‘AND SO THEY ARE EVER RETURNING TO US, THE DEAD’ Willie Doherty in Derry

‘It has become a distant memory
Taken on the characteristics of a dream
At times I am unsure if it really happened at all…’

— Willie Doherty 1

‘In my photographic work I was always especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.’

— W. G. Sebald 2

Imagine if Derry were a city of angels.

One of Willie Doherty’s early photographs shows a tangle of oak leaves taut with hoarfrost, with, inscribed in green across it, the beautiful line attributed to Saint Columba, ‘CROWDED FULL OF HEAVEN’S ANGELS IS EVERY LEAF OF THE OAKS OF DERRY’. Embossed in larger letters underneath is the inscription: ‘mesh’. This word (the photograph’s title) suggests wire, fortifications, trouble. Doherty’s aesthetic vision tends towards conflict. In the summer of 2013 in a playground in Derry, an eleven-year-old child was badly burned when, it appears, older boys threw a petrol bomb at him. In talking to a reporter, a local woman said of some children that they were ‘no angels’. The boy later told his mother that there were women who had seen him on fire and walked away. No angels either.

‘Columba’s Derry!
ledge of angels
radiant oakwood
where the man dove
knelt to master
his fiery temper.’

— John Montague 3

Crossing the Diamond inside Derry’s walls, I was passing the War Memorial, its bronze soldier in a First World War greatcoat fiercely bayoneting the rain, when I noticed that I was walking on oak leaves. As eleven-year-olds, our history teacher at Londonderry High School told us that the air we breathed in Derry was the air that Saint Columba had also breathed. That was in 1968.

The ‘Picturing Derry’ exhibition, shown this year as part of Derry’s year as City of Culture 2013, included many photographs of children hurling petrol bombs back in those days, when rage was communal. Excited middle-aged visitors at the exhibition were searching for themselves in the photographs. ‘Look! There’s wee Martin McGuinness sitting on a wall!’. A woman pointed out a child in shorts, who, along with other boys, was carrying a plank across waste ground. ‘That’s my father in law!’ she said.

It is troubling to consider why a generation born after ceasefires, settlements and the establishment of political institutions, has been handed on the art of making petrol bombs, why a child should be so horrifically attacked. After the Quinn children were murdered in Ballymoney in 1998, a lady from a large bungalow whispered to me: ‘There was more to that than meets the eye… You wouldn’t know what goes on in these housing estates.’ 4

We are inclined to prefer nostalgia to history. The song, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ is iconic, so it was probably inevitable that it was chosen to open the big inaugural concert for the City of Culture. Derry hearts swell with pride and tears fill Derry eyes as Phil Coulter sings: ‘And we saw it through without complaining…’

Really? Like hell we did.

‘ This is how the centuries work –
Two steps forward, one step back…’

— Derek Mahon 5

Doherty’s video, Remains, 2013, begins with footage of a fiercely blazing car, and ends as the flames die down, the wreckage of the car smouldering in the twilight. The narrator, voiced by Adrian Dunbar, tells of how he was subjected to kneecappings as a boy, and how he ends up bringing along his son to be similarly punished. The crimes of the father are unspecified, as are those of the son. The paramilitary perpetrators are not named. The video arose following on from the project ‘Lost Boys’, a collaboration between Doherty and I for Field Day Review. 6 We met up with self designated ‘wee hoods’ in Derry housing estates. They talked about things that had happened in their families during the Troubles. We saw the places to which their kind were summonsed for punishment: ‘For my sins’, says the narrator of Remains. ‘What sins?’ 7

Doherty is an artist who feels that he has an ethical responsibility to deal with the social and political contexts in the place that he lives. 8 He admires W. G. Sebald, whose books combine narrative which is apparently documentary with photographs claimed by the story but that have a strangely random air about them. Critics struggle with the categorisation of Sebald’s work, but his own term: ‘documentary fiction’ seems apt also for Doherty’s photographic work. The stories indicated by Doherty’s pictures are, he has told me, ‘not necessarily true’. 9

It was interesting to work with him on ‘Lost Boys’. As a journalist, I was used to working side by side with press photographers, and we would mostly want portraits of people in locations. When I was interviewing people for the Field Day Review piece, Doherty came along with me. People brought us to places where events they talked about had happened. Doherty listened quietly, looked around, did not take photographs. His interest is primarily in what he calls ‘terrain’. His practice was to then return, alone, to the places we had visited, to do his work.

