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Photographing Northern Ireland’s Mean Streets

During the decades that Northern Ireland’s paramilitary violence garnered worldwide attention, most people were busy making ends meet.

Frankie Quinn, “Garvaghy Road” (1999), photograph, © Frankie Quinn, Collection Ulster Museum (all images courtesy National Museums Northern Ireland Picture Library)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — On January 30, 1972, on a day that would later be known as Bloody Sunday, British paratroopers shot 28 unarmed civil rights marchers in the streets of Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 14 of them.

The marchers had been protesting internments without trial and advocating for voting rights, fair housing, and economic justice largely on behalf of the minority Catholic population. On the evening of the massacre, Ivan Cooper, a march organizer and member of Parliament, warned the British government, “You will reap a whirlwind.”

Cooper’s remarks were a prediction, not a threat. As a nonviolent civil rights activist inspired by Martin Luther King, he meant that the killings would provoke more disaffected young people to join the recently formed Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). And they did. That gave rise to the equally violent paramilitary Ulster Defense Association (UDA) as a Loyalist force. Sectarian divisions, which had been widening through the 1960s, grew worse, leading to a bifurcation among the populace along the dividing lines of Catholic/Protestant and Nationalist/Unionist. For the next three decades, lethal violence, termed “The Troubles” plagued Northern Ireland, taking about 3,500 lives.

During this time, Northern Irish cities were entangled in no-go zones and barbed-wire barricades, checkpoints, and stop-and-frisk drills, exacerbated by a nonstop dread over car bombs, revenge killings, and intergenerational malaise. And though the paramilitary violence garnered worldwide attention for decades, it was carried out by the tiniest sliver of the general population. Most people were too busy making ends meet, seeking to secure creature comforts and social harmonies where and when they could.

The Ulster Museum’s exhibition Conflicting Images: Photography During the Northern Irish Troubles turns overdue attention to those citizens whose tenacious pursuit of an ordinary life now seems, in retrospect, heroic. By documenting how people got on with their everyday routines, Conflicting Images frames The Troubles as a social blight rather than as a coherent, ideologically driven narrative. The social disarray of the time is underscored by the generally non-chronological arrangement of the photographs, which span the early 1970s through the late 1990s.

Taken as a whole, the exhibition gathers outtakes from a nebulous conflict that, on its surface, undermined rather than advanced the lives of the people on whose behalf the police, army troops, and paramilitaries took up arms. In this respect, the exhibition transcends thorny questions of identity and nationhood. A Marxist scholar might make for an interesting tour guide, as the photographs showcase the cross-denominational essence of working-class life in postindustrial European cities during the waning years of the Cold War.

Martin Nangle , “Drinking in Lavery’s” (n.d.), photograph, © Martin Nangle, Collection Ulster Museum

That is not to suggest that The Troubles are ever far outside the frames of these photos. In fact, the exhibition demonstrates the degree to which Irish cities were ghettoized by an ugly militarization of daily life.

Violence is in the air, erupting spontaneously on disputed asphalt roads. Riot gear is a constant presence. The English-born David Barzilay, a photographer for the Belfast Telegraph, focused his lens on the occupying “peacekeeping” British army originally sent over to rein in a Unionist-dominated police force known for brutalizing citizens. The British soldiers look physically and psychologically displaced. In one image, a pair of beret-wearing soldiers armed with automatic rifles have pulled over a shopkeeper. Baffled, they try to match the driver’s papers with whatever information has been collated in their ledger.

Private grief often becomes public spectacle. Photographer Frankie Quinn documents the mid-1990s confrontations in the town of Portadown during funerals and parades, scenes that foreground police violence; a man with a gouged and bloodied forehead is escorted to safety by friends; another protestor karate-kicks a shielded police officer; still others are dragged off the streets by angry cops. In another series, army troops push into Derry’s city center while indifferent pedestrians walk through their ranks in the opposite direction, tending to their own errands and appointments.

That dissonance between paranoiac militarization and peaceful routine is the exhibition’s unifying theme, especially in images from early on in The Troubles. One such example features a blonde woman in a miniskirt peering out from her row house to check on a solider dressed in combat fatigues, crouching in the neighboring doorway, his rifle aimed somewhere outside the picture plane. In another emblematic image, a prepubescent girl strolls along a street corner, stepping alongside a British sniper, prostrate on the sidewalk behind sandbags, rifle at the ready.

