By Ursula Duddy
A former Republican prisoner and hunger striker who transformed prison blankets used during protests into garments will launch a calendar featuring the work at a Derry store this weekend.
Laurence McKeown is a former republican prisoner who spent 16 years in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, was on the blanket protest for four-and-a-half years and went on the 1981 hunger strike for 70 days. Mr McKeown is now an author, filmmaker, and playwright. His latest project, ‘We Wore the Blanket’, is set to be a multi-media exhibition.
A calendar has recently been published featuring 19 participants; male and female former prisoners who engaged in the blanket protest and those who wore the blanket on the outside in support of the prisoners’ protest dressed in coats, waistcoats, bow-ties, shawls and scarves woven from prison blankets.
Mr McKeown is set to launch the calendar this Saturday from 10.30am in Checkpoint Charlie on Waterloo Street. He will be available to sign calendars for those purchasing it.
Speaking to the Derry News ahead of his visit to Derry, Mr McKeown spoke about what moved him to create the project.
He said ‘We Wore the Blanket’ began with the story of Kieran Nugent who, aged 16, was interned without trial for five months in Crumlin Road Prison then for another nine months when he was 17 in Long Kesh Prison.
When Nugent was 18, he was the first Irish republican prisoner to be sentenced under new British Government policy of ‘criminalisation’ and refused to wear a prison uniform as he wished to be recognised as a political prisoner. He was then thrown into a cell naked and wore the blanket. This was the beginning of the blanket protests which in turn led to the hunger strikes.
“In some ways it’s to remember the people who were there that wouldn’t have featured as prominently as others,” said McKeown.
“There were many of us from different counties who were proud to wear the blanket.
“The idea of the blanket is something of comfort that you are wrapped in when you were born or it’s something someone would bring to keep you warm or care for you, it’s comforting, caring, warming. But, for us, it became a symbol of protest in a very harsh environment and I wanted to bring a fresh eye to that period.
“Long Kesh was an internment camp and when the prison closed, I wanted to try and preserve it and was very much involved with the preservation of it. Not as a shrine to the hunger strikers, as some unionists would suggest, but as a lesson in what happens when you deny people their basic civil rights.
"You shouldn’t respond by locking them in prison and denying them their politics or their right to be recognised as a political. That led to deaths inside and outside prison.
“So, someone came to me and handed me one of the prison blankets and I had always had it in the attic. Some of them were like a grey army issue blanket and, depending on what block you were on, others were like Donegal tweed.”
The idea then came to Mr McKeown about weaving the prison blankets into garments that represented the dignity they afforded them in tough times and the pride they still hold for campaigning for their rights, while also transforming them from something once harsh into something of beauty and elegance to represent the journey from those turbulent times.
Mr McKeown spoke of being approached by a number of people when he wore the garments spun from prison blankets, being told he looked ‘dapper’ and ‘elegant’.
“It was a lovely moment that day,” he said.
“I was described as looking ‘elegant’ and that’s not a word I would use often but it was what I wanted to do, get elegant shots of high quality of those who had worn the blanket now wearing these elegant clothes.
“It was subverting; we had long hair, beards, the walls were covered with excrement; it was harsh, rough and terrible times and this was our transformation.
“It’s about hope and transformation and to show that we survived the struggle. The situation in the North has transformed too; we don’t run about with guns any more, we are not in jail, times have changed and we are moving on but we can do that and still remember our past and remember where we came from.
“In some senses, it was for us to retain the right to our dignity, we had a family, a community and a life and we were loved and respected so it’s good to keep that in mind with the blanket as a symbol of comfort too - so that we can use it to remind us to respect others, regardless of skin colour, religion or sexual orientation.”
Laurence McKeown will be available to sign his calendar, ‘We Wore the Blanket’, from 10.30am on Saturday, December 9 at Checkpoint Charlie on Waterloo Street.
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