“These structures are like Martian spacecraft, one breaks the terraced main street of what looks like a country town and shows that the irenic structures of ordinary architecture must give way to these armed gods, meshed objects that represent the failure of politics and civic values”. Tom Paulin
It’s been a historic week for Northern Ireland. Past enmities have been buried (we hope) as the power-sharing legislative assembly has finally been reconvened.
The evidence of past conflict is slowly being tidied away. Those famous territory-marking murals are being painted over. The British Army has long since begun to dismantle the physical evidence of its controversial presence. But not everyone wants to forget. Some argue that both the murals and the armoured observation posts that loomed over the province should be preserved as a warning from history.
An apposite time, then, for the publication of Castles of Ulster (Factotum, £20), a remarkable series of photographs by Jonathan Olley. Taken with a large format camera on a tripod, Olley’s dramatic images document the fortified police stations, army barracks and watchtowers that were a looming presence throughout Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Olley took his photographs in the 1990s when most of the buildings were still in use. Today, many have been dismantled. The images serve as a powerful reminder of what has gone before. An architecture of oppression, housing scared, mistrustful soldiers peering out at similarly-minded residents.
At the back of Olley’s book are two interviews underlining this uneasy stand-off: one with Davy Hyland, a former Sinn Féin MLA from Newry, and the other with a former British soldier. They are accompanied by a thoughtful essay by architectural historian David Brett, who draws a comparison between these modern day bastions and the castles of yesteryear.
Hyland argues for the retention of at least one of these hilltop fortifications “for future generations so that they can have a better understanding of their history”.
Meanwhile, a recent Guardian article reports on efforts in Belfast to remove, or at least replace paramilitary murals. But “even when agreement has been reached, there can be practical obstacles to overcome,” it reveals. “We were replacing a loyalist mural,” says community worker Sammy Douglas, “and the guy who originally painted it was going to start on the Monday morning. But he rang on the Friday and admitted that he couldn’t paint faces. For years he had only done figures wearing balaclavas.”