Silent Grace is an award-winning 2004 film, directed by filmmaker Maeve Murphy. It documents a disturbing chapter of Northern Ireland’s nonviolent dirty protests and hunger strikes by republican female prisoners in 1980 that were never made public. Whilst it were the male prisoners, greater in numbers who carried out large-scale hunger strikes, some starved to death and received all the public attention, what went untold were the similar protests carried out by female prisoners with unyielding resolve and dignity, lasting nearly one year.
Historic Ireland’s timeline since late sixteenth century has been dotted with violence, killing, occupation and restructuring of identity. This film is set in the backdrop of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, where civilians were shot, houses and flags were burnt in a battle of republican governance against unionist integration. For a geopolitical entity, where women achieved their right to vote only in the early twentieth century, Silent Grace is a tense episode of women who carried out nonviolent protests in Armagh Women’s Prison to be decriminalised and get political status for their support of the republican identity.
The film begins with the voice of then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the background, who adamantly states that “it is not political, it is crime”, thereby classifying an alternate view of political and cultural identity as criminal. Aine (Cathleen Bradley), ends up in prison for a petty crime and owing to her rebellious nature, tells a lie that she’s an IRA woman. As a result, she is eventually placed in a cell with another republican prisoner, Eileen (Orla Brady), the IRA Officer in Charge (OC) for republican female prisoners. All of these prisoners were locked twenty-three hours a day in different cells within the same area and lived in inhuman conditions with no access to sanitary or other facilities. They were also subject to humiliating conditions such as physical searches and beatings by prison officers.
Eileen and her fellow prisoners were engaged in a nonviolent ‘dirty protest’, where they would paste their faeces and menstrual blood on the walls of their prison cells. Aine finds these sickening conditions hard to bear, rejects the views of her fellow prisoners, but during their hour-a-day time out from these cells, enjoys joking and playing football with them. Meanwhile, Eileen is called from time to time by a convincingly concerned prison governor Cunningham (Conor Mullen), who is merely following orders by negotiating with her to sign forms to accept that they are criminals, to be released quickly. On the contrary, their protests for political status would require them to serve their full prison term. Eileen maintains her unyielding stance and rejects these orchestrations each time.
The course of the film changes as Aine finds out that her boyfriend was shot by the IRA. She breaks down in tears and anger towards her fellow prisoners, blaming them for killing her boyfriend who was an ordinary innocent person. What follows on is a beautiful and captivating friendship that Aine cultivates with Eileen and others by recognising that in this war of identities, many innocent people from both sides have been burnt and shot.
They are informed that the male prisoners have started a hunger strike to aggressively call out for political status as prisoners, and women will be excluded. But with the resolve that there is nothing greater than giving up one’s life for one’s beliefs, Eileen decides to carry out hunger strike as a female republican prisoner. The authorities and the prison governor are shaken by her protest as she approaches death. Whether or not these women were finally granted political status, and what followed afterwards is a reason this film must be watched.
Through a storyline where many unexpected connections of affinity are formed, involving the prison governor, a Catholic priest, a non-republican prisoner and the republican prisoners, this film serves as a catalyst to re-humanise our view these republican women. It also tells a story, which is as human as it is feminist, that these prisoners lived in traumatic conditions, but still used nonviolent resistance to fight for the rights they deserved. It raises many questions about who these women were, if they had any children, parents, lovers and friends, and what lead them to be in the prison in the first place. This film also raises questions about the injustice of the political disregard of these nonviolent protests, but in the midst of these questions, it inconspicuously shows that conflicting identities and ideologies can develop fond trust and friendship, and that they can co-exist.
Given that the history of republican sentiments in Northern Ireland have been associated with bombing and violence, this re-humanisation will serve as a bold and passionate inspiration for present-day people in the country to dedicate their efforts to dialogue and reconciliation. Towards the end of the film, the Catholic priest, Father McGarry (Robert Newman) expresses, “… I think all life is sacred”, which must be seen as the lasting essence of this story.
At last, it cannot go without mentioning that Orla Brady’s performance as the protagonist is deeply moving and stands out as the central pillar of the film; it becomes a voice for the women whose protests were consumed in silence of high prison walls, but rooted in unflinching dignity and grace.