Jonathan Olley

Springfield Road RUC Police Station, Belfast, Co.Down


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Not on display

Jonathan Olley born 1967
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 351 × 442 mm
Purchased 2012


Springfield Road RUC Police Station, Belfast, Co.Down 1998 is a black and white photograph by the British photographer Jonathan Olley. It shows a fortified watchtower with a protective cage and barbed wire that is built into the corner of a high security fence. The cage of the tower extends just inches from a local chemist shop to its right. The everyday appearance of the chemist is heavily juxtaposed with the imposing military authority suggested by the building next to it. The watchtower is part of the fortifications of a police station in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The contrast between the two buildings seen here highlights the interpolation of the surveillance structures in the lives of local people.

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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