Performance art to stoke memories of Belfast's 'ring of steel' security cordon
A unique feature of Belfast during the Troubles was a hastily erected security infrastructure of barriers, gates and barbed wire encircling the city centre in a 'ring of steel'. Now consigned to the past thanks to the peace process, a new project aims to capture the public's stories and memories from when the checkpoints and fences were part of 'normal' life, writes David Roy
A NEW piece of performance art will be staged across multiple sites in Belfast city centre tomorrow to mark the 50th anniversary of the city's so-called 'ring of steel'.
Kabosh theatre company will present Drawing the Ring of Steel in collaboration with Belfast-born Professor Kate Catterall from the University of Texas. Taking place at each of the Troubles-era security cordon's former main entrance and exit points – Donegall Place, Royal Avenue, Castle Street and High Street – this free 12-hour theatrical event aims to "use one of the few culturally mutual experiences of the conflict to facilitate storytelling across communities and between generations".
Performers will redraw the lines of the security checkpoints and barriers and enact choreographed search motions at each of the four sites while performers in 1970s dress interact with the public, asking questions about their memories or knowledge of the 'ring of steel' and collecting their stories.
Memories recorded from these 'audience members' will then be transcribed, reviewed, anonymised and featured on the project website ringofsteel-belfast.com.
Audience members can also choose to walk the 'ring of steel' locations with geographer Joseph Robinson by appointment at a later date and tell their stories on-site.
Kabosh say: "Drawing the Ring of Steel will celebrate the resilience of the people of Belfast and share and preserve their stories of daily life while the 'ring of steel' was in place – of working, shopping, parenting, growing up, socialising, dating and more – before they pass from living memory."
Professor Kate Catterall was raised in Belfast and has direct personal experience of the cordon.
"For over 20 years during the conflict, the series of gates, fences, turnstiles, search stations and blocked roads known as the 'ring of steel' became an increasingly prominent feature of the urban environment in Belfast," she says.
"Staffed by both civilian searchers and armed security personnel, the cordon had a significant impact on the daily lives of all who passed in and out of the city centre every day, to work, shop or socialise.
"Ongoing development since the 1998 peace agreement has erased much of the evidence of the 'ring of steel', and only traces remain today to show that it ever existed. This work aims to create a record of what was a singular and largely unrecorded episode in Belfast's recent history."
Paula McFetridge, artistic director of Kabosh, comments: "Memories of the 'ring of steel' and regular civilian searches are shared between all Belfast communities, cutting across sectarian, class and gender lines. Images of the structures were flashed across the world, becoming part of our global identity.
"Drawing the Ring of Steel aims to highlight how far Belfast's city centre has developed from those times, into an inclusive shared space. It will ensure that the stories of the older generation are heard and preserved to support younger generations and those with no experience of the 'ring of steel' in appreciating both the journey that has been made and how far we still have to travel."
James Ellson from Dead Centre Tours will also lead a free 90 minute walking tour of the 'ring of steel' sites on March 24, leaving the front of Belfast City Hall at 1pm. To book for the tour, sign up via the 'contact' button at ringofsteel-belfast.com.
Tomorrow's event won't be the first time the 'ring of steel' has been tackled by performance art: in 1977, artist Alastair Maclennan staged Target, which took place over the course of a full month and found the Scotsman walking to and from work at Belfast's Art College via the security cordon on Royal Avenue while dressed as a 'legitimate target' – covered in plastic sheeting, wearing a dartboard and carrying a written statement in his pocket explaining his actions, lest he was stopped by security, shot by snipers or worse.
:: Drawing the Ring of Steel, Belfast city centre, Thursday March 24, 8.30am to 8.30pm. For further information, visit ringofsteel-belfast.com or kabosh.net. Look out for an interview with Alastair Maclennan on his memories of staging Target in Saturday's Irish News.