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18 September 1997 Edition

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New in print: No Go - A photographic record of Free Derry

Free Derry in our minds

No Go - A photographic record of Free Derry
Published by Guildhall Press
Price: £10.95

I recall with amusement a comment made to me some time ago by a person in Derry who received a book of photographs as a Christmas present. When asked what he thought of the book - which was fishing-related - the recipient remarked in a rather weighty tone that some of the photographs ``are a bit dark''. (Thankfully he is a more expert fly-fisherman, than he is an art critic).

But the point of the story is that most people - like the aforementioned ``save the sea trout'' fanatic - tend to approach books of photographs in a rather superficial way. They allow their like or dislike of the images' aesthetic presentation to distract them from investigating the content or message of the collection as a whole. Rather like a child who doesn't recognise the validity of a poem - just because it doesn't rhyme.

Anyone who approaches this book expecting a masterly piece of retrospective photographic art will be unimpressed. It is an untidily edited, haphazardly designed, poorly printed, disjointed production. To be fair, this is Guildhall Press's first major photographic project and any book dealing with the ``Free Derry'' period is inevitably going to be compared unfavourably with Clive Limpkin's brilliantly artistic, brilliantly photographed assemblage published in 1972 - ``The Battle of Bogside''. But living with Limpkin's legacy does not absolve the production team from basic amateurism in terms of design, editing, cropping etc, which the provision of some professional artistic direction would have avoided.

Nevertheless, the photographs themselves are proudly amateur. Indeed, this is their very essence. They were taken after 1968 over a period of about two and a half years by Barney McMonagle - a twenty-something of Maltese extraction who chose to lift a camera and learn photography by recording his contemporaries as they lifted stones and learned revolution.

Some of the images are superbly candid. A couple of young women casually clutch a well-sized brick in each hand, posed behind their backs above mini-skirted legs. Some are bizarrely comical. Saracens and their armed passengers rooted beside Creggan bus stop signs are a recurring constant. Yet others are momentously ironic. The sight of John Hume - who condemned nationalists in Derry this summer for ``bringing people onto the streets'' - beckoning protestors to sit down before a line of RUC is one for the political amnesiacs of Dublin 4 and BT48 (Derry).

And therein lies the merit of this book and these photographs. For all the criticism which can be levelled at the artistry and design of the production - when the images are valued as a collection and investigated as a whole, by the reader, they reveal much of the actual, daily reality of the period. Chaos, havoc, humour, confusion, flux, disorder, mayhem, tragedy, irony, comedy, anger. It's all there. And any publication - written or visual - which can convey history in such vivid, undiluted realism must be regarded as significant and important.

As for Derry people, the book will be of extra interest from the point of view of identifying relatives, friends or acquaintances.

As for the photographer, Barney McMonagle, he stopped taking photographs after nearly being shot by the British army during a riot in William Street in 1971.

And as for the book itself, it's a bit over-priced and a bit under-edited.

But it does one thing, it reminds us all that although ``Free Derry'' is long gone as a physical entity, the mentality of ``Free Derry'' is with us today in the continuum of struggle. It might also allow those of my contemporaries who weren't alive then to exorcise the feeling that they were cheated out of their right to their ``Free Derry''. This book illustrates the futility of believing that ``Free Derry'' can be recreated and discovered by taking on bullet-proof, fire-proof, heavily armed RUC stormtroopers in William Street on a Saturday night with a few broken paving stones. Times have changed. The days of trench-coat clad, handkerchiefed, unsophisticated B-specials, are over. We can start our search for `Free Derry'' by exploring images like those in this book, but ultimately we will find our ``Free Derry'' individually and collectively, in our own hearts, our own minds and in the integrity of our own political ideology.

Oh! And as for the fly-fisherman cum art critic, he was probably right about some of the pictures being too dark... well, maybe.

By Deaglan O Coileain

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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