The Trial is a visual art installation on the history of healthcare and human rights in the Irish criminal justice system, made for the Old Courtroom, Kilmainham Gaol Museum, Dublin 8.
A collaboration between visual artist Sinead McCann, men from the Bridge Project who have lived prison experience, and UCD historians Catherine Cox and Fiachra Byrne, The Trial ran from 12-26 April 2018.
Directed and produced by visual artist Sinead McCann, The Trial is a collaborative artwork made with five men from the Bridge Project Dublin 8, who have lived prison experience, and draws on historical research by UCD historians Catherine Cox and Fiachra Byrne.
- Public engagement output for the UCD Wellcome Trust project ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000.’
- Engage men who have lived prison experience with research conducted by UCD historians on healthcare in prison.
- Design a high-quality engagement process using visual art, applied theatre, poetry, drama, film and history to collaborate, explore and represent men’s individual and collective experience of healthcare in prison.
- Produce a visual art installation to critically engage the public on the topic of healthcare in Irish prison, past and present, combining UCD academic research, men’s responses to it, and their own experiences.
The Trial is a four-screen video installation with a running time of 22 minutes. Three characters – Tommy, Charlie, Neilí – tell real stories of those who were held and worked in Irish penal institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses on experiences of solitary confinement, separation from family when in prison, mental and physical wellbeing in prison and childhood experiences of detention in St Patrick’s Institution, Dublin.
The development of The Trial involved the design of a creative process that enabled five men from the Bridge Project to engage with UCD academic research on healthcare in prison, past and present. The script was developed through a series of creative workshops that centered on carefully selected historic research including case studies of John Burns and John Burke, imprisoned in the 1880s, and the men’s own experience of health in prison. John Burns’ and John Burke’s stories resonated strongly with the Bridge Project men and these accounts formed the basis of mini scripts.
Using role play, actors Tommy O’Neill and Neilí Conroy performed these mini scripts in a series of ‘theatrical enquiries’ led by the Bridge Project men over several workshops. Their engagement with the historic research sparked discussions on the relationship, and differences, between the historic cases and their own experience.
During the process, the men authored monologues about their own experience of healthcare in Irish prison in the late twentieth century and their responses to the historic research.
It was tough being in prison
’97, ’98, ‘99
Being away from the family
Never mind facing other prisoners
I had a breakdown
(Extract from The Trial)
In the installation, these monologues are presented alongside the historic examples, together presenting experiences of healthcare in prison over time.
Prisoner John Burns committed to Nenagh prison on the 2nd September 1884 at 4 o’clock pm for assaulting police.
His manner and appearance seemed strange from the time of his committal.
Heard the breaking of glass.
Found him trying to take out one of the windows in his cell.
(Extract from The Trial)
The script also incorporates responses from professionals working in the Irish criminal justice field to the monologues. These include representatives from the Irish Prison Service, a prison chaplain, an addiction counsellor, two ex-governors, and a representative from the Irish Penal Reform Trust.
Prison is an entirely inappropriate environment for the detention of people with serious mental health issues.
(Extract from The Trial)
The installation makes explicit use of the site of the Old Courtroom at Kilmainham Gaol Museum to physically and poetically reference a trial situation.
The timeframe from development to delivery was February 2017 - May 2018 inclusive. There was a four-month lead-in period to liaise and plan the project with partners. Three-hour weekly workshops took place over four months with the Bridge Project men to develop the script. For a further three months, regular meetings took place with them to discuss the production; two months for production and two months for final reporting, documentation, and dissemination.
The Trial offers multiple perspectives on the long history of healthcare in prison from people who have been held and have worked in Irish penal institutions. It invites visitors to reflect on individual experiences across history and on the human right to health.
- The Trial, public exhibition in the Old Courtroom, Kilmainham Goal Museum, Dublin 8, 12-26 April 2018. Production credits: Director & Producer: Sinead McCann, Script Writer: Sarah Meaney, Video Production: Sixbetween, Historical Research: Catherine Cox and Fiachra Byrne.
- Private launch on 12 April 2018, with invited audience (from the arts, community, history, academic and criminal justice sectors), and panel discussion on the topic of the making of The Trial chaired by UCD researcher Catherine Cox, with artist Sinead McCann; Bridge participant; David Williamson, Senior Probation Officer; Fíona Ní Chinnéide, Irish Penal Reform Trust.
- The Trial used pre-project, mid-project, and post-project questions to act as a catalyst for conversations facilitated by the artist with the Bridge Project men to capture the expectations, challenges, and impact of the project.
- Visitor comment cards were made available in the courtroom to fill out.
- A version of the comment card was made available via an e-survey to people who booked to see The Trial on Eventbrite.
(Extracts from transcripts from The Trial participant evaluation conversations)
- At first I was very nervous about working in a group, but once we settled in to our group, I enjoyed it.
- It felt good to listen, talk and be heard.
- After one of the sessions I got in touch with my sister to tell her why I stopped taking visits from the family when I was in prison. Then my whole family got in touch with me that night. I was on the phone all night. They all gathered around me. That felt good.
- Re-collecting my childhood memories in St Pats was a bit hard, no else had that experience.
- I feel more confident. This project has improved my self-esteem.
- This project helped me to release some of the anger I had within me about my prison experience.
- I loved working with the actors Tommy and Neili in the workshops – it was a great laugh!
- I enjoyed every minute of the project, listening to everyone’s experience, talking about the history, creating our stories, getting involved in the acting, I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did. I would like to do more.
(Extracts from The Trial visitor comment cards)
- Great linking of 3 time periods, testimony & visuals.
- I worked in the prison system for 40 years, & it was a powerful portrayal.
- The contrast between official records & those who have lived prison experience was very interesting.
- I thought it was very well put together, not sensationalistic and sensitive to the prisoner’s experiences.
- Lighting, design & script was powerful.
Documentation & Dissemination
- 20,980 viewers visited The Trial during the exhibition.
- Coverage in The Irish Times: ‘Screams that could be heard all over the prison’
- Formal photographic and video documentation
- A package of documentation includes: a video of the production for display on one rather than the original four screens; photographic documentation of the private launch night, and photographic documentation of the installation.
- A video of the production suitable for website dissemination
- Documentation of the installation itself will be uploaded on to the UCD Prison Project website: histprisonhealth.com
- A sound recording of the panel discussion from the private launch will be uploaded to the UCD Prison Project website.
- The full version of the video production will be made available to UCD researchers for use in education settings.
Date of Publication
February 2017- May 2018
The Bridge Project
The Arts Council, Dublin City Council and the Wellcome Trust
Dublin City, South Dublin
Drama, Film, Visual Arts
Healthcare in prison
Nature of Project
Collaborative/ participatory, Exhibition, Screening and discussion event