Two Communities

The project is the story of two of Belfast's working class communities: Sandy Row and Short Strand. The project brings the work of photographers who have documented the last 40 years in each community in dialogue with the living memory of the residents. Through the use of old photographs from the area as a stimulus, this project encourages people from generations past to share their stories. We have created an online presence that showcases the oral history archive and also allows contributors from outside of the city to send us their own stories and images relating to the project themes. Along with our online presentation, we will create a publication to showcase some of the images taken by Bill Kirk over the last year including short transcriptions with some of the relevant stories and memories.

While both communities are polarised by histories of conflict, the social history and heritage that they share have striking similarities. Both the Short Strand and Sandy Row have existed on the very edge of the city for well over a hundred years and have maintained an identity that can only be described as “distinctly Belfast.” The people and the stories that have shaped and moulded these two communities are not as prevalent as they once were due to the development of the City landscape and the new apartment blocks and houses being built, as Belfast City is becoming a vibrant multi-ethnic place to live and work. We continue to capture the stories of the everyday, lived experiences of these streets before regeneration permanently changes the landscape. With new people moving into these areas, and new generations being reared, these communities are changing and a new identity is emerging. This project hopes to capture this “distinctly Belfast” identity that will be transformed over the next ten years. 

This project connects people to the city through the stories that we will record, archive, and exhibit. Both the Short Strand and Sandy Row are widely known within the city and beyond as being very distinctly Belfast working class communities. Although they share very different views on things such as culture and religious beliefs, their main roots lie within the heart of Belfast and their everyday lives over the past hundred years have been almost identical. The stories that exist throughout both of these communities have created a social heritage that could be representative of either of the two. Indeed, when we recently curated a photographic exhibition through our previously funded HLF project, showcasing Sandy Row photographer, Bill Kirk, a whole contingent of residents from the Short Strand community who saw Bill's images and viscerally identified with them. “That could have been my house!” and “I remember those outside toilets in the winter!,” are representative of the many comments of long time residents identifying with Bill's pictures, and a fair amount actually thought some of the images were taken in “The Strand”. The stories we are gathering and curating will prevent us from losing a vital part of the city’s historical identity. Again, because of the geographical dynamics of these two areas, local traditions and social histories have survived in ways we don’t always see in other districts, and thus this project is timely and relevant as our city continues to redevelop. 

Sandy Row

Bill’s Sandy Row, 1974

When an anxious wife forbade her professional photographer husband from coming to Belfast, it led to a productive coincidence for local photographer Bill Kirk. The photographer worked for the English developers Building Design Partnership, who wanted to record the area as part of the restructuring process. Kirk was already involved in a personal project to document the area in 1974, having heard (while in college) that it was to be entirely redeveloped. The two projects found a natural fit, and the result is a series of irreplaceable images of a community in the throes of conflict and on the brink of major transformation.

Kirk says of his frequently moving images: “social photographers are often accused of exploitation, but I see it as acknowledging people’s lives; of documenting our common humanity. That was a sense that I brought to all my projects, whether it was the events of Bombay Street in 1969 or the final days of the old Sandy Row. I felt it was important to have this record, that these lives were important. And that life here was not just about conflict.”

“I naively believed,” he adds, “that photography could make a difference.” This commitment is evident in the frequently moving, always captivating images, which are not only of vital historical significance, but also show a creative vision that is technically flawless and informed by empathy.

Introduction by Gilles Peress

Can words transcribe the smell, the flavour, the structure of memory? Can words bring back a time long past? Marcel Proust thought so and devoted seven volumes In Search of Lost Time to that attempt. On some level, this book by Bill Kirk also attempts to do the same: to fight the erasure of time; to bring back to life the people, characters, streets, birds, sidewalk, white socks, bonfires, bricks, concrete, clouds, the smell of tobacco, the texture of tweed, the music, sausages, fish and chips, all of this making a texture, a feel of place and time.

The place is Sandy Row, a Unionist neighbourhood near Belfast city centre and the time is 1974, forty plus years ago, a lifetime: the time to get old, the time to die, the time to have children, the time for those children to have children, the time for many generations of dogs to have come and gone: the big river of life.

For a while I lived in Sandy Row with incredibly kind and hospitable families. Here I had lived on both sides of the divide and beyond the nationalist politics I have met warm, smart and funny people: salt of the earth people. I also have seen those Northern Irish people equally despised, used, betrayed and oppressed by the English establishment. In that time spent on Sandy Row, I took to walking the streets with Bill, getting drunk at one in the afternoon at the Klondyke Bar smoking filterless Woodbines and joyously snapping away. His book is a true evocation of “a time lost” and as such I cherish it, and I would humbly suggest that you cherish it too.

Gilles Peress New York January, 2017

Bill Kirk’s Vision

Looking back almost 44 years to the time of my Sandy Row photography brings memories not only of the worst of Belfast’s ‘troubles’ but also of my own struggle to live on a student grant while studying photography at the Art College.

My decision to enrol in 1972 at the age of 35 followed the bad year of 1971 in which Short Brothers and Harland paid me off and I spent six months in Foster Green Hospital and lost a kidney to Tuberculosis. After this trauma, I resolved to change the direction of my life.