In what might be the exhibition’s most evocative photograph, two women returning from errands recede down a residential street marked by graffiti-scarred facades and concrete barriers. In another, a mother and daughter hold hands as they walk through a sooty field. Dilapidated buildings and cathedral spires rise into the gray air around them. As women navigate these manmade, battle-scarred places, a subtle feminist subtext emerges: despite the sectarian labels, these Troubles are those of troubled and troubling men.

Frankie Quinn, “Death at the Bookies” (1990), photograph, © Frankie Quinn, Collection Ulster Museum

 

Urban youths are also caught in the crosshairs of the brinkmanship. Conflicting Images shows how the Troubles sometimes remade streets into sound stages, on which children and teens grabbed available props and invented their own roles as if they were in a Neorealist film. In a disturbing series of action photos, children are glimpsed roleplaying with real weapons. In others, they don eerie masks or mimic police arrests, or play in the middle of a street while British soldiers patrol the sidewalks.

One series of color photographs focuses on teens in the Protestant enclave of Long Kesh. The region is known for its Maze prison, where, in the early 1980s, imprisoned IRA hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, died protesting their official standing as criminals. In the photographs taken near that prison, teens carry Loyalist flags and banners along with Union Jacks, gunning for confrontation with any Catholic counterparts. In several photos these youths seem stoic and resolved. In another they jeer as a bonfire rages in the wake of their impromptu parade.

An unsettling aftermath haunts many of the cityscapes, with shots of flame-scarred brick buildings and litter-strewn courtyards.

Quinn’s “Peace Line Series” documents the dramatic angles and skewed perspectives imposed by the Orwellian “peace walls,” built over the years to partition neighborhoods into Catholic and Protestant blocs. These hideous structures bisected neighborhoods into what look like open-air prisons. In one photograph, overgrown vines cascade over fencing topped with barbed wire, while in another children box themselves into abandoned crates inside a narrow alley formed by parallel walls, barely visible in their confines. Another photo captures a panorama of tourists’ heads as their bus passes a peace wall, proving that one person’s historical nightmare is another’s pleasant day trip.

By far the most life-affirming photographs are the numerous portraits of Bill Kirk, attesting to a natural solidarity that persisted throughout the Troubles. Long-haired children of itinerant city dwellers, known as “travelers,” hold hands in an abandoned lot, their gazes so intense and reflective that they seem to be envisioning places beyond their violent, walled-off neighborhoods, as children so readily do. In other Kirk photos, unfazed commuters ready their bags for inspection at city checkpoints, or congregate in their Sunday best as they assist one another with milk distribution.

Bill Kirk, “Punks in Cornmarket” (n.d.), photograph © Bill Kirk, Collection Ulster Museum

Through it all, a robust social life seems to have prevailed. There are scenes of football matches and funeral processions, street corner proselytizers and mall rats, bachelorette parties and bridesmaids gathering in a church. Two elderly businessmen in modest suits flank a barber, exuding the sort of humble middle-class pride that seems centuries removed from our era. There are countless photographs of people sharing the rhythms of recovery and repair, construction and reconstruction. In one such picture, locals brave winter snow to rebuild a building’s foundations, a structure perhaps ruined by a bomb, one of the many that ravaged the life of the city.

In October 1993, an IRA explosive targeting UDA leadership detonated prematurely, blowing up a popular Belfast fish shop, wounding 50 and killing eight. The intended targets were not even on the premises. The gruesome futility of The Troubles fueled growing impatience and paved the way for a peace process that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, which set up a new power-sharing government.

While shootings and bombings have become largely a thing of the past, the sectarian murals and lingering divisiveness remain facts of life in Northern Ireland.

Conflicting Images testifies to the value of looking back, not in anger, but with cautious hope. As identity politics the world over channel popular anger at the injustices of an increasingly aggressive winner-take-all global economy, Conflicting Images is an occasion to slow down and take a close look at the not-so-distant past. In these images of a fractured Northern Ireland, we can face the inconvenient fact that our neighbor’s troubles are also our own.

Conflicting Images: Photography During the Northern Irish Troubles continues at the Ulster Museum (Botanic Gardens, Belfast, Northern Ireland) through February 25, 2018.

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