Singing the backbone: women’s stories of Northern Ireland

“What’s interesting about our lives?” The process of creating a play from nine women’s testimonies shows we are living in a two hundred year present, where bearing witness is the most powerful gift we can offer.

Jo Egan
6 July 2014

When Jo Egan was asked by Castlereagh Council in 2010 to gather an oral history archive from which to devise a play, she did not know the journey on which it would take her. ‘Ritual Life’ was the result of a powerful process, working with nine women from the Protestant communities of Ballybeen and Lisburn and nine actresses to voice them. 

Trust and the two hundred year present 

It’s Wednesday morning and my first meeting with a women’s group in Ballybeen Women’s Centre. There’s about nine of us sitting around a large table. The Good Relations Officer introduces me and speaks with enthusiasm about the forthcoming project she has asked me to deliver; “Jo’s going to interview you all and then write a play about you….” There’s little response. The Good Relations Officer starts again. “She’s going to interview you, one by one.” “What about?” asks one woman. “Whatever you like,” I say, it’s about your lives.”  They aren’t exactly over the moon. “What’s interesting about our lives?” One woman in particular is definitely not keen, “No, I’ve had enough. I don’t want to talk about The Troubles anymore.” “Who says you have to talk about The Troubles?” I ask. They tell me they feel they have been strategically used in cross-border, cross-community conflict resolution work. They’re continually being asked to talk about ‘The Troubles’. “It’s too much.”  They say they are often provoked into expressing emotions they will later regret. One woman, Letty, has discovered she has been included in a video on the cross border project, expressing herself emotively. A gently spoken woman, she is particularly annoyed to be seen thus.  The group believes the Protestant community is continually represented in a poor light.  I explain the process of the oral history project and the intention to create a play from their testimonies.  They feel the project will result in misrepresentation yet again. “So what would interest you?” I ask.

They grudgingly start exploring possibilities: They speak of Belfast before 1969; pre-Troubles Belfast, the early 1960’s, the dances, the modern mechanisation of the mills, the increasing quality of life, tin baths, music, dance halls, favourite bands, and shoes. The atmosphere in the room lifts. They start laughing. There are shared recognitions. They decide they want to contribute to an archive about the way they used to live. They want to remember their mothers and their grandmothers, and as far back as they can remember. The women in their lives have had an inspirational strength that they held on to through dark days. Five women want to take part. The next day at a meeting with the Lisburn women, I explain the Ballybeen women’s idea. They too wish to spend time remembering and recording the histories of the significant women in their lives. “The way we used to live has value and shouldn’t be forgotten.” Four women volunteer. I now have a group of nine women – nine voices. 

AstorBallroom, Belast, 1962.jpg


My earliest memory comes in at 1950 when I’m five. They were hot summer days where you could run about with never a shoe on your foot, no doors closed- even to children and everyone knew everyone else.

In her contributions to peace studies, Elise Boulding proposes that women and children are vital and under appreciated players in any peace process, further, that the family is a practice ground for making history. She maintains that we live in the middle of a two-hundred-year present. When one considers the close human relationships with older and younger people in our personal histories we might then view ourselves as the fulcrum at the centre of a two-hundred-year history.

The mission of both the oral archive and the play is becoming clearer; to remember the families that have gone before; to observe, to bring the memory of the past into the present, to bear witness to these other lives. To understand where “we” have come from so we might understand what has meaning today. This shift in emphasis away from “Protestant women and identity” to “women living in a community that is largely Protestant” was a crucial decision, which permitted the process of creating the play to proceed without a duty to define identity. 

All nine women taking part left Belfast in the 70’s and 80’s because their homes were situated close to regular flash-points of violence.  Ballybeen is a sprawling housing estate, four miles east of Belfast specifically created in the late 1960’s to house people from densely populated areas such as Shankill or Lr Newtownards Rd. In the 1970’s Lisburn was a satellite town, ten miles from Belfast with a large army base. Many police, prison officers (Lisburn is situated close to the Maze/Long Kesh prison) and army personnel settled there. Both locations have the reputation of housing a predominantly Protestant population.


Maze / Long Kesh Prison, 2007. Credit: Wilson Adams.        



When we moved to Ballybeen all my hair grew back and I felt I could sleep, to tell you the truth, it was like going to bed and being dead because you weren’t worried about listening.  You’d had to listen to every wee sound.

The stories start to sing

Its morning, its afternoon, it’s Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s the end of June. I work between both community centres in Ballybeen and Lisburn. I am required to complete the one-to-one interviews in a faster fashion than normal. Because of this intensity there is a sense of being knocked down again and again by the content of the stories. Individually the stories are vignettes of life. Gathered together they feel as constant as an army of locusts marching across a field.

