The Silence is Deafening

Tonight The Pensive Quill features guest writer Sean Matthews interviewing Colm McNaughton

From the killing fields of Mexico to the generational trauma on the streets of Ulster radio journalist Colm McNaughton leaves no stone unturned in his quest for the truth and how memory shapes our lives.
While in Australia I caught up with Colm an Irish-Australian award winning producer and writer who recently won an award in the New York International Radio Festival for his radio documentary ‘La Frontera’ which covers the borderland between Mexico and the United States.  This region is a lawless wasteland, a laboratory of the future where massacres, drug busts and battles between the military and drug-traffickers happen regularly. On the edge of the border with the US is the city of Juarez which has officially highest murder rates in the world and made Belfast look “warm” and “fuzzy”.

Colm McNaughton journeys through La Frontera to piece together the different aspects of this complex, sad and violent story. He was shocked listening to one lady from ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ who is looking for answers after her daughter was raped, murdered and liquefied. The silence is deafening!

This is not unique but it is rather systemic, institutional and goes to the very top. Mexico is basically a mafia state and has been an experiment in neo-liberalism since bringing in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 creating a cheap workforce disciplined and repressed by poverty and militarization. These narco-organisations are part private military company and part corporation, so you have a new morphing of ultra violence, and it’s a response to the decline of empire.

I asked him how he got into journalism and why he decided to investigate one of the most dangerous regions of the world where associating with a journalist is like a death sentence.

It was the boredom of working on building sites in Australia and my interest in current affairs. Part of my own story is that I grew up in the north of Ireland … I come from a culture of endemic war, and I grew up in a family of domestic violence, child sex abuse, alcoholism, and poverty, so unfortunately I know this, and in its own perverse sense, [it’s a part of] my own healing as a human being.

This powerful story of human resilience amid unrelenting injustice is examined in the lives of Gerry Conlon and Paddy Joe Hill from the Birmingham six in his radio documentary ‘Life after Prison’ produced for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this year.  Telling the story and lives of two working class Irishmen caught in a protracted struggle between the IRA and British State. It is a gripping account told how it is of their lives before and after their sentence in their struggle for human dignity and acceptance against unrelenting odds.

Part of his journey was tracing his own footsteps producing a documentary for ABC during the midst of Northern Ireland’s volatile marching season called ‘Awakening from History’ which examines “the inter-generational trauma of the conflict through the lens of ex-combatants through the prism of social memory and storytelling.” It is a tough story interviewing ex-prisoners from both sides of the sectarian divide.  The story has room for just enough optimism in the midst of the fatalism that still infects the 'Irish Question' and keeps us chained to history.  The battle over memory is the key struggle which defines the modern world, a theme which hallows throughout his work defined by his Irish experience.  Colm fondly remembers listening in awe to storytelling from his grandfather.

‘Memory is important in defining who we are and how we relate to other cultures.  It is also manipulated by those in power who have vested interest in hiding the truth  because it is powerful’, he tells me. This is something which struck me last year in Victoria sitting around the campfire with Aboriginals retelling their stories of survival passed on from one generation to the next. 

Colm enjoys telling the Irish story through other memories which is where his latest story on the St Patrick’s Battalion fitted in with the narrative of history, identity and memory. It is a story written into Mexican and Irish folklore set during the two-year war between the United States and Mexico which began in 1846. About 200 mainly Irish conscripts deserted the American side and fought with the Mexicans. Colm traces the footsteps on the rebels from the shores of America and the experience of racism and hostility to the hills of Mexico. Through his documentaries of repression and resistance Colm captivates social history from below awakening us indeed to what is possible in the global imagination.

Postscript - Colm’s documentaries can be viewed here
2) Double Sentence: life after prison with Gerry Conlon and Paddy Joe Hill


  1. Did the provos do anything to help the B6 ? If the Yanks hadn't stolen Arizona etc , the Rio Grande might be as calm as the hiden border between Donegal and Fermanagh! Back Irl, Croatia and Czechs to qualify for euros- Portugal if you feel brave.Dec 6 is the 90th anniversary of the 1921 treaty, how the once wealthy have fallen.

  2. Latest interview by Colm on the question of the 'women of Juarez' in Mexico.

    St Patricks Battalion