinking in prison construction and design that underlay its conception. The Maze was built in 1976, beside the existing internment camp of Long Kesh. The paradox was that to enforce the end of special category status for paramilitary prisoners, a special prison had to be used. The Maze was unique in British prisons in that it was a complete maximum security institution – elsewhere in the UK, the policy of ‘dispersal’, incarcerating high security prisoners in Special Security Units scattered throughout the prison system, had been in place since the Sixties and continues to be. Housing prisoners in separate cells, as opposed to the dormitories of Long Kesh, was expected to break up group loyalties.
The H-blocks which became part of the iconography of the Troubles were prefabricated concrete units whose shape was dictated by economy rather than any aspiration to symbolise anything. The advent of prefabrication in prison architecture could even be seen as part of the International Modernist glorification of functionality over traditional ideals of form. If Le Corbusier felt a house was a machine for living in, prefabricated prisons were machines for incarcerating people in. Built by the Royal Engineers, the Maze is British Army Gothic Triumphant – Wylie describes how the walls initially appear entirely grey, such is the volume of barbed wire around them.
The Hunger Strikes of the early Eighties (there were two major ones, the second during which Bobby Sands and ten others died, and a less well known strike in 1980) and the dirty protests, as well as creating a potent Republican martyrology and searing the H-block into Irish consciousness, ultimately ended the debate on special status. Purbrick cites the Chief Inspector of Prisons during this later phase in the conflict that “there is no point in pretending that it is a normal prison.”
Wylie’s photographs both gain and lose something for being taken when the Maze was unoccupied. There’s an eerie, JG Ballardian atmosphere to the photos of vast institutional structures now disused. There is little difference between the inertias and steriles, and indeed navigating the photographs becomes disorientating – have I been here before, one asks, even while turning the pages. This is a hint of the derealisation that the Maze itself must have provoked.
The pictures of now-empty cells, their flowery curtains the one hint of lively colour in the book, again strike one largely with their sameness. But how much of this is the sameness of institutional buildings – from hospitals to schools to barracks back to prisons – anywhere? How much of our reaction to these photos is their presumed context – was this cell wall covered in excrement, did a hunger striker lie on this bed? In these images, life is drained out- but is it because the prison is empty or because of the nature of the building itself?
The images are reminiscent of David Farrell’s Innocent Landcapes (published in book form in 2001). In 1999, after the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims’ Remains) Bill was passed in the Commons declaring an amnesty to help the identification and location of the remains of those “disappeared” during the Troubles, six locations were identified where eight people had been buried after being murdered by the IRA. Their fate and the location of their bodies had been unknown to their families since the Seventies. Farrell’s photographs were pastoral landscapes, with the unmistakable signs of a forensic search for a body discreetly in the middle distance, like a shepherd in a Poussin painting. Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the banality of evil are often discussed, but Wylie and Farrell portray the banality of much else that we think of with fear and trembling – the banal reality of maximum security and of murder and hidden burial respectively. Wylie and Farrell complement each other in other ways – Wylie portrays the architectural embodiment of the state’s forceful authority, while Farrell shows us the smiling hills where the IRA forcefully asserted its authority. (edit in 2017 – Farrell continued his project beyond the time this review was written, see here)
The Maze now lies empty, closed since October 2003. A public process of consultation is ongoing as to its fate – the interested can visit the site at New Future for the Maze. Predictably, there is a sectarian edge to the various proposals – museum, suburban centre, stadium – for its future. Wylie’s photographs may be closest we will get to simply leaving the Maze intact, neither the burden of interpretative centres with a no doubt contentious interpretation nor the simple erasure of history, but simply leaving it as it is.