Photo Essay: Steafán Hanvey’s Life Amidst the Irish Troubles
It’s one thing to think about the impact that a photo can have. Iconic photographs have gone so far as to end wars and reverse public opinion, and the risks that many photographers go to are well documented. But until I’d heard Irish singer-songwriter Steafán Hanvey‘s new album and seen his new project, which examines the culture and chaos behind his father’s photographs of Northern Ireland, I hadn’t thought about the impact these photos can have on the photographer’s family, and how this impact can be a microcosm of the age.
Bobbie Hanvey, Steafán’s father, is one Ireland’s leading photographers, known as much for his iconic portraits of Irish figures like Seamus Heaney, Gerry Adams, and BBC Radio personalities as he is known for his on-the-spot photographic reporting of the violence that held Ireland in grip throughout the 1970s and 80s. The Troubles, as this period is known, rocked Ireland, England, and the world with bomb blasts, paramilitary terrorism, and sectarian violence of all kinds. It turned Northern Ireland into a war zone and radicalized a generation of youth. During the Troubles, Bobbie was out on the streets of his home town Downpatrick, in Co. Down, photographing the aftermath of bombings and sectarian violence. His children grew up in the shadow of this work, familiar with the photographs that led to Bobbie’s awards and acclaim (and fed the family), but of course also familiar with the violence that bred those photographs.
In addition, Bobbie was a folk singer and a traditional artist, along with his wife, and brought his children to Irish sessions and musical events. Today, his son Steafán is a well-known Irish singer-songwriter, and has turned back on his youth to try to understand his father’s legacy and also the legacy of growing up in the middle of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He’s touring both a new album, Nuclear Family, and a multi-media lecture entitled “Look Behind You!: A Father and Son’s Impressions of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland through Photograph and Song.” Reading over the pdf of this lecture, I was deeply struck by the way Steafán associated key moments in The Troubles with the memories of his youth. As in his caption for this photo:
“This is a photo of ‘The Ballygawley bus bomb’ in Co. Tyrone where eight British soldiers lost their lives. The photo shows a mangled bus and a crater where the bomb exploded. This attack resulted in the British military’s decision to cease transportation of its troops to and from East Tyrone by ground opting instead for ferrying via helicopter. I was 16 when this happened in 1988, trying very much to look like Bon Jovi and attract members of the opposite sex.”
The horror of the photo contrasts so radically with the mundanity of teenage life in Ireland in the 80s. But these are the kind of contrasts you find growing up in a war zone. I wanted to know more about Steafan’s childhood in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and how his closeness both to actual violence and the violence in his father’s photos had affected him, so I sent him along some questions to find out more.
Hearth Music Interview with Steafán Hanvey:
Hearth Music: What was it like growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles? Was there a permanent atmosphere of fear? How did you fit a childhood around the violence of the Troubles?
Steafán Hanvey: I was born in one of the worst years of the Troubles, in June 1972, five months after Bloody Sunday, and one month before Bloody Friday. Initially, you don’t know any better. It took some time for me to realize that this little corner of Europe, was anything but ‘normal’. I remember as an exchange student at Western Washington University, a friend’s reaction when I told him I felt safe on campus, that I wasn’t anxious when the door was knocked, and that I could finally relax. He was astounded. The check points, the bomb scares, the bombs, the news flashes, the funerals, the omnipresent anxiety thick in the air, were all part of what I, and the community at large, considered ‘normal’ – it just was.
I remember at the age of nine sitting in my father’s editing-room, surrounded by thousands of LPs, when the light came on, while listening to the haunting tones of Luke Kelly singing a Phil Coulter song, “The Town I Loved So Well.” In my multimedia performance, Look Behind You! (A Father and Son’s Impressions of The Troubles In Northern Ireland Through Photograph and Song), I refer to this moment as “The Awakening”, as it was at this moment that I became aware of my location, a sense of place, and that something was not quite right. But again, I’d nothing to compare it to.
