Where Are They Now?

Bill Kirk traces the trajectory of Belfast residents originally photographed in the 1970s and 80s

Punters at a Celtic club, skinheads on Castle Street, a priest on the Springfield Road, wedding guests with an RUC man between them, mods on bikes, a man writing bets on a chalk board at the bookies, a child playing on a small street of terraced houses and Terri Hooley in very dated white loafers.

Bill Kirk’s lens captured many facets of 1970s and 80s Belfast, always privileging realism, spontaneity and that look or pose that the best photographers recognise as visual gold.

Kirk knows the ever-elusive eloquent image when he catches it, and as anyone who has tried to get the right photograph can verify, it can be as hard as catching a butterfly mid-flight, pinning its wings before it takes off again, before the subject moves, the light and mood changes, the instant gone.


Kirk, 77, studied at the Belfast Art College and worked for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for many years, capturing Northern Ireland at its most flattering. But his search for truth and his need to document it in photographic art led him too to Belfast streets troubled by civic unrest and sectarian hatred.

He was, for example, at Bombay Street to photograph those burned out of their homes in 1969. Kirk went into areas beyond his own Protestant east because it was important to him not to be constrained by the tribal geography of his home city. He sought the truth of Belfast and its people, simply as a place where people lived and laughed and grew and changed.

Kirk’s latest project with Frankie Quinn, proprietor of the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast, remains a work in progress. He is going back over images he took 30 and 40 years ago to re-photograph the subjects, then placing the old and new images beside each other.

It is a powerful way of capturing time’s unstoppable, irrevocable march, the wrinkles, new hair-dos, changing fashions and newly urbanised landscapes opening the door to huge narratives of time’s sweep and powerful passage, seismic cultural changes, and the whole complex business of living through years and decades.

So far Kirk and the Belfast gallery have captured 15 of the old and new pictures, but the plan is to keep adding as more subjects come forward to be re-photographed, while writer Glenn Patterson is working with young writers at Queen’s University to compile the stories of the lives captured in these images.

Enter the gallery and you see the past juxtaposed with the present in such moving and thoughtful ways. A little boy named Hugh Murtagh beats a cardboard box with two sticks, perhaps imagining himself in a marching band, some kind of helmet on his head. Beside this is the man as he is today, standing lonely on a thoroughly urban Belfast street with union flags, corrugated iron railings, a drab, overcast sky and high rise tower blocks in the distance.


Elsewhere punk godfather Terri Hooley has ditched the dodgy 70s shoes to pose in a modern record store, still leading that Good Vibrations way of life; a newborn baby girl has grown up to become a nuclear scientist; and a large group of skinheads captured in the 1980s have become older, hopefully wiser, sometimes balding men who retain a sense of power and visible brawn, wearing better trainers and hoodies, the years adding bulk and maybe more certainty of mindset.

Then there are barmaids from Lavery’s, Celtic supporters, mods smoking, slouching near their motorcycles, people in 70s dress and a young girl playing an accordion on a wall near the family washing line. Here is the poet Michael Longley staring intensely out a window, the writer Padraic Fiacc who renounced his American citizenship and moved to Belfast after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and artist couple Katherine and Joe McWilliams captured mid-animated conversation.

So many faces from that other country that is the past peer out at us. And then many of them peer out once more after the passage of three or four decades, experience worn on their faces, new expressions, new clothes, a different dispensation, aged, yes, but perhaps inside they feel little difference.

As ever the Red Barn Gallery has produced an exhibition that offers us a rich slice of Belfast life, a poetic glimpse into the true heart of this fractious and yet earthy city, its past, its present and intimations of its future.

Where Are They Now? runs at the Red Barn Gallery, Belfast until September 27.