Stephen Gargan: A Life Less Ordinary

Stephen Gargan: A Life Less Ordinary

The sudden death earlier this week of Stephen Gargan has left many in the Derry cultural sector bereft.

Those of us born and bred in Derry owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the many talented and inspirational people from throughout Ireland and beyond who have made this city their home and helped change it in myriad ways. Stephen Gargan was one such person.

Stephen was a natural born organiser and cultural activist from Dublin who came to Derry at a time of significant change in the late 1980s. While young musicians were busy establishing their own self-help collective that would soon become Nerve Centre, Stephen threw himself into the kinetic community theatre of Derry Frontline. There he met his soulmate Jim Keys and together they forged a close working partnership that would contribute immensely to the vibrant grass roots cultural activism across the city that offered an alternative to conflict.

Stephen had an avid interest in film and music and he eagerly signed up for one of Nerve Centre’s first full-time video production courses. In 1996 he was a key member of the Foyle Film Festival team, the year the festival welcomed Julie Christie to Derry. By this time alongside Jim Collins, Stephen was also programming the Gasyard Wall Féile, bringing literary giants such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh to the Bogside.

Culture would also provide a means to support the Bloody Sunday Justice campaign when Stephen, Alison Ballard, Jim Keys and I met with Jimmy McGovern in December 1997 to ask him to write the screenplay for a television drama. So began a herculean effort to bring the families’ stories to the screen in which Stephen was the principal driving force.

As Jimmy McGovern explains, “when we started Sunday, the Bloody Sunday film, Stephen vowed that HOW WE DID IT would be just as important as WHAT WE DID, that the process would matter just as much as the end product. He kept that promise.

Every time I landed at Belfast International Airport Stephen was there to greet me and on the way to Derry he would outline whom we were meeting and why. Hundreds of interviews over three whole years and that was at Stephen’s insistence: that we would meet whoever wanted to meet us and we would do it in their houses on their terms. We would not tell Derry’s story; Derry would tell it through us.”

“When the shoot began, Stephen was just as resolute. On any shoot there’s always a lack of time and money and compromises are needed. It’s up to those making the film to fight those compromises. Stephen did just that. Some were made, yes, but many, many more were not.

That Sunday was so accurate and authentic was down to Stephen Gargan. I have been in the business for over forty years and he was one of the best I ever worked with.”

Shortly after Sunday premiered on Channel Four in January 2002 to mark the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a conversation took place about establishing an education project that would explore the personal experiences and motivations of individuals from all sides of the conflict. Epilogues was to be a journey into the heart of darkness of the conflict in which victims and those engaged in violence bared their souls before a video camera. Experienced facilitators were trained to use this sensitive material in community-based workshops that confronted participants with painful truths.

Stephen dedicated himself to this transformative work for the past 20 years.

His quiet determination, organisational genius and laser-like ability to focus on the fundamentals, ensured that Epilogues and its successor programme JustUs touched the lives of thousands of people across this island. For many of them, Epilogues played an important role in the healing process.

Stephen’s vital energies were in full flow this year as he and his colleagues organised a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. I had the privilege of participating in two public screenings of Sunday and interviewing Stephen, Jimmy McGovern and Bloody Sunday survivors Leo Young and Geraldine McBride before an audience of several hundred.

The compelling post-screening discussion was video recorded and can be viewed via YouTube below:

Stephen Gargan’s life and legacy demonstrate that real change comes from below through committed grass roots community activism. It was an honour to have known and worked with him.

Martin Melarkey
Centre Director, Nerve Centre

Image: Courtesy of Derry Now