Vicky begins,

“Between the two Granda’s they worked in the business of people dying, one in an undertakers and one in a graveyard, and you should take that as a sign for I’ve had a life that’s full of it and they say lightning never strikes twice. But it does. Are you afraid?”

And she laughs.

Although the women are all interviewed separately their stories start to sing back and forth to each other: the First World War, tuberculosis, influenza, men returning from war unable to work, they sit before the fire, in back rooms and bedrooms, more tuberculosis, “The Mill”, babies dying, mothers dying, fathers crippled, “The Shipyard.” The hungry Thirties, World War II. It is unremitting. And into all this, “The Troubles” are born. They speak of death’s presence as if she is a chair at a table or a wayward relation and I’m left with the impression that somehow there must be more deaths than births, but this cannot be?

A favourite element of gathering any oral archive is the participant’s delivery; the unconscious and conscious use of language, rhythm and emphasis, the half-finished sentences, the jumping in and out of tense and the colloquialisms, both communal and familial.  One woman’s delivery is extremely challenging. Sandy delivers her interview in a tone devoid of any energy or emotion. After five minutes my skills of concentration are being severely challenged but as her story unfolds the tone which had previously resembled a dragging weight, now becomes riveting; an implacable, funereal undertow accompanying her testimony as a nurse ministering to the victims of violence.


There was a terrible tragedy of a friend’s husband, I mean we were in their house on the Friday and on Saturday I’m working in the hospital and somebody comes in and says they’d just brought him in and he’s dead, and they hand me his pair of glasses.

There were lots of blast bombs and the injuries, you got people, not only had they maybe lost an arm and a leg, they were deaf, their hair was falling out, the smell of the wounds and they had gangrene but you put all that to one side because you…. go home and you don’t get enough sleep and you go back in.  It all fades into the back of your mind but it was really… I did believe in civil rights.  I felt alienated.  That people judged me for something that I wasn’t when I lived in a certain area.  You’re trying to hold together all the time.

You’re also in hospital dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, you’re actually dealing with the hard results and then you’re going back and there’s sectarianism within the community.  It’s a complete immersion. 

You’d go to the cinema one week and the next week it would be gone, rubble. Your whole life was insecure.

I was miserable.

In 1984 we moved to Lisburn.

I ask the actress playing Sandy to find a similar energy within her voice and hold it for the duration of the play reading, even though it appears to make time stand still.  Striving for this authenticity permits us to share the emotion of the storyteller. It is understood in performance research that the knowledge we hold can also be read from our body and our voice.


Tending the wounded at City Hospital, Belfast, date unknown.

Readings and legacy 

It’s night-time. We are in a renovated schoolhouse in Belfast, a bare room with tall, arched windows and wooden floors. Eighteen chairs are positioned in two arcs; nine chairs each side, facing each other. A row of tea-lights provide the footlight divide. It the first time the women will hear the play; their opportunity to censor where I have gone too far. I am the only audience. The nine actresses sit on one side. The nine women sit facing them. There is a chill in the air so there are cloudy whispers of breath emanating from each mouth. The women are excited and expectant. I am terrified for I have taken risks with their lives. If I embarrass anyone I fear it will engender a sense of betrayal that is unintended. 

The actresses commence, their voices layering and interlinking the histories. They have caught the musicality and rhythm inherent in the recordings that each of the actresses has listened to. They have looked for the weight on words. They have listened to the tone and found it in their own voice. The histories leave their lips and each emits its own pulse into the space.

When the reading is over there is silence. The women exchange glances with each other. One of the women, Letty, wants to say something. She is astonished with the actresses’ performance. She has seen her friends in the actresses’ delivery; believes she has seen similar mannerisms. The others agree. Mostly, though, it is apparent that they are astonished with their own lives and the combined impact of their nine histories.

There are two further script readings: the first for Holocaust Memorial Day in February, as part of an event at Castlereagh dedicated to the millions of untold stories that carry lessons from the past. The second takes place in Belfast in March for students of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, who visited Northern Ireland as part of their course studying Conflict Transformation. At the post-show discussion the women talk with the Doha students who had themselves experienced prolonged conflict in their own countries. They spoke of shared recognitions and experiences. It may be that “bearing witness” is the most powerful offering we may give each other.

As an observer, first spectator and witness to these stories, I experienced something extraordinary, deeply moving, and utterly imbued with hope, which appears paradoxical in the face of so much conflict and death. If we understand trauma to be the sudden cessation of human interaction, then the repeated action of rising to each day, negotiating life with family and community again and again and again is an act of heroism.


When I look back what do I see?

Being left without a mother at nine and a father who was ill, I remember one woman – she was teaching me how to bake. The street helped to bring me up.  There was great support.

Even though my Aunt Becky only had one arm, she was the backbone of the whole family.   It’s the women who cope with fallout of death.

Those women… they were the backbone.

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