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The writing’s on the wall

 

By Cathal McNaughton

A five meter high mural of a gunman dressed in army fatigues and a balaclava, clutching an AK-47 painted on the gable end of a wall of a house in a residential street – people walk by and don’t even notice it.

In other parts of the UK and Ireland there would probably be outrage – but not in Northern Ireland, where young children happily play on streets with a backdrop of politically charged murals commemorating the violence and bloodshed of the Troubles.

These murals have become street wallpaper for the people living in this small corner of Europe who barely bat an eyelid at a gory depiction of a skeleton crawling over dead bodies that adorns the end wall of a house on their street.

Most of the hundreds of murals across Northern Ireland, which are not only found in major cities like Belfast and Londonderry but in small towns and villages, promote either Republican or Loyalist political beliefs, often glorifying paramilitary groups such as the IRA or the Ulster Volunteer Force with a roll call of the dead written large ‘lest we forget’.

However, since the paramilitary ceasefires in the 90s the distinctive Northern Irish artwork has seen a change. New murals have sprung up depicting local heroes like golfer Rory McIlroy who represent the changing face of Northern Ireland’s political landscape.

I have photographed murals on many occasions to illustrate the never-ending twists and turns of the North’s troubled history – often in changing times when people have something to say, they paint it on their gable wall.

So, I tried looking at them through the eyes of a stranger. To do this I visited the murals at times of the day I wouldn’t usually, such as sunrise and late at night and employed shooting techniques I wouldn’t normally use, such as the use of tripods and clamps with remote triggers.

As is the case with many of the features I shoot in Northern Ireland looking at my country’s past through my viewfinder, these paintings and graffiti show me how far we have traveled.

Now the 30-foot-high paintings are as likely to be of Rory McIlroy or our Nobel Peace Prize winners as of the traditional white horse of King Billy celebrating victory in battle in 1690.

It would be nice to think that one day there will be no need to paint any new murals to commemorate new victims of Northern Ireland’s Troubles – although with the Marching Season fast approaching and a New Year which saw the most sustained period of rioting for years, I think there will be a few more turns in the journey and fresh paint on the wall.

Living without electricity

By Cathal McNaughton

John McCarter is 77 years old and has been living without mains electricity at his home at Downhill, Londonderry county, for 29 years.

It seems incredible that a pensioner who lives so close to the prosperous Causeway Coast tourist area in Northern Ireland is allowed to live in such basic conditions.

However, John is the perfect host and couldn’t have made me more welcome when I arrived at his modest wooden cottage set against the backdrop of the dramatic Co Derry coastline.

He explained that he has been having a drawn out dispute with his landlord and a family member about getting mains electricity connected to the property. The mains supply is just at the end of his garden but, while the dispute continues, John remains without electricity relying instead on coal fires and candles as temperatures drop.

He has no fridge, a basic gas cooker and reads by candlelight during the long winter evenings. Perhaps because of his Spartan living conditions, John is an incredible healthy, fit man for his age but the freezing temperatures he is living in for yet another winter are taking its toll.

I spent a couple of days with John to see how he copes, arriving early in the morning to make use of the available light. As John went about his laborious daily chores of setting fires and changing candles, he told me it wasn’t so much the cold that bothered him as much as the threat of eviction.

“Last winter it went down to -4 (25 degrees Fahrenheit), but this is my home and I just want to stay here,” John told me.

As I drove home in the hazy winter sunlight, I noticed that inside my car the temperature read 24 degrees (75 degrees Fahrenheit); inside John’s house it was 10 degrees (50 degrees Fahrenheit)…

A barrier to peace

By Cathal McNaughton

“Sure, why would they want to pull down these walls?” asks William Boyd mildly as he offers me a cup of tea in his home at Cluan Place, a predominantly Loyalist area of east Belfast.

He pulls back his net curtains to show me the towering 20-foot-high wall topped with a fence that looms over his home blocking out much of the natural light.

GALLERY: NORTHERN IRELAND’S PEACE WALLS

But what becomes apparent to me as William shows me around the pensioner’s bungalow he’s lived in for 12 years is that he’s not expecting an answer to his question. Rather, it’s clear he has become so used to living in conditions that most people would find prison-like that he finds it completely normal.

The pipe bombs, bricks and fireworks that are regularly hurled at these few houses in an otherwise quiet cul-de-sac are so commonplace that they are just part of daily life. This is simply where all William’s friends live, this is his home and he doesn’t seem to notice the oppressive atmosphere created by the huge structures outside his bedroom window.

“The wall should be left the way it is,” he tells me. William says he likes living here and loves the sense of community there is in Cluan Place.

On the other side of the wall I meet people who I know will never set foot in Cluan Place. As members of the Nationalist community their political views are the polar opposite of William’s.