The work in this exhibition presents a Derry which is ‘unseen’ even though it is self evidently visible. Doherty locates his work in places that are edited out of other images of the city: marginal places, out of the way places, discarded places. The scenes are neither conventionally beautiful, nor picturesque. There is much that is ugly in these images, and their mood is often desolate. His photographs of ruined and abandoned concrete maisonettes will never become postcards. Nor do they readily yield a documentary meaning, although it should be shocking that the estates built to house Derry’s poorest citizens are basic, shoddy and bleak. Doherty does not photograph political graffiti, favouring instead words that are illegible. The ground is stained, littered with rubbish. No evidence is presented that the events alluded to in titles of photographs such as Silence: After a Kneecapping, 1985 / 2012, actually took place. Yet his work confronts us with the uncomfortable realisation that this is a Derry we know and recognise, though we generally choose not to acknowledge it.

Some of the world’s best war photographers have been to Derry. I dislike the snobbery that art critics often demonstrate in their references to news photographers. They are not inferior to art photographers, they are simply doing a different job – one which is under threat now that reporters are expected to film and take photos on their mobiles. Some of the images from the early days of the Troubles taken by great photographers such as Gilles Caron, are now part of the fabric of Derry, copied by muralists onto the walls of the flats around Free Derry Corner.

Doherty has deliberately avoided the dramatic manifestations of conflict: ‘I wanted to slow things down a bit… I wanted things to be banal and restrained,’ he said. 10 I remember attending an Apprentice Boys march in Derry, which was expected to end in serious trouble, coming, as it did, at the end of a summer of march-related violence. Tension had been building. Camera crews from all the big international news agencies were there, geared up and ready for action. When no riot actually took place, their consternation was palpable. The next day, pictures appeared of children throwing petrol bombs. No one knew where the photographs had been taken.

Doherty’s images of strife and deprivation are rooted in the day-to-day life of Derry and in its history. What they tell us is less immediate, more complex. A journalist friend, who had reported for years on the Troubles, told me that she had once been so stricken by a sense of evil at the corner of a particular street that she had been compelled to hail a taxi to get away from it. Like Sebald, Doherty is concerned with the question of how history marks a terrain; of the persistence of memory in buildings and landscapes. Some of Doherty’s photographs suggest that there are places so poisoned by violent history that human beings cannot thrive there: ‘I wondered what had happened to the pain and terror that had taken place there. Had it been absorbed or filtered into the ground or was it possible for others to sense it as I did?’ 11

Not long ago, I found myself walking through a terrain I recognised, with intense disquiet, to be Doherty’s. I had been working in Derry and had set out for what I thought would be a pleasant summer stroll. The idea was to pass some time before visiting a friend living just across the border in Donegal. It was a sunny day. A cheerful looking sign pointed over a stile, towards a field and into trees along the River Foyle. I had not gone far before a feeling of anxiety came over me, a sense that this was a place where bad things happened. It was dark in the shadow of the trees, and cold. I could hear occasional bursts of male voices whooping and shouting, and sounds of heavy running somewhere in the forest: ‘The trees behind me were filled with shadow-like figures. Looks of terror and bewilderment filled their eyes…’ 12 The only people I met were hurrying back in the direction from which I had come. The track stretched out ahead of me, its broken tar surface mossed over at the edges, from which, occasionally, tunnel-like paths led into dense clumps of conifer. What if someone comes after me, I thought? What if I am captured? Struck down? No one knows I have come here. They will not know where to search for me. Later, perhaps, someone will find my car… I could already see the vehicle on the news, parked up a country road under a hedge of hawthorn and honeysuckle, forensic officers moving purposefully around it in their white overalls.

