Family, Friends and Neighbours: An Irish Photography by Oistin Mac Bride


In the early seventies there were basically only two pictorial books covering the Troubles in the North: 'People At War' by Colman Doyle (who had unprecedented access to the IRA in action) and 'The British Army in Ulster' by David Barzilay, which was turned into a series. Both volumes are now virtually impossible to get.

Since then many other books, mostly derivative and mediocre, have followed those pioneering works into print. The publication by Oistin Mac Bride of 'Family, Friends and Neighbours', however, is unique in its personal approach, telling a story through photographs and text of a nationalist family, which became republican, and the experiences of its community over a twenty-year period.

Mac Bride is a professional photographer by trade and has worked for international agencies. From South Derry originally, his family moved to East Belfast and it was at their home in May 1972 that loyalists shot and seriously wounded his father and his brother, Tony, then just fourteen. Later, the family returned to the country. Tony was imprisoned for a while. He joined the IRA and was later shot dead by the SAS on the Fermanagh/Donegal border in December 1984 after he was captured and handcuffed. Another brother served time in the H-Blocks, and yet another brother, Lughaidh, was elected a Sinn Fein councillor.

Unsurprisingly, such a background informs Mac Bride's approach to his work, which is honest, disturbing and moving. One photograph - of Mac Giolla's bedroom in Magherafelt - reveals something of the knife-edge life of vulnerable nationalists: a baseball bat sits to one side of a security door. To the other are a fire extinguisher and a bullet-proof vest. Loyalists who were often directed by British intelligence assassinated over fourteen members of Sinn Fein, including many councillors. Mac Bride knew many of them and photographed most of their funerals.

He also witnessed - and it is captured in a series of shots - the death of Dermot McShane, crushed to death by a British army personnel carrier in Derry on 13 July 1996. This happened during Drumcree when loyalists who blocked roads throughout the North rioted for almost a week, demanding to get down - and got down - Garvaghy Road. There is a picture of one of their banners: 'No Compromise/No Consent/No Surrender'. Six hundred plastic bullets were fired at the loyalists that week. Whereas, in nationalist areas, and mostly in Derry on that one night, five thousand plastic bullets were fired. And that is why we need an impartial police service in the North and why it is worth holding out until one is established.

Protest, violence, death, "and those endless, endless funerals" (from a Patrick Galvin poem-turned-West Belfast mural) is only leavened by Mac Bride's depictions of Sinn Fein leaders at the Good Friday negotiations.

Finally, there is a photograph of a grief-stricken 20-year-old Julie Statham, an only daughter, which I can't recall having seen before. It was taken at the funeral of her boyfriend, Diarmuid Shields and his father, Pat, in Dungannon in1993. The UVF had burst into their house and shot them both dead and tried to wipe out the rest of the family.

A death notice in the local newspaper was addressed to Diarmuid: "In the darkness you are my clair de lune, in the noise you are my peace and calm, in troubled times you are my greatest comfort. When I hold you, all seems right with the world. And I will love you forever, no matter what."

Julie had placed the insertion. She and Diarmuid had been devoted to each other for four years, had recently been on holiday together in Paris, and planned to announce their engagement in March.

On 3 February her father went to wake her at 8 am, only to find her lying dead from an overdose. She left a letter which said: "When they killed my darling, they killed me too. I have tried to cope for an entire month. Despite my outward appearance I am dead. I may be breathing and moving but what use is that when I don't have any emotions left inside me.

"When two shots were fired my life ended. I may, at one stage, have had lots to live for, but twenty-seven days ago everything that mattered was snatched from my grasp - never to be replaced. You all there mean the world to me, but I couldn't let you watch me being miserable. So this seemed a sensible solution - well, it did to me. Let me also tell you Mum and Dad - how very much I love you and how very sorry I am for the pain I've caused."

This book is about the price of justice. It haunts, makes one angry, yet helps one understand why peace-making is a necessity.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison