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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.
Apr 27th 2013, 9:15 AM 17,382 21

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 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 to publish some of those here. All captions are in Seán Hillen’s own words:

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Susan Daly


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