A Northern Irish upbringing and years of working as a Troubles journalist have left their mark: I have a disposition for paranoia. Doherty is a kindred spirit in this regard. I had been to see his exhibition ‘Disturbance’ at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2011, which included old and new work. Sometimes I Imagine it’s My Turn, 1998, was there: a meditation on what it would be like to be assassinated. When we were working together in 2013, we spoke about this: ‘You know the way you wonder if you might get killed, and you speculate about how and where it might happen?’, Doherty asked me. ‘Yes’, I replied. The installation The Only Good One is a Dead One, 1993, takes its title from one of the most hateful of sectarian convictions, one that Doherty says he has heard from bigots on both sides of the divide. The work considers the matter from the point of view both of the victim and the killer. It is about coming to terms with living in a war zone, and consequently, the need to be alert, to make the right decisions for moral and physical survival. ‘My work is my way of thinking about the place and the politics’, he said. ‘This private activity became public because the work is exhibited and has an audience.’ 13

Doherty and I are close in age. Born in the late 1950s, our childhood preceded the conflict but it flared just as we were becoming teenagers, only subsiding when we were on the threshold of middle age. Long shadows. Doherty, who chose to stay in Northern Ireland and to return to Derry after his years at art college in Belfast, has described the way that the everyday fear of violence is mostly dealt with in silence. For him, ‘making this work was a personal resistance to feeling like a victim.’ 14

Doherty uses words like ‘interrogate’ and ‘excavate’ when describing his intent and his practice. Colin Graham notes that Doherty’s work reminds us that the condition of being constantly under surveillance ‘disturbed the subconscious’. Graham quotes Doherty: ‘The things one cannot see are those that impinge most on your life… that you are being watched… You cannot photograph these things. They are not public. They are not seen. How can one photograph a psychological state that you experience daily[?]’ 15 His work provides a response: his images provoking an intense sense of being watched, while also making us vigilant, watchful, alert for signs of crimes we hardly wish to contemplate but which we know to our sorrow have been committed, perhaps even in our name.

Photographs like Disturbance, Dead Pool and Seepage (all 2011), find us scouring around in a lonely bog like members of a police forensic team. We are looking for a body, contemplating what might be the site of a turf stack or grave; straining to make out what could be an arm in a pool of brackish water, wondering for a moment if that white handle-shaped object near a clump of black plastic is actually a bone. This disturbing quest takes on a surreal dimension when we find ourselves noticing that a rut in the track filled with muddy water is in fact in the shape of a recumbent human form. These images fill us with foreboding.

In the video Buried, 2009, viewers find themselves searching for signs of a violent crime in a landscape that seems to offer clues at every turn: an abandoned sleeping bag on a tree trunk, embers from a campfire, a shotgun pellet, a noose. The scene is gothic – a shady forest floor with wood smoke lingering, and in the background, a strange, sorrowful howling which, Doherty later told me, is a slowed-down audio recording of rioting in Derry. Moira Jeffrey, reviewing Doherty’s work in the Scotsman, referred to the suggestion in Doherty’s work that photography is inherently unreliable, and called Buried: ‘one of the most terrifying and ambiguous films you will ever see’.16 Ghost Story, 2007, a video narrated by Stephen Rea and with camera work by Seamus McGarvey, is similarly haunted and similarly haunts. When I told Doherty about my recent experience on the deserted path near the River Foyle, he said that I had been at one of the locations they had used in the video. My memory of that powerfully suggestive work must have stirred up my inherent fear. Ghost Story includes the memory of a massacre that took place ‘on a bright but cold January afternoon’. The narrator states that he has returned to the scene, but that he can find few traces of what he first saw with his own eyes. The ground has since been built on.

