This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
OK
Dublin: 14 °C Sunday 21 October, 2018
Advertisement

Witnessing the Troubles: the human face of 1980s Northern Ireland

Artist Seán Hillen began taking photographs of the conflict in Northern Ireland when he was just a teenager – see this powerful archive.

SOME IMAGES OF the Troubles in Northern Ireland have become iconic. Many were taken by press photographers, on the scene for one of the bloodiest and lengthy conflicts in Europe in recent decades.

Artist Seán Hillen was also on the streets in the 1980s, taking his own images of life in Northern Ireland. Many of his photographs record deadly events, military activity and tense public gatherings. But just as many depict the human face of the conflict – and in some cases, evidence that life in all its daily sorrows and little celebrations continued in parallel to the killings and protests.

He told TheJournal.ie this week that in the 1980s “the North had been so well photographed and by the best in the world that no-one wanted to see them”. He said:

So the photos were relegated to ‘source material’ and eventually removed from their protective sleeves which I needed in my poverty (plus ca change!) for something else, and stuffed naked into a carrier bag for over a decade, and nearly lost (in fact some were).

The photographs did, however, eventually come to the notice of Elizabeth Kirwan of the National Library Photo Archive and some 700 images were acquired in 2011. An exhibition of a selecti0n of the photographs was held at the National Photo Archive in Dublin last year, breaking visitor numbers records there.

You can read more about his work in that era, from 1983 to 1993, on his website here.

Hillen has now compiled some of the most striking of his images from that time in this book, Melancholy Witness (published by The History Press Ireland).

He has kindly permitted TheJournal.ie to publish some of those here. All captions are in Seán Hillen’s own words:

Witnessing the Troubles: the human face of 1980s Northern Ireland
1 / 24
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    Newry, being a very Catholic town, was extremely quiet and under even slightly more overt occupation than usual on the Twelfth of July when the local Orangemen would march from the town centre out to ‘The Field’ where they would congregate to hear sermons and speeches. On my way to photograph it, passing through the main body of the town there were very few people around at all so I was pleased to find this little ensemble and I asked the soldier (who I’ve been told is a Marine Commando – the most tough and professional regiments tended to be sent to Newry) if I could take a picture and I think he sort of cleared his throat which I took as a ‘yes’. I fired one frame with my motordriven Nikon, and waited behind the camera for some seconds.. then I took a second one and waited again.. and after a few seconds more the man in the middle looks up and that’s my picture. I’ve always enjoyed too the game of including words in images and love that this one could say ‘Great Stuff This'.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    At the back of the Nonconformist Church bandsmen and others assembling for the '12th' Parade sit to enjoy their tea and sandwiches.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    At 'The Feld' many children milled around in various degrees of uniform and of excitement.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    One of the earliest of these photos, on the 12th of July 1979, on the outskirts of Belfast. I was an 19-year-old art student following the annual 12th of July Orange parade and on the outskirts of the city found this young soldier with his own pocket camera taking pictures of the parade.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    A group of youths at the head of the 12th July Parade dance in 1979 extravagantly for my camera. Note the ‘Olympic Boot Factory’- the ‘Olympic’ being the sister ship of the ‘Titanic’.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    This lady is walking past what had been the Curzon Cinema, and the foyer has just been swept back in off the pavement.. Note the black flag which was part of the campaign over the republican prisoners, and the furniture for sale may be because people were losing their homes too.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    Though the name is unreadable, this was a functioning bar on the lower Falls Road, and like others had a little breeze-block bunker built over the front door to make sectarian attacks more difficult.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    I was quite fascinated by this burnt-out shell of a bus effectively jamming an access road to the Divis flats. My father was a bus driver (yes I got to drive one momentarily as a teenager and loved it) and I was curious to see (as I am about everything) what the bus was made of- it’s interesting that the steel frame is left and the body which is aluminium and plastic has burned away.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    Around 1980, this was the Andersonstown Road RUC (police) station, standing on a y-shaped junction and surrounded by bollards, bunkers and ever-higher wire fences to fend off car bombs, rockets, mortars and other projectiles. Into the frame on the right come some newsmen.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    One aspect of periods of more intense conflict is a heightened sense of living and a sort of suspension of ordinary rules- here young men climb high railings around Dunville Park whilst waiting for the ‘H-Blocks’ march.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    On the edge of the graveyard were these early and famous-at-the-time ‘interventions’ on advertising hoardings. The one on the right says “Bobby Sands MP is a martyr” The ’30,000..’ referred to the quite huge number of votes he got in the Westminster election.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    I simply found and find this view of people at Patsy O'Hara's funeral a gripping and amazing sight.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    The teenagers in particular seemed fascinated by the open grave and stood around staring into it.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    At this stage of the day I’d moved over to behind the Security forces front lines and could capture this scene at the Bogside. It seems that that part of the city had been effectively cut off with this one road access, and these unfortunate people had to take advantage of a lull in the action to cross the temporary no-man’s-land and leave. It occurred to me that they maybe had actually been visiting for the funeral and had to do this in order catch their bus, it must have been a frightening enough journey.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    This is probably the most successful frame in capturing the atmosphere of adrenalised festival that exists in a crowd that like this, energised by mutual motivation and with the forces of the other side at least partly, momentarily, on the back foot..
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    This (quite unusual at the time) black British soldier took an opportunity to close his eyes and get a moment’s escape from the scene.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    This was I think the last frame of my last roll of 4 or 5 rolls of film on the day, the evidence of which is the right-hand edge of the full 35mm frame is cut off and fogged. Checking the frame counter I think I realized I hadn’t taken this sort of image of one of the boys exactly mid-throw, and here seem to have caught it, in the second of two attempts and the last attempt possible.. and in doing it I sort of got him mid-air too. It’s unfortunate that the second figure is in the fogged section but it’s a lucky shot.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    From this group of late (1992) photos, the annual Easter Republican parade passes the surviving local cinema, and the sign had caught my eye, (including the changing-dots upper section which sometimes flashed heart symbols, but I guessed I wouldn’t get it to coincide with the passing parade.. and that I was studying then at LCP) and everything seemed momentarily to mean something however unintelligible and or terrible.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    The Easter parade has arrived at the entrance to the Graveyard and the cohort of police vehicles pulls in ahead of it.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    This youth was brought to us by his friends, whom we chatted to while we waited in the park for the march, and seemed proud of his injury by (one must assume by a glancing blow from) a plastic bullet but it had done him this much harm anyway.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    I was entranced by this scene from the moment I saw it- primarily because of the altar placed under the awning of a Dunnes Stores supermarket, the slightly Mediterranean (if under a grey and wet Irish sky) enthusiasm with the bunting, and the quite startling really length of the Corpus Christi parade, which is really the length of the town.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    The crowd of people, young and old, at a Mass Rock in the Mournes find themselves temporary perches on the hillside among the rocks, the ferns and bracken.
  • Seán Hillen: Melancholy Witness

    Mass rock in the Mournes.
  • Melancholy Witness: Images of the Troubles by Seán Hillen.

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article
  •  

About the author:

Read next:

COMMENTS (21)

    Trending Tags