My head of department and lecturer Don Carstairs and Norman Lawrence and Jack Patience, while showing some disapproval, went along with my inclination towards documentary photography, an expression of my socialism. Naively, I believed the world might be put to right by image-making, perhaps in the vein of Lewis Hine and others.

Sorties into the working-class area of the Falls Road in the mid 1960’s became more serious with the violent communal upsurge in 1969. Believing the working people, both Catholic and Protestant to be victims of sectarian politics, I sought to find and show its retrograde results on their lives.

Shortly after I commenced my studies, I learned of the plan to re-develop SandyRow. I decided on a project to record the lives of the people before they were ‘re-developed’.

A fellow student, Arthur Watson from Newbuildings, Co. Londonderry put forward the idea of seeking out such major change projects. We exhibited together at the Arts Council gallery in 1975. At that show, an elderly female attendant referred to me as ‘William Conor with a camera’.

My initial contact in Sandy Row was with Hector McMillan whose shop was on Primitive Street. He was the great campaigner for improved living conditions in the area and the main driver for the wonderful Sandy Row festival. One day in Boyne Square I was photographing Sandy Row’s midwife, Mrs Elliot, who never slept in bed but downstairs on the sofa, so she was always ready for the knock on the door. She said to me that day, ‘show what the landlords do to us, son’. For me, she personified ‘Ma’ in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Often during my photography in Sandy Row, I felt an echo of my troubles at home, particularly as I had exposed my family to insecurity and even to penury, but I could only blindly continue and hope to surmount the difficulties.

And it was in mid 1974 that I met the young French photographer, Gilles Peress. He was nine years younger than me but already a member of Magnum, the great photo agency founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson. He took an interest in me and appeared to be an astute observer of character. One day he said, ‘you think too much, just be easy and photograph. And look a bit happier’. The day he said that, I chanced to take the photograph of two old, white coated shopping ladies which is now regarded as one of my strongest images. He was at my shoulder at that very moment. Peress and I never talked politics but I sensed his affinity with my view of the world.

Other photographers to have documented the re-development of other areas of Belfast include Buzz Logan on the Shankill and Frankie Quinn in Short Strand. Together, we have left a legacy of images that reflect life in working-class Belfast before developers and planners changed things forever.

Bill Kirk, Newtownards March 2017

See full gallery

sandy row, now

With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Belfast City Council, we’ve been documenting the Sandy Row community with the legendary local photographer, Bill Kirk.  

This idea started in early 2016 following the success of Kirk’s BAP exhibition and book of photographs from 1974. The idea was one of a number of projects identified after his entire collection of negatives were scanned and preserved by the BAP over the previous year.

“Sandy Row Revisited” came about after the realisation that what was missing from the images were the stories behind them. We were spurred on by the untimely death of Jackie Robinson, a fountain of knowledge about the area and set about the task of gathering oral histories.

Kirk spent eighteen months between 2017 and 2018 embedded in Sandy Row, gathering thousands of photographs and over twenty video and audio interviews from residents, ex-pats, businesses, community leaders, politicians, teachers, and others who have a personal interest in the area. Along with Kirk’s images, the BAP has gathered dozens of oral histories. 

Nearly 45 years after his groundbreaking work on Sandy Row, including his well-known Klondyke Bar series, Kirk returned to the area to find contemporary images of a community on the cusp of another major “re-development” phase. Indeed, the initial impulse for documenting Sandy Row during the early 70s was to bear witness to the decimation of one of Belfast’s oldest working-class communities. This new photographic work is testament to his respect for the people. Our hope is that this work reveals how a still thriving community continues to cope with the economic displacements that come with being located near the developing city centre. As the expansion of the city slowly encroaches into the area, there is the reality that gentrification may forever change the face of Sandy Row.

Kirk’s work has always been known for empathically capturing individuals and their everyday ways of life. His curiosity for the details is most shown in the images of home interiors where lives are lived and intimate memories are made. Frankie Quinn says of Bill’s work on Sandy Row:

“Bill exudes an affinity with the people. He has an understanding of their plight, a deep fondness of their character, a respect for the culture and a passion to record it. It is visual anthropology at its best. A socially aware photographer whose politics adorn every shot, like Robert Frank when asked by his mother why he took photos of the poor, he replied, ‘I don’t take photos of poor people, I take photos of people who struggle’ . The people of ‘The Row’ still struggle with the lot of the urban poor which comes across eloquently in Bill’s empathetic portrayal”

We have made many friends while working on this project. We’ve been helped along the way by various community groups, most notably Glenda Davies and the staff at the community centre, the Rev. Bobbie Moore, Dorothy Coates and Eddie Murray from St Aiden’s Church, the Rangers Club, The Royal Bar, local MLA Christopher Stalford, the Orange Hall, the crew at the allotments, staff at the Harry Fletcher home, Ted Booth, and all the other residents who gave interviews and posed for photographs. We are eternally grateful for their kindness, and look forward to our continued work on Sandy Row. 

Short Strand

Frankie Quinn

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