"Getting Along in LondoNewry"
Introductory text by Mic Moroney for the newly published
Sean Hillen: Photomontages 1983-1993
It's exactly a decade since the paramilitary ceasefires in Northern
Ireland brought an uneasy end to the Troubles. But there was something
extraordinary about the suddenness with which it became possible to
talk about what had been happening for the previous 25 years. Before
that, in Northern Ireland, if you weren't "involved", you
didn't talk about the Troubles. It was all too momentous, too insoluble,
too downright dangerous.
The writer Bernard
MacLaverty memorably referred to it as "the elephant in
the sitting room" - this huge, unmentionable, stinking mess
stuck right in the middle of everyone's lives. Indeed, apart from some
notable exceptions, many artists were silent on the subject.
I mean, what could you say that was in any way new?
But when I first saw Hillen's paper collages on the Troubles - in 1992,
shortly after he arrived in Dublin after years of living in London -
they were live, fiercely original and carried an outrageous comic punch.
And they still do; although now, they're like a strangely enchanted
memorial. For years, Hillen had been taking his own stark black and
white photographs of the insane militarisation and chaos in Northern
Ireland - and splicing it into an outlandish dreamworld of Romantic
and apocalyptic skies; picture-postcard views of London and sacred Irish
These tiny images - created with a scalpel under a binocular microscope
- were acts of divinatory play, with many elements stolen from children's
Ladybird books and pulp adventure comics. And despite the occasional,
deliberately ragged join or colliding perspectives, one's eye still
joyfully accomodates their fantasy - and if one takes it further, their
interrogations of notions of colonialism and power; of civilisation
and savagery, of Cowboys and Indians - as Hillen morally short-circuits
the sinister balaclavas of Irish "terrorists" (link)
with the gasmask horror-snouts of SAS elite troops in "The Virgin
of Clohogue"  or "Jesus Appears in Newry"
Although the pictures were dismissed - wrongly and dangerously at the
time - by one reactionary critic as "a hymn to Republicanism",
they contain the sharp tang of authenticity, not propaganda. Some achieve
a colossal, cautionary power. In "Four Ideas for a New Town.
#7" (1987, link
), Hillen has the British Army mount a cordon in the flowerbeds in front
of the Royal Festival Hall in London, while the sky is a bloody inferno.
Others are elegaic: the flayed, classically poised anatomical figure
in "Meeting the Dead #2" (1987, link
) appears in a state of dissected grace, hovering before burnt-out riot
wreckage and a great alpine mountainscape.
Despite Hillen's daft, leprechaunish use of Catholic kitch, his eye
is genuinely open to the magical, the miraculous, to the transcendant
beauty of an Eden or Elysium. As Seamus Heaney said, in his opening
speech for the 'IRELANTIS' exhibition, the pictures express "an
ache for some kind of 'wholeness', in a world where the comfort of wholeness,
and simple wholeness itself, is denied..."
Hillen was eight when the Troubles erupted in 1968-9. He grew up in
a working-class Catholic estate in Newry, a town which itself was predominantly
Catholic. Yet even here, working class Catholics were a marginalised
underclass - a situation which was only intensified by the conflict.
They were policed by a predominantly Protestant armed RUC force and
a Protestant UDR militia, while under constant surveillance by British
Army helicopters and observation posts. Meanwhile, from their own midst
sprang the Provisional IRA who, although commanding community support,
imposed terror and social control. As Hillen puts it, "We were
the meat in the sandwich."
As a teenager, Hillen was friendly with a lad who later blew himself
up assembling a bomb. He remembers another incident when a 12-year-old
boy lost the top of his head to a British paratrooper's high-velocity
bullet.. After such incidents, riots were routine, with the roads into
housing estates regularly barricaded by burnt out cars, while nightly
gun battles flared between the IRA and the Army. At the age of 15, Hillen
himself was arrested for throwing stones at soldiers, which taught him
a frightening lesson.
He eventually left to study art in London only an hour's flight away
- gaving him a newly surreal perspective on his native town. In Hillen's
punning scheme, this dualism became LondoNewry, in an ironic sideswipe
at the disputed city name of Derry (as it is officially known by the
Catholic-dominated Derry City Council), while Protestants continue to
address it by its colonial title, Londonderry.
Returning to Newry, Belfast and Derry, Hillen photographed Republican
funerals, riots, Orange marches, Corpus Christi processions and the
annual Catholic mass held up the side of the Mourne Mountains. This
last is a florid legacy - or a symbolic reminder - of the 18th century
Penal Laws which disenfranchised Irish Catholics. In Hillen's collage
on the 'Mass Rock', "Londonewry, A Mythical Town, #2"
), the priest and his congregation seem mystically oblivious to the
combat helicopter thundering over their heads, while the chimneys of
London's Chelsea Mills dominate the horizon.
