Daughter of assistant prison boss stunned report into father's IRA killing written in 'jazz hands' type face
EXCLUSIVE: Tonight in Belfast at a Good Friday Agreement anniversary event, Dr Gail McConnell will read a poem about her father’s death and its aftermath. She talks to Ivan Little
Dr Gail McConnell was stunned as she opened the Historical Enquiries Team’s report into her father’s murder — a 34-year-old killing she doesn’t remember but can’t forget. It wasn’t so much what was in the report, but rather, it was the way in which it was presented that shocked her.
For the HET’s findings were written in a comic font that was totally out of keeping with the horrific words used to describe the IRA slaying in March 1984 of William McConnell, who was an assistant governor at the Maze Prison, where he was in charge of security.
Phrases like “lacerations to the brain” leapt off the pages of the report, which was set out in the sans font, a happy, upbeat typeface so beloved of writers of light-hearted stories, birthday party invitations and bring and buy sale posters.
“I was totally taken aback,” says Gail, who was just three when the Provos shot her father in the driveway of their Belmont home in east Belfast as he checked under his car in case a booby-trap bomb had been placed.
“Seeing that ‘jazz hands’ type face was strange. I could never really get past the font.
“But I did eventually read it all and I still have it, though it didn’t resolve anything for me. It didn’t find anything new.”
Gail, who is a lecturer in English at Queen’s University, has written a poem called Type Face, which explores her feelings about reading the HET report and which she will read tonight as part of a Good Friday Agreement anniversary event. She admits that the 320-line work is “by turns amusing, angry, grieving, questioning and confused”.
She adds: “Type Face tries to come to terms not only with my father’s death, but with the aftermath recorded in official documentation and reportage — and with all that has been left undone and unsaid.
“I’m also trying to reflect on the relationship between form and matter; between the font and the message that it was carrying about my father, who suffered a violent death.
“I thought there was a kind of carelessness about using that font, which made it even harder for me to assimilate or absorb the information in the HET report.
“I was struck by the fact that this was essentially all that the State had given me. And it reminded me that so little has been done in the years after the Good Friday Agreement to reflect on where we are as a society and what we’ve been through.”
She says she is sorry that the pouring of millions of pounds into things like the Titanic Centre and Game Of Thrones hasn’t been matched by investment in dealing with the legacy of the past, including education and mental health issues.
She adds: “I know I’m one of thousands of people here who have lost someone. And I know many of them have received HET reports in comic sans.”
Gail’s poem includes quotations from the report, and from letters from other agencies. She explains: “It also refers to a letter my father had written predicting his death, and asking forgiveness for his killers.”
Writing the poem was painful, but it gave her a sense of freedom.
Given her age at the time of the murder it’s no surprise she has no clear recollections of the killing, but she has gleaned information from a large number of newspaper cuttings about the attack and about the high-profile trial of a Provo spy, Owen Connolly
He was a former RAF man and civil servant who set up Mr McConnell and let the killers use his nearby home after the shooting.
Sixty-four-year-old Connolly later gave evidence against a number of men accused of involvement in the killing.
Connolly said he helped the IRA because he was embittered by his lack of promotion in the Civil Service.
Gail says she was told the killers ate fish and chips in Connolly’s house as they watched a lunchtime news report to “make sure they got their intended target”.
She found reading the HET report about the arrests and the trials difficult.
The newspaper cuttings, which she keeps in boxes, have become “the memories which I don’t have”.
She adds: “The headlines and the photographs all look very familiar. But I don’t actually recall anything about that day. So it’s familiar at one remove.
“It’s been odd reading my family history presented back to me in public discourse.”
What she knows now is that she and her mother Beryl were saying goodbye to her father when two gunmen suddenly appeared. They had held neighbours at gunpoint overnight, and opened fire from close range.
“My mother shouted a warning but it was too late. I apparently ran back into the house,” says Gail, who has refused to let her father’s murder define who she is.
She finds it hard to say exactly what forgiveness is, but adds: “There has been repair. Part of what poetry and literature gives you is the ability to imagine other lives and scenarios.
“So I can imagine myself into another life, another faith, growing up in another part of Belfast and imagine myself into the series of choices that might have led me up to the point of shooting somebody.
“So maybe that’s more important to me than some religious idea of forgiveness.
“It’s maybe about imagination and having a level of empathy and understanding. And moving on as a society.
“But the most important thing is not to live with hate in your heart, and to live with understanding.”
This evening Gail, who has written a number of books and poetry pamphlets, is one of 10 painters, musicians, writers and dancers taking part in a unique bus tour around venues in Belfast for performances which allow artists to give their reflections on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
They’ll also be giving their emotional responses to the deaths of 3,600 people during the Troubles.
At An Culturlann on the Falls Road a dancer will fall down and get back up over 3,600 seconds. A short film on lost lives and vacancy — a hint at Stormont — was shot at Crusaders FC’s Seaview stadium on the Shore Road. Other venues for the event — entitled Just For One Day — include the Belfast barge, an old bank, a hair salon and the Carnegie Library on the Oldpark Road, where Gail will read her 25-minute poem
Co-curator Paul Hutchinson said the choice of unusual venues will be challenging.
He added: “Art is traditionally seen in art spaces and what we wanted to do was to juxtapose an art piece with a new venue or format.
“Some of the venues are close to places that have seen great troubles, so we’re aware of the many resonances that these pieces will hopefully make. We’re hoping that the venue changes the art piece and the art piece changes the venue.”
For Gail, Queen’s is the perfect venue to work for a number of reasons, including its links to Seamus Heaney, who studied and taught there.
“It’s a pleasure to be able to teach Heaney to students who are so passionate about him.
“And it’s also wonderful to be teaching in the place where he was a student and a lecturer,” says Gail, who quotes Heaney in Type Face.
“We have an extraordinary legacy in Belfast, and in Queen’s in particular. We’re proud not just of him, but also of people like Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and so many others.”
She adds that her father’s murder will never leave her, and reminders of it aren’t far away because she lives close to the ‘safe house’ used by his killers in east Belfast.
Performances in a barge, churches and a hair salon
What might an artist create that could ever contain the complexity, horror and sorrow of over 3,600 lives lost during the Troubles? And what might 10 artists create? In 10 locations across Belfast? And how might we respond to these different framings, after 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement?
Those are the questions posed by Just For One Day, taking place tonight to mark the anniversary of the Agreement and to remember the dead of the conflict.
Art works by poets, musicians, dancers and filmmakers will be performed in a barge, churches, a library and a hair salon between 6-10pm. Each artistic response can be visited separately and it’s hoped the public will explore venues across the city.
A bus will tour the 10 venues — though all the seats for this were snapped up within 48 hours.
Co-curator Susan McEwen says: “Since April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement has been lauded internationally, and at the time it seemed to offer the hope of a new era of peace across Northern Ireland. Amidst the media attention that will be given to this anniversary, how will the over 3,600 people who were killed during the armed conflict be remembered?
“Ten artists will share their response to this loss, this absence, these dead, those still alive.”
For further details go to Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Justforoneday3600/ and Instagram /justforoneday3600 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just For One Day has received funding from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Reconciliation Fund and support from the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building.