Our Lives Without You: Stories Beyond the Legacy of the Ballymurphy Massacre
by Catherine DOYLE for Northern Ireland Foundation
29 May 2014
It was a full house at Brian Friel Theatre that welcomed Alessia Cartoni’s new play to the stage. ‘Our Lives Without You’ tells the stories of the Ballymurphy Massacre. This was a series of killings of civilians by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment during 9-11 August 1971. The performers were all family members of the dead. Teya Sepinuck (Artistic Director of the Theatre of Witness) opened the event by explaining that the performance was about the “possibility of finding medicine”. Director Alessia Cartoni said that her play was about “bearing witness” to the personal accounts.
The set consisted of a carpeted area with chairs for the interior space and hopscotch markings representing the street. This setting helped create a feeling of being in West Belfast in the 1970s.
Briege Voyle, whose mother (Joan Connolly) was murdered on the 9th of August 1971, said: “Now I feel ready to step into my story”, and the realism of the performers stepping into their own stories certainly came through.
Eileen Corr’s father (Joseph Corr) was shot on the 11th of August. She summed up the play’s raison d’être by saying: “My voice is the voice that will clear his name.”
Suddenly all performers jumped into their former selves and started to play childhood games; balls were thrown across the stage, others played hopscotch and hand-clapping games. This was an effective way of suggesting that time was running backwards into the past and there was a real sense that they became children again.
The use of props was effective; shoes were used throughout the play for different motifs. They were used to reflect family life before the killings. At first they helped represent a home where smart shoes were only worn for Sunday Mass, creating a feeling of domesticity. The shoes remained a ghostly presence on stage, reflecting the people who left them behind.
Aisling Devlin was the youngest performer, at age 17; she spoke for her Aunt Alice, representing “the next generation” and what is passed onto them. This was an excellent way of showing the importance of remembering, while also reflecting the potential drawbacks of what we pass on. (Alice is Danny Teggart’s daughter; he was killed on the 9th of August.)
Unfortunately, for the Teggart’s this wasn’t the only murder the family had to live through. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) murdered Alice’s teenage brother, Bernard, in 1973. Aisling said that he had the mentality of a nine-year-old. It was only 31 years later that the IRA issued a statement of regret.
Rita Bonner’s brother (John Laverty) was murdered on the 11th of August. Rita seemed to embody her childhood self. She became a funny and carefree 14-year-old, whose best friend, Thelma, was Protestant and enjoyed helping her make “tea for soldiers”. This changed after her brother was murdered and she became “a girl who carried hate”. In one scene she throws shoes around the stage, while spitting out angry words. This is the beauty of having the actual relatives play their own roles, as there was a real authenticity that would not have existed if played by someone else. After that, the soldiers who she once made tea for “became the enemy”. Rita and the other five relatives gave strong performances. The range of facial expressions and body language was credible and indeed Rita told me afterwards: “I am the only one who can tell my story.”
Rita’s emotional journey continued 18 months after her brother’s death when a soldier was killed in her street. Her mother went to the dying man and put her arm under his head, said an act of contrition and comforted him.
Rita explained her inability to comprehend her mother’s actions, but was told: “Rita, he’s somebody’s son…”
After depicting the massacre, the interior space of the stage disintegrated, and reflected the refugee camp that Briege was sent to after her mother’s murder. And as Pat Quinn said: “There was never a Christmas tree put up in our house again.”
Pat’s brother (Frank Quinn) was murdered on the 9th of August. In one scene he re-enacts the last time he saw Frank, waving to him while the rest of the performers wave in unison, creating a haunting atmosphere on stage.
The end offered a more hopeful future, as Alice Teggart said “I am a woman of faith; I know I’m being heard.” The shoes were lined up neatly and a candle was lit beside each of them. There was a sense that the families achieved what they were there for — to have the voices of their loved ones heard.
If the theatre has power over us, only to then draw the curtain, and leave us to sort through our emotions alone, this performance wasn’t like that. The audience could speak to a councillor at reception if need be.
Alessia Cartoni told me afterwards: “The stories are ones that haven’t been heard yet. We know the dates, the history, but we don’t know the personal stories.”
Overall, this play was not trying to be political; it attempted to be personal. Of course, anything about the Troubles is inevitably poisoned by politics to a degree, but ‘Our Lives Without You’ was successful at focusing on the pain of those who survived the conflict and were left to bury their dead.
The script, direction and acting were all successful at displaying grief and healing, as well as believable.
In April, Theresa Villiers said that an inquiry into the Ballymurphy Massacre was not within the public interest.