Elsewhere, Hillen spliced Protestant Orange marches into collages like
A Mythical Town, #1" (1983):
actually quite a tender image of two Orange lads lying side-by-side
in a park and gazing up into an open sky of limitless possibility. Another
#6 "1992, ( link),
from a 12th of July Orange march in Belfast, shows two feisty lassies
leading a roaring crowd of young Protestants on their triumphal march,
while Hillen's alter-ego in Londonewry, Newry Gagarin, goes up like
a champagne cork at the sight of their carnivorous, sexualised abandon
Newry Gagarin, of course, is a pun on Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut
who landed in a Russian field an hour before Hillen was born in 1961.
Occupying Gagarin's space-suit allows Hillen a Martian's-eye view of
his own spaced wonderland. In "Newry Gagarin, #7" (1992,
), he seems to be scratching his head at the H-Block graffitti after
crashlanding in Derry's Bogside; blinded by the Nightsun glare of a
helicopter searchlight. Elsewhere ( link),
he floats like thistledown over the border installations into the Republic
of (Southern) Ireland in his ovum-like capsule. In "Gagarin's
link ), his window looks out at a Newry schoolboy
being brutally arrested (Hillen later learned the boy's brother was
being held in connection with an IRA mortar-bombing of the RUC station
which killed nine officers).
Hillen also used imagery he photographed at the historic Republican
funeral of 23-year-old Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) hunger
striker Patsy O'Hara in 1981 - one of ten Republican prisoners who galvanised
global media attention by starving themselves to death in a bid for
political status. It was one of the biggest funerals Derry ever saw
- as big as that of the 14 civil rights marchers shot dead by British
paratroopers in 1972 - with O'Hara's coffin flanked by 34 uniformed
male and female INLA volunteers.
A phalanx of these, in their balaclavas and berets, appear in Hillen's
provocative "Trouble in Paradise..." (1987, link
); standing to attention by a parade ground where the Queen's own ceremonial
Horseguards are trooping the Colour.
Remarkably enough, this piece is now, with others, in the Permanent
Collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.
After O'Hara's funeral, rioting flared for hours in the Catholic ghetto
of the Bogside. Hillen photographed the teenage stone-throwers - young,
would-be alpha males who remind one sharply of the boys of today's Palestinian
refugee camps - and planted them in "Four Ideas for a New Town,
#1" (1982, link
). One wee ghoulie stares suspiciously at Hillen's camera from behind
a Glasgow Celtic scarf, while another balaclava-head primes a couple
of Molotov milkbottles. Just beyond them, a very vulnerable-looking
redcoat staggers off on foot towards London and home.
Such a collision of realities also appears in "Four Ideas for
a New Town, #5" (1985, link
) in which trim-suited High Street London shoppers stroll past
mangled, burnt-out cars; and RUC Landrovers picking their way through
broken glass and masonry - the aftermath of a far-flung colonial riot
transplanted right to the heart of Empire.
Just as with collage artist, John Heartfield, photomontage provided
Hillen with the perfect tool to subvert images of power, but also to
somehow represent - in surreally inverted form - the conflicting yet
interpenetrating realities in Northern Ireland. Topsy-turvy as Hillen's
Londonnewry may seem, it is also a strangely truthful version of the
place, where even now, for example, the urban street furniture is that
of an English town, while the landscapes are unmistakably Irish.
Yet in Hillenland, each is both and neither, depending on your personal
baggage - or indeed momentary perspective. Indeed, Hillen often quotes
Oscar Wilde: "The pure and simple truth is never pure and rarely
As with much of the native humour of Northern Ireland, Hillen's flight
into wild absurdism was a necessary psychic protection from the serious
levels of violence, intimidation and paranoia down the years. Meanwhile,
some of the best pictures are full of comic warmth, like "Natives
in a Mystic State.." (1988, link
), an affectionate portrait of Hillen's parents walking the "Fairy
Glen" near Rostrevor, while a group of traditional "Mummers"
work mischief and mumbo-jumbo behind them, dressed like wicker men.
With the Palace of Westminster basking at the foot of California's sacred
Mount Shasta in the background, it's a beautiful, daft image of a golden
moment - like trying to capture the essence of a childhood that once
might have been.
© Irish Gallery of Photography / Mic Moroney 2004.
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