Sandy Row 1974

Photographer Bill Kirk documents the minutae of working-class life in south Belfast

What more is there to say about photographer, Bill Kirk? It was as recently as March/April that the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast staged a widely admired retrospective of his work, including his essay on Sandy Row’s Klondyke Bar. Yet the best has been saved till now.

We are used to the notion that the past is another country, but this view of it still has the capacity to shock. Housing conditions helped mobilise the Catholic community behind the Civil Rights movement, yet nothing could have been worse than conditions in Protestant Sandy Row.

We visit the office of the Sandy Row Redevelopment Association on the corner of the aptly named Primitive Street. Evidently they had achieved little by 1974. As their own poster put it, ‘Sandy Row have no baths but have showers coming through the roofs’.

A number of photographs starkly capture the dismal conditions. One can almost smell the damp and decay. Kirk looks down on a semi-derelict back yard inhabited by a matronly mother in her pinny with her weary husband, while the son looks on dubiously from behind at the door to the outside toilet.

Sandy Row 1974

A girl is seen dimly at the jaw-box sink through a begrimed back window in a back yard where the drainage is doubtful, door jambs rot, and a lean-to roof is falling in. An elderly couple sit on a battered settee beneath peeling wallpaper and above a begrimed floor: she is shyly looking at the camera, he can do no more than hold himself together.

Kirk catches four boys and a girl. The boys are ragged and one seems to be spattered with mud; they are suspicious, even disengaged. Not so the girl; she is immaculately dressed and keen to pose.

Somehow the girls still express hope, like the teenager playing an accordion while sitting on a yard wall that seems ready to collapse; in the accordion band proudly marching through admirers on the street; or in crowded households where a young woman is not embarrassed to be photographed in curlers.

Yes, there are homes that make the best of it, though cheap second-hand furniture must suffice to make wee palaces. The comfort of Queen Elizabeth in her coronation robes presides over even the worst of them.

This is still evidently a vibrant community, even if largely down on its luck. Local shops serve the community’s needs with their proprietors proudly posing. There is a drapers with hand-made signs covering the windows and offering bargains within, fruit is also available at a separate street stall, there is a confectioner and newsagents – everything from the People’s Friend to the Protestant Telegraph, there is a chippy, and a launderette. All are closely observed.

The Twelfth is the big festival of the year. A couple kiss in front of an 11th night bonfire. Visitors come from afar, including the County Monagan True Blues, who arrive complete with horses and presumably a carriage. The Sandy Row Festival is less political but brings out the crowds.

Sandy Row 1974

The Sandy Row beauty queen is admired by, amongst others, John Laird (now Lord Laird). Young boys set out on a stilt walk doubtful about their ability to stay the course, as are their worried fathers. The brawny Tug of War men are more confident.

Curiously after the Klondyke essay there is little here of pub life, though we do find the detritus of a particularly rough night. One couple slumped on the pavement still have the will to snog while their neighbours lie unconscious. There are more respectable occasions, as well dressed men and women dance the conga.

This world of 1974 was about to topple into an uncertain future, but everywhere the old certainties still prevailed. Crumbling windows are still elaborately decorated with ornaments. These may include dolls, fawns, and donkeys, but statuettes of a B-Special, a dark-glassed paramilitary, and Edward Carson also feature.

In one shop a hand drawn picture of King Billy is accompanied by an invitation to buy a 5p ballot for loyalist prisoners. A wall is adorned by a poster inviting a number 1 vote for John McQuade, who became a byword as a truly inarticulate representative.

I am reminded of the description by geographer, Trevor Carleton, of the gap between the sandy ridge of Malone and Sandy Row as ‘a social precipice’. It was ever thus.

The importance of Kirk’s work is that he achieved extraordinary access in chronicling the people and the place before all was changed as re-development brought better conditions but somehow sucked the life out of the area.

His art is more than just the record. There is a unique compositional talent here combined with a deep sympathy for his subjects. Definitely an exhibition not to be missed.

Bill Kirk – Sandy Row 1974 runs until October 5.