Life

Nuala McCann: Nobody has seen that photo but me. I'll probably delete it soon

There are many images that became iconic, coaxed into being from the bath of chemicals in the darkroom under the butterflying fingers of a photographer's hands. But the pictures in your head are most vivid

Police at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, Co Derry on the morning after eight people were shot dead in 1993. Picture by Pacemaker

WORLD War II in colour might not be everyone’s easy weekend watching. Strictly is a firm favourite with my Bee Gees-loving nephew and I – it brings me back to my youth in a ra ra skirt and a gold headband. But others in my bubble roll their eyes at a mere cat’s eye flick of eyeliner or a dab of glitter.

So I compromised. I never knew they had colour footage of the Second World War. They didn’t. It’s a recent transformation.

What the colour footage does is make the war more real – as if you are there at the revolt in the Warsaw ghetto or as if you are standing by, seeing the bodies in the Katyn Woods.

Switch the film from black and white to technicolour and history cannot be consigned so neatly to a musty book on a library shelf.

The power of an image can hold you in its spell.

More recently, another TV programme focused on the photographers from Northern Ireland who captured stark, enduring images during the Troubles.

Some were my friends from local paper days who spent days snapping the mayor and assorted guests in his parlour or taking shots of guanacos – like llamas – in the Antrim fields.

Then suddenly they were at bombings, at shootings, capturing images shared about the world.

There was a certain camaraderie back then. There were unwritten rules about sharing information and about having each other’s back.

A friend who is a photographer always sang the old Telly Savalas song: “If a picture paints 1,000 words, then why do I need you?” to us reporters. He had a point. But it was a true support network – someone beside you when you had to go knock on the door of a family whose loved one had just been shot.

Once, a limited number of us reporters were allowed into the Rising Sun bar on the day after the Halloween shooting when eight people died and 19 others were injured. I hesitated in the doorway and got a quick shove in the back from another reporter.

Perhaps I should have stayed back. Perhaps it was because the room above that bar was where my great-grandfather once had his workshop and where he mended shoes in the long ago.

This was his community and I didn’t want to face the aftermath of carnage that had been visited upon them.

But when I look back to those days, it is the company of others I remember – a support network through the darkest times.

There are many images that became iconic, coaxed into being from the bath of chemicals in the darkroom under the butterflying fingers of a photographer’s hands.

But the pictures in your head are most vivid.

There was that long ago holiday in Connemara at the very start of the Troubles when the adult conversations suddenly hushed as we children drew near.

The holiday was cut short for an early dash for home in the north. I remember glancing out of the window of our old Volkswagen at the border and spotting a soldier, face daubed muddy, rifle cocked, lying in a hedgerow.

Another image that will always stay is the old roundabout at the top of Kennedy Way where, in the deep of night, crowds of people gathered in complete silence for a funeral cortege.

And that brings me to another picture I took a month ago. It’s a very private one. I grabbed three hours with my mother as she was dying in her hospital bed in her own front room, just as she had wanted. Ma got her wishes in the end.

And although she could not speak, I put my head on her shoulder and she hugged me and held me close and patted my hair.

At one point, she turned and put her hand under her chin and I wanted to freeze that picture of her – a small girl wrapped in the fleecy blanket. So I took a photograph on my phone.

If she’d seen the picture she would have been appalled. She liked to look her best in photos and this time she didn’t quite.

Nobody has seen that photo but me. I’ll probably delete it soon.

Nevertheless, my phone has a mind of its own. It took it upon itself to flash up a glorious technicolour memory of that very shot… Here’s where you were a month ago today, it told me.

It made me laugh. It made me cry. I’m not over it yet.

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