Doherty has spoken about his own traumatic witnessing of Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, when he was twelve years old. He saw something happen – the massacre of thirteen people – a fact that was then, and for many years thereafter, officially denied. However, he told me that the part he still finds the most unsettling is his own uncertainly about the specifics of what he remembers seeing. I know others who have had similarly troubling problems. A friend was sure she had witnessed something that everyone told her she could not have seen because, they said, it did not happen. A news photographer told me that his difficulty lay in the fact that certain of his pictures were to be used as evidence – but he had no recollection of taking them.

Derry is a city of mirrors, the two sides of the community, the two sides of the Foyle, the two sides of the border, the inside and the outside of the walls. Doherty has had a longtime preoccupation with duality, with images that mirror each other and yet reflect a difference perceived to be so extreme as to provoke murderous hatred and violence. There are those in the North who assert that they can tell if someone is from ‘the other side’ just by looking at them. As in, ‘there is something about their eyes…’ Others will not enter into conversation until crucial information has been extracted. Michael Ignatieff has written about this in the context of Serbia, describing how it is precisely in circumstances where there is no visible difference that the ethnic killer ‘must do a certain violence to himself to make the mask of hatred fit.’ 17 In his video Non-Specific Threat, 2004, Doherty uses a 360-degree pan to present a moving portrait of a man, for which the actor Colin Stewart posed. The viewer can scrutinise the male head – craggy and bald – from every angle, but it remains inscrutable. The accompanying text is full of disorientating contradictions:

‘ I am fictional.
I am the reflection of all your fears.
I am real.’ 18

I come from the ‘other side’ from Doherty. Brought up Protestant, on the Waterside of Derry, my experience of Bloody Sunday is markedly different. No one in my family was on the civil rights march that day and no one belonging to my community was killed. It happened just down the road from Londonderry High School, but was not talked about or even acknowledged in any formal way when we returned to class through the shocked silence of Catholic Derry. Yet, I find, reading my diaries from that time, that Bloody Sunday seems to have transformed my consciousness too. In the midst of much agonising about exams and boys, there is an entry in January 1974, which furiously comments on the BBC’s description of Bloody Sunday, as its second anniversary approached: ‘when thirteen people died in crossfire between the IRA and the army’. This, my sixteen-year-old self protested, was ‘rubbish’.

My best friend lived close to the Donegal / Derry border, and we used to take long walks around the roads there. Once, in the no man’s land on the Derry side of the customs post, we peeled some little stickers from a bullet-pocked road sign which declared that ‘you are now entering Northern Ireland’. They had the figure ‘13’ embossed in black on a green shamrock. I still have one of them. What strange vocabularies we have, those who grew up in Derry in those times. What strange geographies. No man’s land. Control zone. No-go area. Unapproved road. These are the places Doherty haunts.

Doherty’s work evokes in me a homesickness for Derry, which far from being nostalgic, is shot through with grief. I left Derry in 1975 to go to university in Dublin and felt that I was being set free. It was an illusion, and in 1981, I returned to the North, to Belfast rather than Derry, afflicted by a need to learn to know my place. It seemed imperative to do something that engaged with the violence. Along with others, I set up a rape crisis centre. Years later, I became the Northern editor of a Sunday newspaper. I wrote the book, Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People, published in 2000, in an effort to understand and thereby explain the role of ‘the people I uneasily call my own’ in the disaster of the Northern conflict.19 I wrote another book, Bear in Mind These Dead, about the aftermath of the conflict, the sorrowful legacy of the killing years for those bereaved. 20 I share Doherty’s preoccupation with the unresolved, the buried, the hidden legacies. Hence our collaboration. ‘Lost Boys’ included the story of the search for Columba McVeigh, who was ‘disappeared’ – meaning abducted, murdered and secretly buried on the border.