“Bomb in the Main Street of Ballynahinch, Co. Down in 1985. 9 miles from my home town of Downpatrick. This photograph was taken immediately after the bomb blast. My father was famous for arriving at bomb scenes sometimes before the security forces. He lay in bed with a radio scanner on the bedside cabinet, listening out for any activity. I have vivid memories of him running down the stairs and out to the latest bomb or shooting scene in the small hours. He’d always return and head straight for the darkroom where he’d develop his shots for the various newspapers.”
In Look Behind You!, I look at the role the family plays in a conflict-society such as Northern Ireland. My mother and father did what they could to keep me from harm’s way, providing the best buffer they could, between our door and the bedlam outside. They did their best to create as safe an environment as possible, for me and my siblings, and were themselves probably stunned by what was unfolding, as they, unlike me, had something else to compare the Troubles to. Looking back, I see that my parents, like many other people at the time, despite the obvious challenges, strove to lead as normal a life as possible. Like kids all over the world in the Seventies, I had Star Wars, The Wombles, Rupert the Bear, Bruce Lee, Rocky, and what’s more, my mother and father’s extensive music collection to keep me distracted.
Do you think it was harder as a youth to have a father so connected to the violence? Do you think it might have been easier if your father and family weren’t connected at all to what was going on around you?
SH: I was the son of a well-known photo-journalist and radio presenter, who had also a background in music. I didn’t perceive what my dad did as dangerous. I think every boy sees a hero in their dad, someone invincible, and I was no different. I didn’t worry when he went out to photograph the aftermath of a bombing or shooting — that was just what he did — and sometimes I went along for the ride. I would often get into school and say to my classmates, “you’ll never guess where I was last night!” It was exciting, unreal. Occasionally, my father would give me a camera without film, so that I could share in the experience — a rite of passage of sorts. I remember an overwhelming jolt of excitement one night, while “taking photos” of a fire, the two of us, father and son, circling the firemen like meerkats. Heady times.
“Early seventies. This fire was started maliciously at the business premises of Hugh J. O’Boyle, building contractor in my hometown of Downpatrick. It was allegedly started by the Provisional IRA. The fire-fighters are using a turntable ladder that is no longer in use. When I was a child I wanted to be a fireman, so you can imagine the allure that such a photo held for my young imagination.”
My father’s job as a photographer and radio presenter, brought him into contact with all colours and creeds, which gave him and us access to musicians, writers, and other media folk. A bi-product of this was that we were instilled with a high level of tolerance and an appreciation for diversity. It was a rare gift in a society where bigotry and sectarianism were the order of the day. I think if anything, this “connection” to the Troubles and society through my father’s aperture, made growing up in Northern Ireland all the more bearable.
Is it hard to talk about the Troubles in Downpatrick today? What has the response been to your multimedia lecture?
SH: I no longer live in Downpatrick. I can’t imagine striking up a conversation with someone in a bar that would include anything remotely connected to the Troubles. “Whatever you say, say nothing.”
“Twisted remains of an INLA car bomb outside the police (RUC) station on Irish St. Downpatrick. I lived on that street for the first 10 years of my life and remember frequent bomb scares and actual bombs going off. The police used to evacuate the street and lead us down behind our house into the car park where we’d wait until the device, suspect or other, was ‘made safe’.”
Look Behind You! was given its maiden voyage in the USA, and is currently on tour in North America. Its next outing is at the annual conference of The Canadian Association of Irish Studies, in Vancouver, BC. Reaction has been incredible.
Had you seen your father’s photos your whole life? Did he deem some photos to be too much for his kids, or were you inured to the violence as a youth in Northern Ireland?
Yes, I grew up above my mother and father’s photography shop. My dad’s darkroom was in the attic. My brother and I would take turns at watching the photos come to life under the red light. My childhood was both very real and surreal. It’s hardly surprising that I’m a nocturnal soul. There was only so much anyone could do to shelter you from that environment. I didn’t think about the photos being too much as a kid. Perhaps I was shielded from some of them. I believe, but can’t be sure, that we saw pretty much everything. My father dried the photos in the bathroom on a string, attached with clothes-pegs, and on the living-room floor, in front of the fire. Photos everywhere. In retrospect, although clearly not by design, it might have been a safe way to be introduced to the reality of our environment.
