Remembering Omagh : aesthetics, ethics and ownership in the performance of memory in post-conflict Northern Ireland

  • Michelle Young

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis is a practice as research study which seeks to explore aesthetic and ethical issues surrounding the performance of memory in a post-conflict society. Located within the Northern Ireland context, my study is focused on the town of Omagh- the site of the single worst terrorist attack in the history of the Troubles - and my hometown. Centred on an investigation around memorialisation and the individual experience, the central thrust of my enquiry in writing and practice surrounds the ways in which memory functions as a mechanism to articulate and enforce identity and how this is performed in a society that is attempting to acknowledge the past while moving on from it. This thesis comprises of 40% written dissertation and 60% creative work. 1 present an analysis of the artist’s role in memorial practice through two case studies of artistic memorial practice in Northern Ireland and my practice explores how the expression of a lived history is translated into public performance, how it can remain owned by those who generate the material and the potential for such practice to act as a way of memorialising both a place and its people.

    Through this dual approach, my investigation of artistic interventions into Omagh’s traumatic past is complemented by the use of live theatrical process both as a means of interrogating the artistic methodologies used to remember Omagh and of producing knowledge into what happens when personal memory becomes an object of public artistic procedure. In an engagement with theories surrounding monumental memory and testimonial performance, my analysis of the testimonial Theatre of Witness production, We Carried Your Secrets (2009) and the Omagh memorial. Constant Light (2008) is complemented by my own artistic practice - a site-specific community theatre play, Shandon Park, in and about the estate in Omagh where I grew up. Drawing upon the theories of Pierre Nora, who states that our propensity to design and fix memory prevents us from experiencing real and ever-changing memory within ourselves, I investigate the concept of oral history performance as a counter-memorial, utilising and interrogating the models of practice examined within my case studies.

    This investigation is situated within the theoretical context of 'history from below’, a model of historical narrative that focuses on the experiences and perspectives of ordinary people. It is positioned within a genealogy of commemorative practice in Northern Ireland and in recognition of the performative dimensions to dealing with the past through storytelling initiatives and localised oral history projects. My impulse to investigate perspectives from below is not only the subject of this thesis, but also, importantly, of its methodology. Interviews with each of the artists involved in the specific cases discussed provide an exclusive and unique insight into the artistic and political processes of creating such commemorative work in Northern Ireland. Placing at the centre of my investigation the personal narrative of those at the heart of the discipline therefore utilised this resource as both the subject and the vehicle for enquiry. This thesis provides a timely study into the political and aesthetic challenges involved in memorialisation within post-conflict Northern Ireland. It contributes to the current debate surrounding the ethical and aesthetic responsibilities in representing the personal in a public arena and provides a significant and original contribution to the memorialisation of Omagh within a society in transition.
    Date of AwardJul 2014
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Queen's University Belfast
    SupervisorAnna McMullan (Supervisor)

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