Launched in 2021, the Age & Opportunity Creative Ageing Writing Bursary aims to generate discussion, debate and knowledge about creative ageing in Ireland. The recipient is charged with writing an essay or reflection that will be useful for people who work with or are thinking of working with older people, including older artists.
This year’s recipient, Laurence McKeown, is a writer and former republican prisoner in the North of Ireland from 1976-1992. In the following essay, KcKeown takes us on an introspective journey through the tapestry of his life, marked by trials, resilience and profound growth.
“A Life Fully Lived”
by Laurence McKeown
Moving past my teenage years, ‘significant birthdays’ never meant anything to me. I spent my 21st in a prison cell, naked but for a blanket, on protest with other republican prisoners to be recognised as political rather than criminal. I spent my 30th there too, though by then with clothes and political status. In between, I almost never made it past my 24th as I endured 70 days on hunger strike during which ten others died.
Post-release, when I turned 40 my partner organised a surprise party for me, but my thoughts at the time were much more on the birth, ten days earlier, of our daughter Caoilfhionn, rather than me having reached a significant age.
My 50th passed totally unnoticed. However, in 2013, when reading an article about the forthcoming series of events planned to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, it suddenly hit me; I’d be 60 that year. And that threw me, big time. I would be 60 years old and the emphasis was very definitely on the ‘old’. I would be one year older than my father was when he died and one year younger than my mother when she died – both deaths occurred while I was in prison – and my recollection of them at the time of their deaths was of them being and looking old.
Maybe it was that image that troubled me but I think it was more a case of a sudden, heightened consciousness of my own mortality, which is strange in a sense as I had been confronted with that very issue whilst on hunger strike 32 years earlier, especially during the final days before I eventually passed into a coma and was at death’s door.
I’m someone who likes to think he’s fairly grounded, that not much can faze me, and that everything can be analysed, solutions arrived at, and then implemented. All very objective and logical. But in this instance there would be no solution. I would most definitely be 60 years of age on the 19th September 2016. There was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent that and that was frightening.
I’m a big fan of Eckhart Tolle and his book ‘The Power of Now’ has been a big influence in my life. Tolle writes of the need to live in the moment rather than attempt to cling to the past or grasp for the future. He also speaks of ‘acceptance’, accepting what the situation actually is rather than what we would like it to be. However, it took me a lengthy period of time before I came to an acceptance in this instance. But, accept it, I eventually did. In fact, I embraced it. When I saw a T-shirt advertised online which bore the slogan, ‘1956, Birth of Legends’, I immediately purchased one and wore it on my 60th.
A short time after my release from prison in 1992, my sister gave me some items that my mother had kept over the years. One was a small exercise book from primary school containing two poems I had written aged seven. I didn’t remember writing them. And yet, in the intervening years, I had written many other poems, later published by Salmon Poetry, titled Threads. Those poems arose out of workshops I had helped establish in the prison around 1987. The poetry workshops were followed by many other creative ventures designed to help us ‘tell our own story/write our own history’ and express our outlook, as republican prisoners, on the world. Following my release, I completed a doctorate (about the prison, of course!), and co-write both a feature film H3 and a play The Laughter Of Our Children about the hunger strike. Nevertheless, it was fascinating for me to discover that in my primary school days I had put pen to paper!
Then the political landscape in the North began to change. The ceasefires of 1994 eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement and interactions between communities began to develop as the peace process unfolded. In my work with an IRA ex-prisoner umbrella organisation, I began to have engagements with former members of the RUC (police) and British Army. It was out of such discussions that Brian Campbell and I wrote the play A Cold House – based on a fictional, unexpected encounter between a former RUC man and former IRA prisoner. We wanted to show an audience what such a conversation would look like, based on our experiences of having actually had such conversations. We felt that as part of the deepening peace process that this was something all communities needed to hear. We brought art, rather than politics, to the situation.
Brian died, suddenly, aged 45; another reminder to me of my mortality and how fragile life can be. I continued with the conversations and with the writing. In 2016, that year when I turned 60, my new play Green and Blue premiered at the Belfast International Arts Festival. The play is based on an oral archive from former members of An Garda Síochána and the RUC who served on the border during the conflict. Not a word of republican history in it.
Recently, 2021, I returned to the theme of the prison experience with the publication of a memoir Time Shadows. However, in it I not only recount my experience and the history of events from 1976-1981 but also look back, over 40 years later, in a more reflexive manner on what I was experiencing, and learning at that time. Ageing bringing a new perspective on an old story.
Aged and writing
I’ll be 67 later this year but that’s just a number to me, as will be the next big ‘significant birthday’, 70, if I’m fortunate enough to reach that. I’ve been able to overcome the ‘age’ factor and focus on the ‘now’, the experience and the moment. Yes, I am much more aware of my mortality but not in a fearful manner – I’m more appreciative of the life and opportunity I have. I’m aware that my body is aging. I see it in my skin, the loss of elasticity. I feel it when I’ve been doing some heavy physical work and it takes me much longer to recover from it than was once the case. But that’s my physical body. I know it’s going to age. I know it has a lifespan. But in terms of my experience of aging mentally, that’s something entirely different. It’s a growing, a maturing, a developing. It’s something that has no parameters or limitations unless I choose to self-impose them.
And the creative process is both critical and central to that because it is something that is alive. It is the birthing of new ideas and projects. It’s the engaging in the development of those ideas to eventually realise them in outputs and productions. It’s the working with many others along the way. It’s the going to bed at night looking forward to tomorrow to the resumption of that process. It’s life. It’s creativity. And that doesn’t age.
I’ve plans for more poems, books, and plays just as I have hopes for more travels and to meet new people and explore new horizons. I like to think that my writing has developed over the years, not just in terms of skills or craft but in what I have to say through my writing; a maturing within myself and an appreciation of what I have. It’s strange to realise that I’ve now lived longer than my parents but then, on the other hand, I often think I’m really only 16 in my mind! And that’s how I intend to stay, with the eagerness of youth coupled with the wisdom of a life fully lived but with hopes for much more to come.
About the Author:
Laurence McKeown, a former republican prisoner in Northern Ireland from 1976 to 1992, took an active role in protests for political status, including a 70-day hunger strike in 1981. Later, he played a crucial role in prisoners’ education and established ‘An Glór Gafa/The Captive Voice’ magazine during his tenure from 1997 to 1999. He clandestinely authored ‘Nor Meekly Serve My Time,’ a book featuring accounts from 28 prisoners about the 1976-1981 protests and hunger strikes.
Since his release, Laurence has extensively documented his prison experiences, including a doctoral thesis titled ‘Out of Time’ (2002), a feature film ‘H3,’ a play ‘The Laughter of our Children,’ and various articles. His recent prison memoir, ‘Time Shadows’ (2021), details the initial five years of imprisonment, covering the blanket protest and hunger strike. He debuted as a poet with ‘Threads’ published by Salmon Poetry in 2018. Collaborating with Kabosh Theatre, his play ‘Green And Blue’ explores border patrol officers’ experiences during the conflict and has been performed internationally.
Co-founder of the Belfast Film Festival in 1995, Laurence continues to contribute to its management. He remains an influential figure in shedding light on the Northern Ireland conflict and its aftermath through various artistic and educational avenues.