ARTS: Trying to make sense of the craziness

HOW can poetry transform the views of an ex-soldier who served in the North of Ireland? ‘How Did It Get So Crazy’ was the title of former soldier Spike Pike’s session at Féile.

While waiting for it to start I spoke with a woman in her 80s about what she has enjoyed the most in this year’s festival. “I enjoyed all those young people in Falls Park with no trouble,” was her reply.

Although I do not really participate in the discussions, I listen and felt compelled to talk with an ex-soldier at another event at the Duncairn. He was saying how poverty had pushed him into the military – he had looked at his father covered in coal dust as a miner and saw becoming a soldier as the only way out.

Over at St Mary’s, Spike – poet, peace activist and members of Veterans for Peace UK – took us on a journey from addiction, anger and ignorance to peace, awareness and creativity through the medium of narration and poetry. It’s a question that many people who have taken the step into violence struggle with: how to make the transition to peacemaker when the instincts have been trained for violence? Spike said: “No-one comes into the world hating, that’s drilled into us.” He told us that one of his biggest and most important discoveries was that the biggest enemy he had was in his own head.

What do you have to lose in order to take the steps back to wholeness? When you explain to people that the arts can be part of this process, mostly you get a blank stare, if not a full on laugh in your face. Yet I have seen both here and in the United States how arts can be the missing link to help people process their experiences, connect to that inner voice no matter how buried it is, and take them on a journey of healing. Spike’s healing has included meeting with people locally who have suffered during the Troubles. He spoke of Jo Berry and Pat Magee’s Forgiveness Project as one he found significantly healing. for him. Pat was convicted of the Brighton bombing in which Jo’s father, Sir Anthony Berry, died and the two have since struck up a remarkable relationship on the road to understanding and accommodation.

The audience was visibly touched by Spike’s candour and poetic voice. His final words –  “I believe we are all going to the Felons for a cup of tea” – illustrated just how far we have all come.

In ‘Setting the Arts Free’, a discussion between Laurence McKeown and Beano Nibock chaired by journalist Alison Morris, the two ex-prisoners talked about their journeys, from rejecting grammar school to going to prison to discovering writing. For Beano it was seeing young people with balaclavas during the Drumcree protest that took him into writing down his own testimony and going around schools and community  groups talking about his own experience, trying to get others not to go down the same route as him. Rejecting possibilities of education in prison he thought “Plays were for the middle class and Fenians.”

His attitude changed as he discovered theatre and writing and he now has his play about David Ervine – ‘The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary’ –  coming to the Lyric Theatre in conjunction with Green Shoots Production. Beano spoke of the frustration of seeing some of the best writing on loyalism coming from republicans, the difficulty of trying to get funding, and the need for allies and people with more experience than you to help you on your way.

Laurence spoke of the novelty of typewriters coming into prison as the outside world discarded them and the opportunities that the Open University brought to the prison system. One particular course –’Women’s Studies’ – was in fact a look at masculinity. 

Part of the joy in these talks and events is the casual information that you glean. The formation of the West Belfast Film Festival that started with a letter to the Andersonstown News; a business in the centre of town that would give £300 to it every year but did not want to be mentioned; Stephen Fry coming over for the festival and on seeing Gerry Adams asking: “That’s not the real Gerry Adams, is it?” (to be told of course it is – he just lives around the corner); Martin Sheen visiting the festival and coming to meet Beano Niblock one late Friday afternoon on the Newtownards Road for a chat.

All art forms can help transform and writing gives a solidity and introspection to thought and observation. Plays allow a mirror to be held up to society, to connect with our common humanity and give space to hear stories and consider points of view that we many not have considered before. They can cause riots, change minds and help along the path to the healing of our traumatised society. Where exactly would we be without the tools for self expression?

The Man Who Swallowed a Dictionary’, by Beano Niblock, opens at the Lyric on September 29.

Do you have something to say on this issue? If so, submit a letter for publication to Conor McParland at or write to Editor Anthony Neeson at Andersonstown News/North Belfast News, Teach Basil, 2 Hannahstown Hill, Belfast BT17 0LT


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