Artist Sinead McCann reflects upon the making, and launch night, of The Trial, a four-channel synced video and sound installation, exploring healthcare and human rights in the Irish criminal justice system. It was made in collaboration with UCD historians working on a Wellcome Trust funded research project, Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000 and men with lived prison experience from the Bridge Project Dublin 8. 
The Trial, Launch Night, 12 April, 2018
Following a year of liaising, planning, thinking and making! we were delighted to arrive at 12 April for our private launch of The Trial, a multi-screen visual art installation in the resonant site of the Old Courtroom of Kilmainham Goal Museum, Dublin 8.
10.00am to 2.00pm: A busy morning!
12 April was a busy day for us but the morning was particularly full! We were completing final preparations for the launch event, making technical sound adjustments for the installation, and we meet with journalist Deirdre Falvey, who wrote a lovely review of The Trial published in the Irish Times entitled Screams that could be heard all over the prison.
6pm: Pre-Launch Screening
At 6pm we held a private screening of The Trial just before the launch at 7pm. The screening was for a small group of people who had contributed to the production, including our artist Sinead, ex-offenders and staff from the Bridge Project, UCD historian Catherine Cox, film production company Sixbetween’s Mary Caffrey and Dan Monk, and script-writer Sarah Meaney. They had brought wonderful expertise to the production, and this was the first time they came together in the same room, albeit in a courtroom! Most were seeing The Trial installed in the courtroom for the first time, so expectations were high, and butterflies were fluttering fast in our tummies!
We need not have worried! The first screening went down well with everyone, and afterwards we talked amongst ourselves about the various segments of the script for The Trial, and how they played out through the film across the four screens. We also discussed the impact of the physical site of courtroom on the intended meaning of the artwork.
While we chatted, the men from the Bridge Project reflected on their journey developing The Trial. From an early stage of script development, which took place during the creative workshops, they had worked with various professionals, where art, applied theatre and poetry were used to explore and interpret historic research on healthcare in prison. The UCD historians had provided the historic research material, and the men discussed how it acted as a catalyst to reflect upon their own experience of healthcare in prison. (To read more about the engagement process that produced the script for The Trial our short case study is published here.)
We talked about the significance of the selection of our main actor, Tommy O’Neill, to perform the men’s stories and how his own prison experience brought a specific emotion, and authenticity to his performance. We reflected upon how working directly with Tommy in the workshops had proved a good opportunity to further develop other aspects of the script, and Tommy’s performance of it.
But we also had a lot of fun working together! We laughed remembering the lively conversations during the final post-production phase, as we tried to get the final cut just right so it resonated with everyone, especially the ending scene, which we had much debate over! The ex-offenders from the Bridge project had seen the final cut of The Trial on a laptop screen before the launch night, but they mentioned that it was completely different to experiencing The Trial in the Old Courtroom. One man observed that ‘he felt very proud to be part of this project’.
6.40pm: Arriving at the launch of The Trial
At 6.40pm our invited guests began to arrive for the private launch of The Trial scheduled to start at 7pm. On arrival, guests received a flyer, a sheet outlining the creative methodology used to produce the script, and a comment card to record their reactions and thoughts. These were collected later in the evening. Guests were directed to assemble outside the courtroom where they waited together to enter. The doors opened to the courtroom at 6.50pm and everyone took their seats!
7.00pm: Launch of The Trial
At 7.00pm Catherine welcomed everyone and explained how The Trial links with our larger research project, Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000. She also reflected on the richness of the collaboration with Sinead, the visual artist on the installation. This was followed by the first public screening of The Trial! Our nerves were shattered!
Who was there?
Space for the launch night was tight; we had room for only fifty guests, which was full capacity at the courtroom! Guests included people who worked on the production of The Trial, and professionals with an interest in healthcare and human rights in the Irish criminal justice system. They came from a range of sectors and disciplines including adult education, higher education, academia, arts, history, community, socially engaged art, public art, activism, criminal justice, penal reform, prison service, and theatre.
7.45 pm: Panel Discussion
Following the screening of The Trial we invited guests to move upstairs for refreshments and for our panel discussion. The panel, chaired by Catherine, focused on the making of The Trial and comprised our lead artist Sinead; a Bridge Project participant; David Williamson, who works at the Bridge Project and is a senior Probation Officer with the Irish Prison Service; and Fíona Ní Chinnéide from Irish Penal Reform Trust.
There was a lively discussion with the panel members taking questions on various aspects of the development, production, and installation. Of particular interest to the audience was the impact of using history and art to positively engage ex-offenders in an exploration of healthcare in prison past and present. The question of whether history can contribute to current policy debates on healthcare in prison was examined.
Our invited guests made some excellent contributions with one participant from the Bridge Project expanding upon his experience of the engagement process while making The Trial, as well as sharing some of his own broader experiences related to mental health while in prison. An interesting discussion took place around the responsibility of representing the experience of another person, as well as the aesthetic decisions around the filming and site-specific installation. There were some fascinating contributions and observations with an impromptu round of applause to acknowledge the contribution made by the men from the Bridge Project to the development of The Trial.
By the end of the night we were exhausted and very grateful to everyone who had put so much time and hard work into the production and the collaboration.
The Trial was open to the public at Kimainham Gaol Museum from 12 to 26 April 2018 and was viewed by 20,980 visitors during a two-week run of installation.
Sharing Experiences on The Trial:
We were gratified by the positive feedback and have included a few samples below:
The Bridge Project participants:
- At first I was very nervous about working in a group, but once we settled in to our group, I enjoyed it.
- The history was brilliant. It got us thinking and talking.
- It felt good to listen, talk and be heard.
- It was good to give an opinion based on personal experience to the history documents.
- I especially liked working on the role play and the history in the workshops– being on prisoner’s boards, being on the other side of the governor’s table – that was fun, and was very challenging!
- I feel more confident. This project has improved my self-esteem.
- 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.
The Bridge Project staff:
- The historical part of this project was useful. Alot of people we work with who experience imprisonment think it is just them at that point. They don’t get that ‘all that we have, we’ve had in many ways before’.
- Art is hugely important because it gives the people we work with a different way of telling their story, and offers people a different chance to understand and express themselves.
Irish Penal Reform Trust staff;
- History shows us how we bench mark progress. History also tells us how much we need to do and those areas of work where there has been no progress at all. I think most worryingly it tells us that change is fragile.
- The technical and visual aspects are excellent. The short series covers a lot of ground
- Excellent and powerful installation.
- Gave a good history of the state of the Irish prison service over the years.
- Interesting mix of fact and personal accounts. Enjoyed the text mixed with interview.
- As an artistic experience, it is both very impressive and communicates the stories of prisoners in a fascinating way.
- Brilliant production.
- It was very hard-hitting and eye-opening. Very well put together and produced brilliantly.
- It was excellent – a fascinating and high-impact way of communicating research findings.
A video extract from The Trial and photographic documentation of the installation will be available to view on our website very soon.
All images in the above blog were taken on the launch night of The Trial, 4- channel synced video and sound installation in the Old Courtroom, Kilmainham Goal Museum, Dublin 8. 2018. Artist, Sinead McCann. Images © Conor Mulhern.
 The Bridge Project is a community based organisation core funded by the Irish Probation Service and works intensively with selected offenders from across Dublin who have been convicted of serious offences assisting them to make sustained change in their lives.