Photography Exhibition Explores A Day in the Life in Strabane

The Alley Arts Centre gives a smudger's-eye-view of changing times in County Tyrone

The current photographic exhibition at the Alley Arts Centre, A Day in the Life, offers glimpses of everyday life not only in Strabane in the latter half of the 20th century, but in Castlederg, Newtownstewart, Sion Mills and the rural community.

Well heeled ladies in tweeds and twinsets take a lesson in teeing off from a male golf instructor. A packed congregation at Sunday morning service in Artigarvan Presbyterian church, its female parishioners wearing hats (see picture below).

A local football team in classic photographic pose, arms folded, front row kneeling and, who’s that? Bobby Charlton, no less, in Strabane! A prize bull at an agricultural show, children in fancy dress, a venerable lady on her 100th birthday and Eddie ‘Spar’ Gillespie in his grocery store.

There’s a lack of guile in most of those faces looking straight to camera, unselfconscious and unsmiling. In a town deprived by the loss of shirt and textiles factories, the demise of the railway and a bypass road, there wasn’t too much to smile about.

At the onset of the Troubles, and certainly in the early 1970s, Strabane was the target for 10% of all the bombs that exploded in Northern Ireland. Landmark shops and businesses like Woolworths and Wellworths, the Commodore Cinema, the Abercorn Arms Hotel, the Swallow Café, and Devine’s tea store were destroyed.

A local press man photographed a helicopter hijacked by paramilitaries, its pilot ordered to fly over Strabane’s police barracks so that his assailants could offload two milk churns packed with explosives. Happily those bombs did not explode.

Congregation

 

The most dramatic of all the pictures of devastation featured in this exhibition, perhaps, are those of the stately Market House, which served as the Town Hall. Engulfed by flames, it is surrounded by firemen aiming their hoses and a row of spectators watching its demise.

Senior Army officers conduct a tour of inspection, and Secretary of State Roy Mason visits the town dressed in regulation flak jacket (see picture below). And, shot through the barrel of a soldier’s SLR rifle, is the quite incongruous image of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ military band sitting in Abercorn Square, playing their trumpets and trombones (main image).

Austin Hunter, who was a journalist on the Strabane Weekly News from 1970 to 1979, and who lent many photographs to the exhibition, describes how he came by this particular photograph.

'It was given to me by the Army for publication in our newspaper,' he recalls. 'It was a rather bizarre event – the band playing music in the centre of Strabane with security all around, trying to show that life was normal in the town. It was anything but normal at that time.'

Hunter also explains what is surely the most startling image on display. Entitled 'Look in Your Rear View Mirror!', it depicts a light aircraft gliding along a trunk road followed by a car.

'David Gray, a pilot from Newfoundland, was on his way to England when he had a technical problem. I think he ran out of fuel. He came down out of the clouds and saw a long piece of tarmac, which was the main road between Derry and Strabane and decided to land. A local man provided some fuel and David was on his way, but not before I had interviewed him and ensured that this photograph was taken.'

The curator of A Day in the Life, Adrian Beattie, recounts how he trawled through hundreds of uncatalogued archive prints, negatives and glass plates which were randomly stored at the offices of the Strabane Weekly News and the Strabane Chronicle.

'The 63 black and white photographs on display are not attributed to a particular photographer or "smudger"', says Beattie. 'In most cases we don’t have the photographer’s name, nor do we know who the subjects are.'

Roy Mason

 

Beattie hopes that many of those depicted in the photographs will come forward to identify themselves.  Already in the visitor’s book, Susan McKay, from Sion Mills, notes that she is indeed the bright-eyed young nurse pictured on duty in striped uniform and crisply starched collar.

The exhibition ALSO tips its cap to the doyen of Ulster press photographers, Robert John Welch, who was born in Strabane in 1859 and is best known for his shipyard shots of the Titanic. Shop owner, Herbert Cooper photographed the town and its inhabitants from 1911 to 1960, and Jackie Sloan took pictures in the 1970, 80s and 90s.

Looking round the exhibition, Jonathan Rainey, editor of the Strabane Weekly News, comments,
'I was born in 1979, so it’s great to see photos from that era. We now employ freelance photographers like Ricky Craig who brings us stories as well as pictures. He is so well known in the community that people approach him and he takes photos and then passes them on to us.'

A picture of Craig himself appears in the exhibtion. It is 1971 and he is standing in the burnt out rubble of his own shop. In fact he owned a succession of premises that were destroyed during the Troubles. A great man for dates, he can pinpoint most of the major events in Strabane over the last 50 years.

'I began taking photographs on Monday, May 10, 1968 and when, a few months later, on July 2, Ireland’s cricket team beat the West Indies at Sion Mills. I was the only photographer present.'

Still on the job, Craig this year photographed Strabane’s very own Calendar Girls, as well as the passage of the Olympic Torch through the town.

Nigel McDonagh, editor of the Strabane Chronicle, who like Rainey was born during the Troubles, acknowledges that, in the early days, the newspapers made no real attempt to index photographs, so he welcomes this record of life in the area.

Like all hacks, McDonagh is always on the look out for a good breaking story. It was his paper which revealed how Mark Benny, an amateur radio enthusiast from Castlederg, helped land two jet airplanes bound for Boston during Hurricane Sandy.

'In Strabane there is always something happening,' says McDonagh. 'There’s a strong community spirit here and interesting characters.' This exhibition seems to confirm that it was ever thus.

A Day in the Life runs in the Alley Arts Centre, Strabane, until December 28.