I was an eight year old child when the British Army’s Parachute regiment shot 26 Derry civil rights protestors on 30th January 1972. Thirteen died where they lay, one lingered for almost five months before dying on 16th June. Even as an eight year old I can remember the stunned silence in which we watched the grainy black and white news reports. The gunshots fired that day have reverberated down the intervening five decades. The experience of everyone living in Northern Ireland, everyone who grew up in the violence and collective trauma that followed, has been shaped by what happened in an area barely the size of a football pitch. Everything that came after had its beginnings there. Although Bloody Sunday wasn’t the first mass shooting by the British Army – 11 innocent people had been shot over the course of three days in Ballymurphy the previous August – it marks a fulcrum where the optimism of the civil rights movement dips out of sight and insurgency rises into view.
In light of this I feel humbled that my installation Fourteen Silenced Bells For Derry has entered the collection of the Museum of Free Derry and will be on display there on the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
I came to the idea Silenced Bells as a way of articulating what I wanted to say about those robbed of their voices, cut short in their prime, taken from their loved ones, denied justice. I wanted to make something human in scale, something that might fit in your hand, that you could feel the weight of on a personal scale. Objects to contemplate loss. The dead of Bloody Sunday deserve a public monument but I tend to work on a more intimate scale and wanted to make something that would keep the individual identities of the fourteen people who died in view.
The main function of a bell is to make a noise. For as long as people have been able to work metal we’ve made bells to warn of danger, to express our joy, to give voice to our anguish. Silencing a bell has long been regarded as a serious transgression. In the early Irish text Buile Suibhne, tells Sweeney is cursed for throwing Saint Ronan’s bell into the lake.
The bells I make are similar in form to early monastic bells but they are made from lead, with its funerary associations- lead is used to make bullets, to line coffins, and they are filled with wax which is associated with the preservation of relics, the embalming of the dead. By rendering the bells incapable of ringing I hope to relocate their voices in those who contemplate them.