Reviewing Doherty’s work, Moira Jeffrey also refers to the poet Seamus Deane’s book, Reading in the Dark, which is set in Derry: ‘the unnamed child narrator grows up in a household echoing with secrets, haunted by ghosts,’ Jeffrey writes. ‘The family home is simultaneously empty and bereft, yet…’, and she then quotes Deane, ‘as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it’. Jeffrey notes that the boy’s family ‘has been irretrievably burned by its proximity to conflict’, and quotes Deane again: ‘It felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire.’ 21

Dangerous fires, Doherty suggests, may smoulder down, but they are inclined to flare up again. In the last interview Sebald gave before his sudden death in 2001, he spoke to Maya Jaggi about the centrality of memory in art: ‘To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life.’ 22

Deane’s poem ‘Return’ describes a train journey from Belfast to Derry, which is also a return to memory and the snare of the poet’s past. The train curves around the River Foyle and into the city where the tracks end:

‘ I am in Derry once again.
Once more I turn to greet
Ground that flees from my feet.’ 23

Doherty, too, has explored this tendency of Derry to run away from settled definition. One of his earliest well-known works, the photograph The Other Side, 1988, captures the madness of what Colin Graham has called, in the context of Doherty’s work, Derry’s ‘psychogeography’. Somewhere in this beautifully composed shot, invisible, non-existent, but potent and politically real, is the Border which gives rise to the twin follies of ‘west is south’ and ‘east is north’. His photograph, Shifting Ground, 1991, shows the then derelict roadway that runs along the interior of the fortified city walls, their cannons poking out underneath the tall metal fence erected after the twentieth century phase of Derry’s troubles erupted. The inner side of the roadway is enclosed by another high fence, creating a dead zone between the Bogside, outside of the walls, and the old city on the inside.

Graham discusses the potential significance of this space: ‘a sense that mutually allergic relations of definition are obsessively absorbed in “the other side” and that the continually lateral look which their binary view of the world insists on can be shaken by looking at the spaces where they meet, and shaken conceptually by looking down, by finding a way to shift the ground on which they stand.’ 24 This, he proposes, is where Doherty is searching for the ways in which his art can undermine cultural constrictions. Some of the early work is explicitly political in intent, notably work produced in artistic protest against broadcasting bans in Britain and in Ireland. Doherty’s images from the 1980s using landscape to undermine the texts layered over them (the texts reflecting the cultural certainties of the two sides) have become famous. ‘I wanted to interrogate the conventional images of Derry’, he said. ‘Then, ironically, my images became part of the convention.’ 25

By the early 1990s, Doherty’s work was being shown internationally, and he felt the need to broaden his vision away from the very specific contexts of his earlier work. He had also learned to drive, which precipitated a period of exploring border roads between Derry and Donegal, roads in many cases blocked by ‘dragons teeth’ made of concrete installed by the British Army to prevent the IRA using the route – roads littered with burned out cars. These were the badlands. As Colm Tóibín has noted in his essay in this book, this was ‘a landscape of endings’. 26

The paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 were followed by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and by the establishment of the current political regime at Stormont in 2007. Doherty’s anxious protagonist is still unsure of his ground, scouring the border for signs that the conflict is not yet over, preoccupied with what is unseen but pervasive, the sense of loss and also of murderous energies that may not yet have abated. His photograph Wire Fence and Blue Sky, 2004, seems like a marvellous metaphor for the changed times. A spiked metal fence has at some stage in the past been reinforced and heightened by the addition of a wire mesh fence behind it. This lighter fence has become torn, so that through it can be seen a lake of clear blue sky. It is possible to begin, tentatively, to imagine the absence of fortifications.

In 2012, Doherty became interested in the idea of time lapses and memory lapses. He embarked on a search through part of the archive of photographs he had taken in the 1980s and 1990s but never printed. Among them he found several which are reproduced in this book, including To the Border: A Fork in the Road, 1986 / 2012. ‘I made the original in 1986 but I had actually forgotten I took it,’ he told me. ‘Last year when I discovered it, I remembered that in 2010, there had been an incident at exactly that place.’ 27 The body of a dissident republican from Derry was dumped there after he was taken away from his home and killed, probably by other dissidents. The story goes that he was involved in the drugs trade, and that perhaps he was seen as an informer. Doherty’s photograph is now uncanny, haunted by a murder that had not yet taken place.

