RELEASE FROM RAGE
If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. – Lao Tzu
I wasn’t born angry. I became angry.
A child just wants to be held and loved. That’s all I wanted as a child.
But parents can’t give you what they don’t have.
I grew up in poverty. Loyalist North Belfast poverty is cold, wet, hungry and grey. Poverty is brutal and unkind. Poverty breeds shame. I wore plastic sandals to school in winter. I felt worthless. People made fun of me and hit me. I didn’t fight back. “Turn the other cheek,” my mother whispered to me. “Fight back!” Screamed my father, ashamed of his youngest son, beating me to bed with no supper. I raged alone behind the door, nursing my revenge.
My family left for England to escape the conflict when I was 13. I thought I could become someone else there. But a teacher made fun of my accent. He set the whole class against me. He punched me for being Irish. The rage inside me exploded. I hit him with a chair. I never went back to school. I left at 15 with no qualifications. Violence was all I was good at. I was full of rage. I hated my name. I hated Ireland. I hated authority. But most of all I hated myself. Alcohol dulled my pain. Violence gave me the instant pleasure of payback. Crime was my way to get even. At 19 I was imprisoned for 3 years for violence.
In prison, my job was taking the empty food trays out of the cells. The screw (prison officer) would open three cells at a time and the prisoners would hand me the empty trays. My cell was next to an IRA man (Irish Republican Army). He was my enemy. I was afraid. I had to hurt him before he hurt me. I was shaking with fear and anticipation. Here was an opportunity to vent my anger, to indulge in the pleasure of violence. It was my chance for revenge, to strike back against the ugly shame I carried because of my Belfast name and background.
I would suss him out first. See how big he was. Then plan my attack. Stab him, scald him, or hurt him somehow before he hurt me. The screw opened the door. There was nothing in the cell, just newspapers on the floor, a piss-pot and a Bible. In the corner was the untouched cold food from his last supper. He was lying on the floor, like a bag of bones. He looked like a pale sick child in a man’s clothes. He was on the 44th day of his hunger strike. He weighed 5 stones. You can smell death, the faint odour of a body in decay.
My fear and anger dissolved.
My hatred turned to compassion.
I wanted to save his life not hurt him.
I told him I could get him food.
The screws wouldn’t know about it.
He said no, thanks but no.
He wanted shipped back to Ireland.
That’s why he was on hunger strike.
He told me to educate myself and not waste my life in prison.
I listened to him. I took in every word.
My enemy became my teacher.
Starving himself to death –
Yet, still giving me good advice:
‘Educate yourself, learn about your culture
Be proud of who you are
Don’t waste your life in here.’
His words challenged me and shook me to the core.
I listened to my enemy, IRA volunteer, Frank Stagg.
My enemy cared about me, even while he was dying.
He helped me to believe that I might be worthwhile.
Frank Stagg helped me to believe in myself.
This was the major turning point in my life.
That night I went to the prison library, a cell on B3 landing.
I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I travelled the difficult journey with Tom Joad. I wept when Rose of Sharon gave her breast milk to a starving man. I started to write. I discovered that being creative made me feel worthwhile. I noticed that when I was being creative I lost any desire for destruction.
I wanted to spend more of my time being creative. I started to grow in a new way. Another world opened up before me. I was changing from being destructive to becoming creative. I did my first exams in prison. When I got out I went to university and studied theatre. I could play violent parts and understand them. I even won a Fringe First for my performance in Hooligans, a theatre play about football hooligans at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
After many years working in theatre directing and development work, in 1999 I started ESC, the Educational Shakespeare Company: http://esc-film.com/
I wanted to share what I had learned with other people who were angry and destructive. I knew it had worked for me and I thought it could work for others like me.
In 2007 I directed Mickey B, an award-winning feature film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, cast with prisoners from Maghaberry maximum-security prison in Northern Ireland. Mickey B won the 2008 Roger Graef Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film at the Arthur Koestler Awards.
In 2011 I received an Award from the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice at Stormont, for my work in Criminal Justice. In 2013 Emory University, Halle Institute for Global Studies and World Shakespeare Project – recognised me as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow.
I have been a Keynote Speaker at the universities of Guelph, Canada (2011), Notre Dame and Emory USA (2013). I have presented my film work at festivals, conferences and thirty universities in many countries including: Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Israel, Nigeria, Poland, South Korea, and the United States.
I found my release from rage through my enemy who became my teacher. Destructive anger can be transformed into creativity. We just need someone to believe in us at the right moment for it to happen.