Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Photos of Erik Schnackenberg On Exhibit


Erik Schnackenberg spoke tonight at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, New York about the pictures he took in the 1960s in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

He worked on Madison Avenue in New York City and every so often went to the world's trouble spots to get an adrenalin rush and to see if his pictures could bring the reality out to the world.

The British soldiers were in the streets when he got there. The British soldiers were initially welcomed by the Catholics and Protestants because they were supposed to be stay between the groups and create peace. Unfortunately, the British bonded with the Protestants, as the soldiers and commanders were Protestants and believed Ireland should be in union with the British government.

The British used film, before computers were commonplace, to document who was where. If a person showed up a lot in many shots, they'd go "snatch" that person for questioning.

The soldiers didn't like Erik taking pictures because the IRA and such had taken pictures of soldiers, then used the picture to ID a soldier dressed in civilian clothes at a pub for attack. So often in Erik's pictures a soldier is taking a picture of Erik taking a picture!

You really should go see the exhibit, but two pictures stand out in my mind:

1) a picture of a 16 year old boy being led down the street for questioning: He'd been following the soldiers too closely, so the soldiers turned on him and arrested him. To be fair, some of the soldiers were only a little older than the boy and soldiers had been attacked by boys before. But in this picture the soldiers are carrying guns with live ammo, surrounding and leading this kid down the street, and a mom with two small girls is walking past them coming toward the camera. The mom and even the girls are looking straight ahead, minding their own business, so to speak. That's what every individual in that society learned to do in public - not get involved.

This reminded me how Pat, one of the leaders of our mission trips saw a change in Belfast in 2009 and another in 2010.

In 2009, nine years after the Easter Peace Accords, people on the street started responding when she said, "Hello!" when she was passing them on the street. Prior to that, her greetings were not responded to. The passersby would stare straight ahead and not answer.

In 2010, we all noticed children were being allowed to walk home from school. Pat told us, in prior years, parents would always come to the school in their cars to pick the children up. They didn't feel the streets were safe for children.

2) a picture of a shopkeeper removing a picture of a Saint from a storefront strewn with shattered glass: the Royal Ulster Constabulary (local police of that time) had let Protestant youths smash the storefront and ransack the place, while the RUC laughed. The shopkeeper came to his store to rescue what he could.

Another interesting thing was what the first "murals" looked like. They were walls with crude paintings of symbols for one side or the other. Sometimes the two side would paint over each other's graffiti in succession.

Erik's pictures were sometimes in the New York Times back in the day. He took a lot of risks getting them. Without them, I don't know how we would imagine what went on.

Call (518) 427-1916 for hours and go see them yourself at the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, New York, USA.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Titanic and the Irish

When I was in Ireland in 2010, there was a T-shirt for sale in the trinket shops in Belfast that said, "The Titanic: Built by the Irish, but Sunk by the English" or others that said, "Titanic – she was alright when she left us.”

Of course, such joking is only possible 100 years from the event and after all the survivors have died. The relationship of the Irish with the Titanic is more complicated than Brit bashing humor.

There are stories galore.

Addergoole in North Mayo had 14 of its residents on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and 11 of those perished. They started an annual bell ringing ceremony to commemorate that tragic loss of their brethren.

Annie McGowan, only 15 years of age at the time, was one of the few third class passengers to survive. Despite the loss of 11 of her fellow emigrants from Addergoole, and though without funds on arrival in New York, she survived and settled in Chicago. Her story is amazing.

When I was in Belfast in 2010, someone pointed out the tall yellow cranes with the initials "H & W" on them down at the docks. I was told the initials stood for Harland and Wolff. Although they didn't literally hold the Titanic until its launch, as they were constructed subsequently, they are in approximately the same area. I was also told the pair of gantry cranes were known as "Samson and Goliath," names which were derived from the bible, of course, and showed the colorful streak of the Irish. They were were constructed in 1974 and 1969 respectively. The residents of Belfast have grown attached to them and protested their proposed removal in recent times.

Also, in 2010 people were saying some sort of exhibition was already under construction which would serve as a museum to the ill fated ship.

The Titanic Visitor Center was completed in time for the centenary and it appears to be quite something, which you can learn about here.