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Birmingham Jail

February 11, 2017





Version of Down in the Valley sung by Dutyi Dili-Grossberger from film the Stir Crazy









Many moons ago I sat in a room in the Irish Film Institute because of a book.  The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.  The room was cold and the slightest movement on the plastic chair I was sitting on seemed to echo over the sound of her voice.  I tried holding my breath.  I had an idea for a screen play and wanted to learn the rudiments of film production. As is my way, I sought out the space that would teach me.


Edwina Forkin (CEO, Zanzibar Films), opened the first lesson with the words,


“More than training what you need is a lot of ideas, a shit load of passion and belief”




The first time I heard about Birmingham Jail was in the song Down in the Valley.  That it was specifically named I felt was significant, so I went to the library to see if I could find out what it was.  I had to go to three of them before I found it.  Well.  Found.   The Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Dr. Martin Luther King.  That is the first time I remember seeing his name.  I read it as someone with no personal anchor in my own identity and therefore with no sense of agency.  It brought me comfort to the extent that I knew that oppression had not been singled out for me.  It identified it for me.


I have endured much.  It is a true blessing to no longer feel shame in saying it out loud.  That I have, has given me insight that I would not exchange.  Insight that cannot be undone.  Insight that can sometimes make injustice feel so overwhelming I get lost and distracted in remembering the attached emotions.   But learning and having my thinking challenged reduces the enormity of the task of resistance and of being.


That I am here with a heart that remains tender and compassionate screams to my own strength.  And to the gratitude I have towards those who made steps with their art and writing, for me to travel on.  I do not need validation for that.  I do not need to be told of it.  I do not need an orchestra to celebrate it.  I simply ask for people’s intelligence in understanding that sometimes it is truly exhausting to the point of arresting action.


An exhaustion that has been my only singular deterrent from engaging in a sustainable way in activism.  Or at least with my foot count.  I choose with care the marches I participate in, simply because it takes me at least two days to recover mentally.


But I am driven.  I have always been driven to do something.  Something that says NO.  Something that says I AM HERE.  Something that says THIS IS WRONG.  I think in the beginning I did it for the self who first read the Letter.  Then for the self who saw the impact of standing up and saying NO MORE.  And then for the self who was kicked over a cliff and found her freedom on the way down.


I sought out those who could challenge and teach me.  Navigating through different ways to resist and in doing so found my own agency.  My own anchor.




My art was always about capturing something that was beautiful in my eyes.  The tenderness of a mother breast feeding her child.  The magnificence of birds in flight.  Horses.  The vulnerability of woman in her nakedness.  Faces.  I disappeared into the charcoal and graphite.  At seventeen I was told to give up.  I had no talent.  That I would only be making a fool of myself amongst the greats.  For a long time, it was something that was just mine.  Fifteen years ago I sold a pen and ink drawing to an art collector in Galway.  He said,


“You are one of the finest line drawers I have come across in my twenty years of collecting”


Despite my passion for tattoos and street art, using my art to express an opinion, political or otherwise did not fall on my head.  Not until I saw the documentary directed by Banksy – Exit Through The Gift Shop, last year.  It powered up my creativity.  Focused me politically.


Slowly an idea came.  I constructed it mentally.  When the physical energy came, I began my most ambitious piece yet.  The Birthing of Woman.  A mix media installation.  A new departure for me.




This newness introduced me to the concept of effectiveness and efficiency in activism.  That perhaps there are more sustainable ways to engage without the emotional exhaustion it creates in me.  I sought spaces to learn.  I found the Centre For Media Justice.  I found Mag-Net.  I attended a Webinar – The Telling of Untold Stories facilitated by Working Films.  Women of Colour teaching me how.  To do better. This space resonates.  This space is an intelligent and generous oasis.  There is no exhaustion.  I became a member.


Another idea wafted into my consciousness.  One that Samuel Goldwyn Mayer cannot buy the rights to and then file away.


The docu-film Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last day of Oscar Grant III.  The documentary 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets examining the events of the death of Jordan Davis, Ava DuVernay's powerful and stunning 13th , the docu-film Spotlight screaming to its audience the wealth and power of the Catholic Church, the Ukrainian documentary Winter on Fire and of course, the Irish documentary Atlantic are living testimonies to the power of the Untold Story.




I have said goodbye to the people in Pieta House.  They have extended an offer of support to me as I navigate through this year, should I need it.  I am grateful.


I have slipped into a skin that feels, like I designed and tailored it.


Suddenly.  Again.  I am drowning in things that must be said.  In different ways.  Without the shackles of caring too much.  And caring enough to express it.


I began my course in Healing from Toxic Whiteness – Effective ways to fight for Racial Justice.


