Melancholy Witness – Review

Witnessing Troubles

Seán Hillen  

The History Press  Ireland (2014), 120 pages

The Winding Stair Bookshop – €10 (second hand signed copy)

Melancholy Witness: Images of the Troubles is a collection of artist Seán Hillen’s photographs of Northern Ireland between 1979-1990.  Hillen, a native of the border town of Newry, was perfectly placed to capture the violence, fear, and occasional black humour that pervaded Northern Irish society.  Hillen is better known for his photomontages which take a wry look at modern Irish society through the mythical lens of John Hinde postcards.  I might look at his photomontages in another blog post.

Hillen’s photographs cover more than scenes of violence.  There are photographs of Twelfth of July parades, a religious pilgrimage, people going about their daily business.  But there is an almost constant undercurrent of violence, the possibility that something unexpected will happen.  Policemen or soldiers are present in many of the photographs, heavily armed and twitchy.  What look like building sites are the aftermath of bomb attacks.  There is constant government surveillance, the army, the police, security cameras, army watch towers, the knowledge that your phone could be tapped, your post opened, that you could be talking to an informer.  This oppressive surveillance was often ineffective.  You lived with of the psychological effects government oppression (even if often meant to prevent violence) but seemingly without the benefits of government protection.  In some cases the forces that were supposed to protect you ended up killing you or causing horrific injuries with “plastic bullets” (like Bloody Sunday or the numerous instances of State collusion with terrorists).

Hillen Photo

Newry, c. 1985

I visited the North shortly after the Good Friday Agreement with some Dutch friends.  The watchtowers were still on the South Armagh border hills, bristling with antennae and cameras to watch the local population.  Some were IRA members and supporters but many were not.  There were “Sniper at Work” signs and “Free the Colombia 3” graffiti.  Hillen captures the architecture of a chronic conflict.  As an outsider all of this seemed extraordinary but to the local population this became normal.  Talking about the helicopters that buzzed across the sky (in many places it was too dangerous for the British army to travel by road) Hillen notes that, “…the noise of the helicopters became so familiar that its absence then became strange.” (p. 86)  In Northern Ireland I visited Crossmaglen with its large army base that dominated the centre of town.  It had the busiest heliport in Europe, it was far too dangerous for soldiers to travel by road.  There were no police (or tax collectors!) allowed into the town.  The army base was seen as an occupying presence.  When footballs from the local GAA club dropped into the army base they weren’t returned.  Local resentment (especially Catholic republican resentment) at the inbuilt discrimination, poverty, and lack of equal civil rights often overspilled into protests, violence, and riots.

Some of Hillen’s most effective photographs are of riots (see cover photo above).  He successfully captures the adrenaline, the anger, and the game of rioting.  Poverty, boredom, resentment, and (in some cases), a desire to kill British soldiers and police were all motivating factors in riots.  The rioters were virtually all young men.  Like many conflicts the Troubles was primarily fuelled by young men; rioters, terrorists, police, and soldiers.  These young men were often guided by older men, invisible from the public but the guiding hands behind the conflict, moving their pieces across a deadly chess board.


A colour version of an image from the book.  “Taken through the window of my sister’s car; a teenager is seen being dragged to a waiting police car after some questioning.” (p. 92)

Melancholy Witness is an excellent collection of photographs.  Hillen’s local knowledge adds a depth to the accompanying captions.  What comes across most strongly is Hillen’s empathy with his subjects.  He does not distinguish between Catholic or Protestant, rioter or policeman – they are all trapped in a situation which they have little control over.  They are striving to live their lives, to make their lives better, and to overcome the circumstances that surround them.


Related Links

Irelantis – Irish photomontages by Seán Hillen

John Hinde Postcard Archive – A major influence on Hillen’s photomontages.


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