The red, white and blue murals and Union Flags of Cluan Place are noticeably absent from Bombay Street where Jean McAnoy lives.

This is a staunchly Catholic area of west Belfast where intense riots in the late 60s sparked the deployment of the British army into Northern Ireland. And so to protect the residents the barriers were erected. 40 years later they’re still here – meaning that the view out of William and Jean’s windows are practically identical.

Jean lives in what I can only describe as a cage. Not only does she have walls and metal fencing surrounding her house but there is thick wire mesh forming a roof over her back garden. But Jean is used to living like this. She has lived all her life on this street. Her grandfather was burnt out of his house back in the 1960s but she says she’ll never move.

“The walls should be left the way they are,” says Jean echoing the words of William, although I suspect they will never discuss the issue over a cup of tea. And that’s a shame because I think they would get on well together – heated debates on politics aside. But there’s the problem, until people living on either side of these walls are able to actually see each other going about their daily lives I think they will continue to think they are very different.

But they aren’t so different. The flags on the streets are different colors but the residents share the same set of values and both place great importance on community spirit and family. As long as the walls remain there will always be mistrust of the ‘people from the other side’.

A tale of two cities
By Cathal McNaughton July 13, 2012

I’ve been covering the economic crisis in Ireland for over three years, chronicling the changes as the Celtic Tiger becomes a distant memory and the austerity measures grip the country.

But because I’m in Dublin so frequently I have probably become accustomed to the sight of unfinished buildings, “to let” signs and boarded up shops. I no longer properly notice the terrible decline that is gripping the country.

Recently I was on assignment in Oslo, Norway, covering the visit of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and it was while I was there that I took time to look around another major European city. The contrast was stark.

In Dublin there is a permanent air of gloom. No matter where you look there are visible signs of the recession with businesses shutting down and building projects abandoned. The Irish newspapers are fixated on the financial crisis and headlines churn out doom and gloom daily. You can’t turn on a radio station without an in-depth debate about the state of the country. In coffee shops it’s all anyone can talk about – the obsession with housing that has dropped hundreds of thousands of euro in value and the impossibility of things ever getting back to normal.

But in Oslo, the economy has been untouched by the recession and it is a booming vibrant city. Just like in Dublin ten years ago there are major building projects underway with luxury apartments being constructed on the waterfront. Property prices are skyrocketing. There is little sign in Oslo that their European neighbors are in turmoil, something that is borne out by the figures.

Unemployment in Norway is 3 percent and the air of positivity in palpable, with people still spending on everything from housing to consumer goods. Oslo itself is booming. It’s one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities and the city council plans to invest more than $4 billion over the next four years.

Norway’s success is based on oil and gas, with the country’s $550 billion sovereign wealth fund owning about one percent of shares traded on the world’s stock markets. The strength of the Norwegian currency, the crown, has dented the competitiveness of the country’s traditional industries, but unlike Ireland, the Norwegian economy is projected to grow by a healthy 3.2 percent this year.

Ireland, by contrast, is in a much worse place. The country suffered one of the deepest recessions in Europe after years of reckless decisions made by the country’s banks and policymakers brought about a financial crisis that eventually led to Dublin seeking an 85 billion euro EU/IMF bailout in November 2010.

Although it has made steady progress in meeting its bailout targets, the government must still push through at least three more years worth of tough austerity measures to reduce the worst budget deficit in Europe, further putting pressure on domestic demand which is not forecast to grow again until 2014. Until then, housing developments are likely to languish unfinished and the “to let” signs will remain outside vacant factories.

No Man Is An Island
By Cathal McNaughton

For almost 20 years Barry Edgar Pilcher has lived alone on the island of Inishfree.

He is the sole permanent inhabitant of the tiny windswept island off the coast of Co Donegal in Ireland where he writes poetry and plays music. Once a week – weather permitting – Barry, 69, makes the 15 minute boat journey to Burtonport, where he does his weekly shopping in a petrol station. He posts letters and picks up the modest provisions he will need for the week and then it’s back to his ramshackle cottage where he lives and works in a single room.

Without basic sanitation, running water or a telephone and with a leaky roof and problems with dampness, Barry’s cottage is without any modern comforts. He has a peat-burning stove to provide warmth but he has to be frugal as any fuel has to be carried back from the mainland.

Barry spends his days corresponding by mail with other artists across the world – he is part of a mail art group whose members send each other drawings and pictures in the post. When the weather is warm he likes to ramble around the beautiful island playing his music – when I visit it’s a mild spring day and he takes me on a tour, stopping to play his saxophone on the beach. He tells me he takes inspiration from nature:  “I’m playing a symphony to the shells today,” he says. His music is amazing and I am privileged to be at this exclusive concert for one.

Originally from south London, Barry moved to Inishfree in 1993 to ‘get away from the rat race.’ He bought this cottage from a member of a cult-like pagan group known locally as The Screamers, who had made Inishfree their base for several years. In his garden there is a stone circle left behind by the group who he tells me worshipped outdoors, screaming to release energy.

When he first arrived on the island there were a number of other people living there – one by one they have all left. “There is no school here for young people, no prospects, no future,” he explains. Later that day in his old fashioned kitchen Barry prepares a simple Vegan meal and surprises me by telling me he is thinking of moving back to the UK. “I miss going to gigs and visiting friends. I don’t think I’ll live here forever,” he says.

A hopeless situation

By Cathal McNaughton

Time is running out for Natassa Papakonstantinou – by August she could be homeless.

What becomes depressingly apparent as we sit in her tastefully decorated apartment in a middle class suburb of Athens, is that there is no plan B. Last August, 43-year-old Natassa was finally laid off from her job in telecommunications – she hadn’t been paid a penny for the previous six months so she had been living off her savings and hoping for the best.

She was made redundant and now gets by on 461 euros she gets each month in state benefits plus what little is left of her dwindling savings. By August she has calculated that she will be penniless and, with no money to pay her rent, she could be homeless.

She told me that every day she spends up to six hours trawling the internet for job opportunities and applies for any job she can find – she gets few replies. “I sit in my office for hours on end looking for work. I rarely go out and I am nearly always on my own.”

She has tried everything – even recruitment agencies that specialize in jobs in Australia – but she says they exploited her. “They took hundreds of euros from me for administration fees and then said I wasn’t eligible to work in Australia as I don’t score enough points for a visa. They said I could pay more money and apply again.”

Natassa is divorced and she has no family. Her mother and father, a university professor and a lawyer, died several years ago. Her brother died last year plunging her further into depression.

Her once affluent lifestyle has slipped slowly from her grasp and who knows where she will end up?

She once collected antique furniture and was a talented amateur interior designer. She used to eat out in local restaurants with her friends from work – now she shops for fruit at the local market and sits in the home she may lose, worrying constantly about her uncertain future.

“I don’t even listen to music much now. I used to love it but in the bad times of your life you forget about your hobbies,” she says.

It’s hard to know what to say to reassure her – how can I tell her things will be okay when they clearly won’t?

Surviving rather than living

By Cathal McNaughton

“My wife thinks I don’t do enough but I’m doing everything I can. I work day and night. I’m trying to work my way out of this,” olive farmer Dimitris Stamatakos told me as he took a break from stacking wood at his small-holding in the village of Krokeae in the Peloponnese area of Greece.

During the boom years Dimitris, 36, made a comfortable living from the 1,700 olive trees on his seven acres of land – today, due to rising costs and higher taxes, his olive crop yields just 50 per cent of what it once did and to make ends meet he toils endlessly at odd jobs.

Selling firewood, hiring out his tractor and even hiring himself out as a laborer to his neighbors are just a few of the ways he makes the extra euros he needs to support his wife Voula and their two young boys, three-year-old Christopher and one-year-old Elias.

Dimitris’ work ethic is matched only by his hospitality. He insisted I join him for a glass of Tsipouro – the potent local brandy – which he served up with his home grown olives as he told me how he is trying to keep his head above water.

He was matter-of-fact as he told me of the hard labor and thriftiness that have become part of his everyday life – to survive the recession farmers like Dimitris have been forced to adopt a back-to-basics attitude that allows for no luxuries and leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of an extra few euros, often working 14 hour days scratching out a living doing whatever he has to do to bring money into his home.

“I’m lucky I have two boys because the younger one can wear the older one’s clothes and then we pass them on. The whole family circle shares the clothes,” he explains. “Strangely this economic situation has brought the whole family circle closer together. “But I row with my wife a lot about money. She thinks I should be doing more. What more can I do? I’m just getting by.”

‘Getting by’ is what I heard again when I visited 56-year-old farmer George Andrianakis in the village of Stafania. “I am surviving rather than living” he tells me.

George lives with his wife Athina and sons Dimitris, 24, and Panagiotis, 21. They all work together on the farm milking the goats and the sheep as well as harvesting the orange and olive trees but their profits are down by more than 50% and production costs have risen by almost 30%.

George explains that he doesn’t feed his animals as much as he used to and he tries not to drive to keep costs down. Having no extra cash means that he never goes out in the evenings and he hasn’t bought new clothes in three years. “I feel like I am being blackmailed by the middle men who force prices up,” he explains.

But while many farmers are scratching out a living, business is going better for Leonidas Polymenokos, 40, at his family’s olive oil factory near the small village of Lagio. He co-owns the factory with his three brothers and they export most of the olive oil to the lucrative U.S. market. But Leonidas explained that even his successful business is being hampered by the lack of lending available from banks.

“Not a single person isn’t affected. We want to expand but we can’t because we can’t get the necessary loans. We are all boiling in the same pot”.

Ireland’s ghost towns

If you build it, they will come.” The iconic quote from the film Field of Dreams seems like a rebuke to Ireland’s misguided builders and planners as the depressing sight of rows of newly built empty houses – windows broken and doors flapping in the wind – stretch out in the distance.

I’d come to Co Leitrim, in the west of Ireland, to see for myself the so-called ghost housing estates that first came to the public’s attention four years ago as the Celtic Tiger collapsed leaving thousands of developers bankrupt and projects half finished. Surely in four years, something would have been done about this national embarrassment – so obvious a sign of the demise of Ireland’s once envied economy?

But endless talk of charity schemes buying over the developments to house Ireland’s sizeable homeless population , huge price cuts to entice buyers or even demolition have come to nothing as thousands of houses once commanding price tags of over E250,000 still lie empty. The only solution that seems to have been put into action is fencing off the estates – hiding the embarrassing problem behind huge hoardings – leaving the houses to crumble into disrepair away from the gaze of despairing neighbours who paid full price for an identical house just 200 yards away.

But it’s the sheer scale of the problem that beggars belief. Hardly a town or village in Leitrim – the least populated county in Ireland and the worst affected by the over-enthusiastic builders – has been untouched. Pretty lakeside villages with perhaps just 200 residents now have 50 empty ‘dream homes’ in new developments where fading advertising signs boast of private moorings and roof gardens. Larger market towns have row upon row of once smart new town houses – clearly built with the upwardly mobile commuters who were supposed to move to the countryside as part of the government’s largely ignored decentralisation project – now with brambles growing over the gardens, potholed roads unfinished and adorned with graffiti by the kids who use them as drinking dens.

Impressive holiday homes with ‘stunning sea views’ lie vacant with at most one unlucky tenant sharing their ghost street with long abandoned builder’s rubble and broken advertising hoardings banging in the wind at night keeping them awake.
Surprisingly many of the houses aren’t even for sale any more – even if a buyer could be found in the precarious Irish financial market.

One resident – the sole home owner in a once stunning lakeside development – explained. “These were all sold but the developer needed more money from the bank to finish it and they refused. He went bust and that was that.”

Living without electricity for 29 years

By Cathal McNaughton

John McCarter is 77 years old and has been living without mains electricity at his home at Downhill, Londonderry county, for 29 years.

It seems incredible that a pensioner who lives so close to the prosperous Causeway Coast tourist area in Northern Ireland is allowed to live in such basic conditions.

However, John is the perfect host and couldn’t have made me more welcome when I arrived at his modest wooden cottage set against the backdrop of the dramatic Co Derry coastline.

He explained that he has been having a drawn out dispute with his landlord and a family member about getting mains electricity connected to the property. The mains supply is just at the end of his garden but, while the dispute continues, John remains without electricity relying instead on coal fires and candles as temperatures drop.

He has no fridge, a basic gas cooker and reads by candlelight during the long winter evenings. Perhaps because of his Spartan living conditions, John is an incredible healthy, fit man for his age but the freezing temperatures he is living in for yet another winter are taking its toll.

I spent a couple of days with John to see how he copes, arriving early in the morning to make use of the available light. As John went about his laborious daily chores of setting fires and changing candles, he told me it wasn’t so much the cold that bothered him as much as the threat of eviction.

“Last winter it went down to -4 (25 degrees Fahrenheit), but this is my home and I just want to stay here,” John told me.

As I drove home in the hazy winter sunlight, I noticed that inside my car the temperature read 24 degrees (75 degrees Fahrenheit); inside John’s house it was 10 degrees (50 degrees Fahrenheit)…

The trouble with Northern Ireland

Tradition is something that is celebrated, enjoyed and handed down to the next generation, but in the small corner of western Europe where I was born, it has led to shootings and bombings and the loss of thousands of lives.

For 16 years I’ve worked as a photographer covering ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and in this time I’ve come to realize that what one side of the political and religious divide sees as celebration, the other sees as triumphalism.

The Twelfth of July parades are one such tradition that sparked disturbances on the streets of Belfast this week with rioters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with plastic bullets as Catholics and Protestants once again clashed.

In the last couple of years the rules of engagement as a photographer working within Northern Ireland have changed. Once we were able to cover most situations relatively safely, now the press is increasingly being seen as the enemy and the focus of anger.

During the recent disturbances in Belfast my colleagues and I have been the target of rioters with a friend shot through the thigh and another injured by a plastic bullet.

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