I am learning how oppression, colour racism and non-colour racism [ethnicity] prevents us from accessing our own power.  And how Governments are comfortable with that because it is not easy to govern a confident people.


I believe that now is the time to pump up the volume and equip ourselves with tools of resistance.   Tools that sit within our ability and capacity.  Tools that helps us fight in a sustainable way.  Tools to create one resilient solidarity. 


What is happening on home turf and globally is not new.  In 1776, Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, wrote in his book The Wealth of Nations,


“The principal architects of Society are merchants and manufacturers”


What has changed is the level of corporate, governmental and regulatory ugliness, the level of environmental destruction and the seeming lack of intersectional solidarity.


I don’t mind admitting that based on three separate personal dealings with Trade Unions many, many years ago, I became vehemently anti their existence.  This stance was reinforced by the White Toxicity I was inhaling without even knowing it. I informed myself.  I educated myself.  Made easier because the words I heard came from the mouth of one of my heroes.  Noam Chomsky. Activist, Linguist, Intellectual.


“Trade Unions behave as a barrier and that interferes, disrupts the owners of Society.  Namely businesses, banks and corporations”.


It’s easy to get caught up in anger and reaction.  I do it.  Very beautifully.


I become fury filled when I see women whose skin is white elevating themselves by standing on the broken bones of sisters to create spectacular conference with celebrities, pricing tickets to exclude the very women they claim to represent.  That is patriarchal malignancy, not feminism.


Irish politicians standing up trying to be little individual Super PACs annihilating and slurring others, attempting to distract us from their own inadequacies, only makes me want to grab them by the lapels and say “cop on and stand up for something worthwhile – give me vision, not bullshit, show me, don’t @ me”.


When I hear others say never mind Trump let’s look at our own turf.  I want to say,


Trump’s presence has given Putin permission to downgrade Domestic Violence [the LGBTQ community will be hit next].  Netanyahu and the Knesset to pass a law legitimising the taking of Palestinian Land without disruption.  May to reverse a Bill that committed to giving shelter to refugees in the UK.


Trump’s presence reinforces and gives credence to businesses running the government and the regulators.  Influencing policy making.  To benefit the privileged.


While we were all busy struggling, Richard Bruton of Fine Gael oversaw the amendment of the Companies Act to facilitate vulture funds buying our debt.


The US made money a form of speech [Buckley V Valeo – 1976].  They upgraded this to Corporations freedom of speech when Citizens Unite brought it to the Courts in 2010. (Source: Larry Lessig, academic and Constitutional expert)


The Citizens Assembly is a European Parliament model adopted by Enda Kenny to discuss whether women should have autonomy over their own reproductive health.  Trump is withdrawing funding for any NGO or Planned Parenthood who perform abortions. 


Don’t tell me Trump belongs in a far-away land that has nothing to do with us. 


The corporate, governmental and media corruption and collusion has reached obscene on the Richter Scale.  Wanting to do something besides talk, I wrote to the President of Ireland with a question,


I am writing to you to ask, that if the will of the people demanded it, is it within your power to dissolve the sitting Dáil without conferring with them?


I await a reply.


Sometimes I want to throw my hands up and say “whatever – talk to the hand”.


But.  I won’t. 


I won’t because the people living on the streets, matter.  I won’t because the Tesco workers who are striking on Valentine’s Day are being bullied into precariousness to give more control to the business.  The WEALTHY.  Matter.  I won’t because the ageing population of women in this country who are being penalised by pension policy, matter.  I won’t because the women who are being beaten, murdered and sexually assaulted, matter.  I won’t because the people of colour and refugees living in open prisons that the sophisticated call Direct Provision, matter.  I won’t because the government is allowing the destruction of the Health System to occur so they can then offer the solution of privatisation. [the timing of the RTE Investigates program on our health system was neither coincidental nor independent – a team effort to enrage and manipulate public opinion].


I won’t because I know how we are not told the full story.


How ninety-one percent of all deforested land in the Amazon is used by the livestock industry.  Two hundred million acres of forests have been devastated since nineteen seventy eight.   [Source:  Dr. Richard Oppenlander, Environmental Researcher and Author].


That the Livestock Industry produces fourteen point five percent of global CO2 emissions.  Which is more than the entire world’s transportation sector put together. [Source:  Dr. Richard Oppenlander, Environmental Researcher and Author].






When I find myself too judgemental or when my tired is tired.


I hold onto the words of Isaac Bashevis, singer, Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Prize winner,


“For the animals, all people are Nazis; to them life is an eternal Treblinka”


I remind myself that for a long time, I too ate death.  With and without eyes.


We make choices.

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