Jonathan Olley

British Army firing range, Magilligan Point, Lough Foyle, Co. Londonderry


Sorry, no image available

Not on display

Jonathan Olley born 1967
Photograph, black and white, on paper
Image: 340 × 448 mm
Presented by Dorothy Bohm 2012


British Army Firing Range, Magilligan Point, Lough Foyle, Co. Londonderry 1998 is a black and white photograph by the British photographer Jonathan Olley. In it, four evenly spaced, block-like towers in a wooded landscape are captured from an oblique angle. They are identical, with each consisting of three distinct sections of different widths and a viewing window in the top level, marking them out as watchtowers. Rising out of the trees, they are outlined against the sky; far-off hills are just visible in the background. The structures were part of a firing range used by the British Army in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

This is one of a group of six photographs in Tate’s collection from Olley’s series Castles of Ulster 1997–2000 (Tate P13228–31, P80172–3). The series depicts the police stations, army barracks and watchtowers that dotted the landscape of Northern Ireland from the 1960s onwards during the period of political unrest known as the Troubles. These constructions are chilling, often immense, fortifications encased in anti-rocket mesh that loom up over shops and pubs like oddly displaced medieval fortresses. The six photographs have been produced in an edition of twelve of which Tate’s copies are the first.

In the late 1990s Olley negotiated with the British Army press office, which allowed him to photograph these buildings while they were still in use. He proposed that his photographs would capture the structures for posterity. They were soon to be removed by the British Army, as dictated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the peace agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, on how Northern Ireland should be governed. What Olley captured on film was an architecture unique to Northern Ireland, one bound up with control and threat. Most of the buildings depicted are protected by metal walls and controlled entry systems. They are both ungainly and impenetrable. The poet Tom Paulin wrote in an essay on Olley’s photographs: ‘These structures are like Martian spacecraft, one breaks the terraced main street of what looks like a country town and shows that the irenic structures of ordinary architecture must give way to these armed gods, meshed objects that represent the failure of politics and civic values.’ (Paulin 1999, accessed 10 April 2012.)

The photographs are devoid of people: streets are deserted, shops appear empty, front doors are firmly closed. Yet the sense of being watched is palpable. There is a sense of stasis in the images that is suggestive of something about to happen, an event about to unfold. At the same time, they are primarily reminders of a violent past. In his essay for the book which accompanied the Castles of Ulster series, the historian David Brett wrote: ‘We read (too much!) about art and political context; but how often about engineering and politics? Because that is what this is, and the whole melancholy history of Northern Ireland is inscribed in the devising of police posts.’ (David Brett, ‘Everything Changes. Everything Stays the Same’, in Olley 2007, p.47.)

Further reading
Tom Paulin, ‘Resisting Mythology: Introducing Jonathan Olley’s Pictures of Barracks’, Source, no.21, Winter 1999,, accessed 10 April 2012.
Jonathan Olley, Castles of Ulster, Belfast 2007.
Sean O’Hagan, ‘All Along the Watchtowers...’, Observer, 13 May 2007,, accessed 10 April 2012.

Helen Delaney
April 2012
Arthur Goodwin
February 2019

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