Doherty likes the adjective ‘liminal’, meaning a barely perceptible sensory threshold; an indeterminate boundary. The wonderfully named Flyover: Ghost Walk, 1985 / 2012, has this quality. It is exhilarating and strangely moving. The composition is extraordinary: a swirl of roads, pillars, fences and walls, taken from an unprepossessing concrete underpass below the dark line of Derry’s city walls. The ground is spattered, and the walls and pillars are marked with slogans that have been painted out – crudely painted letters, and a man’s photograph on what looks like a torn election poster. What may be a mural is blurred in the background, shapes of blocks of 1970s flats behind it. Nothing can be clearly understood about this terrain, yet there is a sense of walking into the light, all lines leading the eye towards something dazzling ahead, where the new wall skirts the curve of the old fortification. Ghosts, maybe. Or angels flocking home to roost in the oaks of Derry. Or a trick of the fading light and the enveloping mist that Doherty, ever vigilant, ever wandering, was miraculously there to capture.

  • 1. See: Willie Doherty, Remains, 2013, high definition video, colour and sound, 15 mins.
  • 2. Sebald, W. G., Austerlitz, London: Penguin Books, 2001, p. 109.
  • 3. Montague, John, ‘A New Siege’, in Rage for Order, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1992, p. 36.
  • 4. McKay, Susan, Northern Protestants, An Unsettled People, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2000, pp. 238–239.
  • 5. Mahon, Derek, ‘Derry Morning’, in Selected Poems, London: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 73.
  • 6. McKay, S. and Doherty, W., ‘Lost Boys’, in Field Day Review, Special Issue, Autumn 2013 (forthcoming).
  • 7. See: Willie Doherty, Remains, 2013, op. cit.
  • 8. Doherty in conversation with the author, 20 July, 2013.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. See: Willie Doherty, Ghost Story, 2007, high definition video, colour and sound, 15 mins.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Doherty in conversation with the author, 20 July, 2013.
  • 14. Doherty, W., ‘Barbara Dawson in conversation with Willie Doherty, 23 July, 2011’, in Willie Doherty: Disturbance, Dublin: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 2011, p. 40.
  • 15. Doherty, W., quoted in Graham, Colin, Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography, Belfast: Belfast Exposed Photography and The MAC, 2013, p. 33.
  • 16. Jeffrey, Moira, ‘Art Review: Willie Doherty, Buried’, Scotland on Sunday, 3 May, 2009. See: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/arts/visual-arts/art-review-willie-doh...
  • 17. Ignatieff, Michael, The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, London: Vintage, 1999, p. 51.
  • 18. See, Willie Doherty, Non-Specific Threat, 2004, video, colour and sound, 7 : 46 mins.
  • 19. McKay, S., Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2005 edition, p. 362.
  • 20. McKay, S., Bear in Mind These Dead, London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2007.
  • 21. Jeffrey, M., ‘Art Review: Willie Doherty, Buried’, op. cit.
  • 22. Jaggi, Maya, ‘The Last Word’, The Guardian, 21 December, 2001. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2001/dec/21/artsandhumanities.higher....
  • 23. Deane, Seamus, ‘ “Return” ’, in Rage for Order – Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1992, p. 44.
  • 24. Graham, C., ‘Inscription | Trace’, in Willie Doherty: Disturbance, op. cit., p. 11.
  • 25. Doherty in conversation with the author, 20 July, 2013.
  • 26. See Colm Tóibín, ‘Border’, in this volume, pp. 16–17.
  • 27. Doherty in conversation with the author, 20 July, 2013.
Author
Susan McKay

Susan McKay is an author whose books include Bear in Mind These Dead (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 2007) and Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2000). She has worked for many years as a journalist and has won several major awards for her work on the Northern conflict and on social issues.