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Relatively Speaking: Father and son, Bill and Brendan

By Una Brankin

Bill Kirk is one of Northern Ireland's most celebrated photographers, and will be exhibiting some of his work at this year's Aspects Irish Literature Festival. He lives in Newtownards with his wife Mary (77) and shares a passion for cycling with son Brendan, a self-employed plasterer.

Name: Bill Kirk

Age: 77

Occupation: Photographer

Relationship to Brendan: Father

Brendan's the youngest of four. He was delivered by Caesarean section and spent four days in an incubator. Brendan was named after my brother-in-law, Brendan Cardy, and also the writer and playwright Brendan Behan.

Behan always carried the book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists everywhere. It was written by house-painter Robert Noonan, who took the pen-name Tressell and died of tuberculosis in 1911, and it has had a profound influence on me.

Brendan has two brothers, Clifford (57) and Leonard (52), and a sister, Diane (56). When he was born she thought he looked like a boxer!

Among many photographs I took there is a shot of him in a cot surrounded by them all. Later, at about 11 months, I got pictures of his first steps.

I taught him to ride a bicycle. Learning to ride a bike is always a trial-and-error affair, although I always went through the motions of teaching all my children to cycle. As time went on and Brendan grew into a bigger bike we cycled together a lot.

Thankfully, I wasn't infectious to him or my wife or any of the family when I was diagnosed with TB in my kidneys in 1971. That was the same year I became unemployed from Shorts.

After six months of drug treatment my left kidney and ureter were removed at Forster Green Hospital, in Belfast.

Thankfully, my other one responded to drug treatment.

Both my parents died relatively young from the same disease.

My mother Eleanor – who was known as Nora – died aged 33. My father, Bill, was 48. As children, my sister Elizabeth and I witnessed the slow decline of our parents.

As my father declined, towards 1950-51, in retrospect I can interpret an emotional withdrawal from it all.

My sister, who lives in in Toronto, also recognises this; a psychiatrist who counselled her called it a self-protection mechanism.

I suspect the mental and emotional effects of all that may not have been ideal training for good parenting. Looking at myself in retrospect, I seem to see an almost compulsive dedication to my sport.

But I absolutely need my cycle racing and I made a resolution at age 14 not to be like my father and mother, and to live a healthy long life.

I'm 77 now and have 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren altogether.

Brendan and I have had a close relationship down the years and I always suspected he had a bit of a grasp of my socialist leanings – he was keen on the Ska group The Specials.

I like his mildness and love of life, and his skilful way of controlling his diabetes. He also his nice way with the written word.

Name: Brendan Kirk

Age: 48

Occupation: Plasterer

Relationship to Bill: Son

My first memories of my father include when he left me to school on my first day, and I remember being worried and I think I cried a bit.

I was five years old when he started studying photography in the Belfast College of Art and I remember in those years that my mum wasn't overly happy about the situation. She worked in various jobs and I suppose money was a bit tight sometimes.

I knew dad worked freelance for a while but later he went full-time with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. I was even a male model for him once, when he took a photograph of me dressed in 1930s clothes for the cover of Sam McAughtry's first book. I was supposed to be Sam as a young boy. Sam himself gave me two pound notes. My modelling career was short-lived, however.

He was especially good after I was diagnosed diabetic at 11. He researched the condition and helped me gain a better understanding of it. He also encouraged me to remain active and keep cycling. This was contrary to the advice from a consultant, who said I'd have to cut down on cycling. It is widely accepted now that regular exercise leads to much better control of the condition.

Our relationship has been close over the years. The common bond is cycling. We trained together a lot and competed in two-up time trials and road races. A friendly rivalry developed as I matured and got as fast as him in time trials. He also instilled in me the joy of cycling for the sheer pleasure of it, aside from competition.

The best advice dad ever gave me was to relax and think positively. I like his positive frame of mind and the way he would get excited about things, like a younger person would.

Snapshot of new exhibition

  • Bill was among the vanguard of local photographers who offered a more complex and heartfelt perspective on Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles
  • For his latest exhibition, Bill has located subjects from previous images and photographed them today, to tell the story of the time that has passed since
  • The exhibition is at the Red Barn Gallery in Rosemary Street, Belfast, until this Saturday (www.rbg belfast.com), and at the Sync Space in Bangor from this Friday until Sunday, as part of the Aspects Irish Literature Festival
  • For details, visit www.aspects festival.com

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