It seems from your comments on the photos that you’ve linked the memories of your childhood to memories of the Troubles as well. Do you think this is common among your generation in Northern Ireland? How did the mundane reality of being a teenager match with the extraordinary circumstances around you?
Yes, they are inextricably intertwined. I think it’s near impossible to disentangle one from the other.
I would imagine that everyone of my generation, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, were to some extent, touched by the conflict. I sometimes think of the Troubles as a backdrop against which we all attempted to live as normal lives as possible. That’s the closest I can come to separating the Troubles from attempts at living normal lives. My teenage years were far from mundane. I fronted two rock bands, showcased for major labels, and like most other teenagers, found love and heartbreak, in almost equal measure. Not knowing what could happen next gave my environment a degree of authenticity. Less to cut through to get to what was ‘real’. It was as real and surreal as it gets. Growing up in somewhere like Northern Ireland left me with a clear appreciation of what’s really important in life.
Do you have children of your own now? How do you (or would you if you don’t have kids) explain your father’s photographs to them?
No, not yet.
If I had kids, I think I would let them come to the photos on their own. I’d feed the interest as organically as possible. I’ve realised recently that there are kids growing up in Northern Ireland who know nothing about the Troubles, which is wonderful in a way.
Where did the title “Look Behind You!” come from?
I wanted the title to convey or reflect some of the urgency associated with Northern Ireland during the Troubles. “Look Behind You!” is of course, primarily, a warning, a “Look Out!” if you like. There was a feeling of constantly being on your guard, alert and ready for anything, and “Look Behind You!” fitted perfectly with where I was going in my journey back through the years, in order to share impressions of the Troubles through my father’s photographs and my songs. I like phrases that initially appear one way, but at second glance, can be interpreted in other ways — a bit like “the end of art is peace”, which is one of the “loaded” artistic maxims that I look at in Look Behind You!
After a lifetime spent talking about everything but the Troubles (Survival Tip #1: Don’t talk about religion or politics!), something had to give. Things left unsaid for far too long have finally found expression in the artistic corollary of Nuclear Family, which is Look Behind You! Fortunately, I have access to certain material that prompts and triggers discussion and memories, and my Northern Irish childhood, if you like, is unveiled through my father’s aperture and my recollections and songs.
Nuclear Family, my sophomore album, is the closest thing you’re going to get to a concept album without actually being a concept album. It meditates on the constructive and destructive forces inherent in most (normal) families and relationships. As I sifted through my memories and experiences, I realized that the public and political face of Northern Ireland was pressed hard against the window of my private and personal world; in short, my ‘kith and kin’ couldn’t be “explained” in isolation — context, though not everything, was a significant something. As an artist, that something had always unsettled me, and making the album made me realize that despite the fact that I had never written explicitly about Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland had written me.
It’s a bit of a gypsy record. I started the sessions in Helsinki, then continued in Brittany, Paris, Downpatrick and Dublin. I took my time and got to work with the people I wanted, including The Cardigans producer, Tore Johansson, Ken and Carl Papenfus of ‘Relish’, Bjork and Feist’s mastering engineer, Mandy Parnell, Bertrand Belin, and co-producer and friend, Léo Fourastié, amongst others.
In his 1956 book, The Outsider, Colin Wilson wrote that “art can bring order and logic to chaos.” I feel that Nuclear Family is, in part, what someone trying to make sense of such chaos sounds like.
Steafán Hanvey: Secrets and Lies
NOTE: All photos are by Bobbie Hanvey and are from the Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College, Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston College.
You can access these photos via the Boston College Flickr account. The photos are organized by subject and there are many more powerful images available.
Many Thanks to Steafán for being so willing to talk about his childhood and family.
ALSO NOTE: Bobbie Hanvey was renowned for his portraits of great Irish cultural figures, including many musicians. Here are a few of these: