Re-Negotiated Territory

The Politics of Place, Space and Landscape in Irish Photography

Extract from Re-Negotiated Territory - analysis of Irish photography by Justin Carville, Afterimage, July 2001.

During the first collapse of Northern Ireland's devolved Legislative Assembly, former United States President Bill Clinton offered a comment on the opposing nationalist and unionist parties involved that prompted a short-lived but derisive commentary from those journalists who had followed Clinton's role in the Northern Ireland peace process. [1] In obvious frustration at the inability of the Ulster Unionist Party led by David Trimble, and Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, to reach a compromise that would see the full implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Clinton remarked, "they're like a couple of drunks walking out of the bar for the last time, when they get to the swinging door they turn around and go back in and say, 'I just can't quite get there,'" [2] The subsequent media attention to these remarks led to a succession of claims by journalists that Clinton had resorted to racial stereotypes of drunken Irish-ness to express his displeasure at the ongoing political stalemate taking place across the e Atlantic. Clinton's peculiar brand of "paddy-whackery" has a well documented history and offered nothing new to the lexicon of stereotypes that already exist to describe Ireland and its citizens; the irony is however that these stereotypes have historically originated from the print media itself. [3]

Despite efforts by some sections of the international media to make journalistic capital out of Clinton's remarks, the reaction of the Irish media was much more subdued. [4] Indeed the reaction of most of the Irish public was one of perplexed amusement at the fuss that was being made over such a banal comment. Unfortunate as Clinton's choice of metaphor was it was no worse than what had come before. What had been interpreted as racial stereotyping by certain sections of the international and U.S. media had been recognized as an inability to articulate an ongoing complex political situation by the Irish public. The metaphors, euphemisms and discourse used by foreign affairs spokespeople and the western media have frequently fallen back on stereotypical images of Ireland in their frustration to articulate the complexities of Irish historical and political life. What Clinton and other foreign observers of what has been labelled "The Troubles" have failed to grasp is that the discourses used to describe the shift s in Irish politics need to be re-negotiated in an ongoing basis. In relation to the current political situation in Northern Ireland (even though politicians from both sides of the unionist and nationalist divide speak of an everlasting peace and a complete cessation of sectarian violence) what is taking place is a peace process, a process that has and will continue to be reviewed and negotiated for some time to come.

It is, however, not just the political situation in Northern Ireland that faces these continual re-negotiations. A broad spectrum of political, historical and cultural practices are continually re-negotiated as a result of massive upheavals brought about by unprecedented economic prosperity and immigration throughout the whole of Ireland. Images of economic prosperity and peace, however, remain alien to those who have viewed Ireland through the two portholes of urban conflict and rural idyll. Such representations after all have been the dominant images of Ireland since the rise of colonial tourism and the uprisings of 1798 and 1916. [5] These representations have for the most part been produced [and distributed by outside media agencies, either through journalistic representations of Northern Ireland or high production value publications of the Irish landscape aimed at the diaspora. With these dominant representations emanating from outside cultural representative practices, Irish artists and photographers have been left with no alternative but to re-articulate representations of Ireland in terms of these outside media influences. That is to say, artists and photographers have not discarded the remnants of images of Ireland's past in their attempts to represent the changes taking place in the Irish political and social landscape. Rather, these representations form the basis of a re-negotiated territory that sets out to counter the dominant representations of Ireland that exist in western culture.

I use the phrase re-negotiated territory here, to put in place a frame of reference to address the practices of a number of Irish photographers who have approached the representation of space and place through a direct engagement with the changing political and philosophical discourses associated with Irish identity. This re-negotiation can be identified as threefold. Firstly, it is a re-negotiation of the territory of photographic practice that sets out to critically engage with the political economy of photographic representations of Ireland. This does not just entail a re-negotiation of the politics of representation; it also sets out to open up the way in which the viewer encounters these representations. Secondly, it is a re-negotiation of the way space is represented in the photographic image. Space in Ireland is shaped by particular ideologies that are fixed in the prevailing discourses of unionism and nationalism and the photographers discussed in this essay are aware of the role of the photographic image in constructing space in relation to identity. Their re-negotiation of space is not to "reshape" it but rather to open it up to multiple and contesting narratives. Thirdly, their work sets out to re-negotiate the dominant discourses used to describe the representation of Irish history, politics and culture. That is to say, by opening up the representation of space and place, their work allows for alternative, contested and frequently unspoken narratives of identity to be expressed through their work.

…A recent body of work by Victor Sloan on Drumcree the site of a protracted standoff between Northern Ireland's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the Orange Order (who are protesting their right to march along the largely nationalist Gervaghy Road), points to the irony of returning to sites of dispute. The photograph Road, Drumcree, Portadown, 2000 represents the scars left on the road surface by security barriers erected to prevent the annual Orange Order march from following its parade route through the nationalist housing estate a few hundred yards further on. Each year a new barrier is erected, only to be dismantled, stored and reassembled the following year. New scars appear annually on the sites of protest and disputes over territory as new divisions are erected to demarcate territory. This is not merely repetition or the re-enactment of tradition, rather it is the chattering ghosts of the past coming back to haunt the present.


(1.) Clinton's remarks were made at a press conference during the dedication of a new U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Canada during which he also mistook Quebec for France.

(2.) The participating nationalist and unionist Parties signed the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. The agreement paved the way for democratic elections in Northern Ireland, leading to the establishment of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly. The devolved government is made up of coalition cabinet members from Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) with executive bodies made up of members from all parties elected to the assembly. The devolved government is part of an overall policy of devolution in Great Britain under Tony Blair's Labour government with devolved governments having already been established in Wales and Scotland. Despite the signing of the agreement in 1998, the Northern Ireland assembly has been something of a stop-and-go affair with a number of significant collapses during its short existence. The agreement was brokered by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell who subsequently led a review of the agreement as a result of the collapse referred to above.

(3.) On the construction of Irish stereotypes in the print media see, L. Parry Curtis, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997). For a counter perspective see Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (London: Routledge, 1996).

(4.) For an assessment of reactions to Clinton's remark see Susan Garrity, "A Gaffe--or an Attempt to Kick-Start the Peace?" in Sunday Independent, October 9, 1999.

(5.) A selection of such imagery can be found in Midge Podhoretz, ed., The Irish Uprising, 1916-1922 (Dublin: Macmillan, 1996); Helen Litton, The Irish Civil War: An Illustrated History (Niwot, CO: Irish American Book Company, 1998); Helen Litton Irish Rebellions 1798-1916: An Illustrated History (Niwot, CO: Irish American Book Company, 1998); and Tim Pat Coogan, ed., The Irish Civil War (London: Roberts Rinehart, 1998).

JUSTIN CARVILLE teaches Historical & Theoretical Studies in Photography at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology in Dublin.

subscribe: (585) 442-8676 ext. 101
editorial office: (585) 442-8676, ext. 106

View Drumcree images

View Portadown images