Coming up to the Halloween holiday, some people might be frightened of the idea of Voices from the Grave – but for others, the chance to hear an oral history of the Troubles from the mouths of two (in)famous protagonists, PUP leader and former UVF member David Ervine, and Brendan “The Dark” Hughes, is not to be missed. It had been said of one of the men, former IRA OC and hunger striker Brendan Hughes, that he was ‘not right in the head’ at the time he gave extensive interviews to Boston College’s paramilitary archive. Tuesday’s documentary puts that notion to shame: in this you hear a man confident and competent, glad to be sharing his past for the historical record.
Earlier this week on RTE, Pat Kenny spoke with filmmaker Patrick Farrelly, along with former FF minister, peace process guru and historian Martin Mansergh, about the documentary. Mansergh questioned the idea of releasing such material after the death of the participants; it should be noted, however, that at the time of the recordings – almost 10 years ago – to be making oral histories outside of “approved” channels in paramilitary controlled societies was a very dangerous thing to be doing. [And still is – Ed.] Therefore the oral history project was kept secret and it wasn’t really until the death of two of its participants enabled the release of their material that the scope of the project became known. Neither man, Hughes nor Ervine, could have anticipated the date of their own deaths and, presumably, wanted to live for much longer than they did. It is understood that Hughes wanted to release his tapes prior to his death but in consideration for the safety of other participants, and to maintain the secrecy around the project, refrained.
The issue of speaking from beyond the grave is not isolated to the north’s history; Mark Twain stipulated that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death. It is believed this gave him the freedom to write what he really felt about politics, religion and people he knew. If even someone as outspoken and cantankerous as Mark Twain felt the need for the distance of death to speak freely about his own life, it is understandable then why those living in the world of the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries would need the same to speak freely about their lives.
And that is what makes Voices from the Grave, both the book and the forthcoming documentary, so compelling. It’s the story of people’s lives, how ordinary people became changed by historical events. In a sense both the book and the documentary are a history of the Troubles as seen through the lives of two men. The extraordinary aspect of the Boston College project is that it is a history of the troubles as seen through the lives of its foot soldiers.
Trailer for Voices from the Grave (click to play):
Voices from the Grave is also reviewed by Liam Clarke: “Dead Men Talking”