Harrowing Photos From The 30-Year War That Tore Northern Ireland Apart

Published May 15, 2017
Updated January 24, 2020

For 30 years, The Troubles tore Northern Ireland apart. These intense images reveal what life was like for those who lived through it.

Armed Man In Mask
An IRA member squats on patrol in West Belfast as women and children approach. 1987.Pacemaker/Belfast Telegraph

Child Near Armed Man
A young child stands near an armed soldier in Belfast on May 6, 1981.Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Carrying Wounded Victim
An inspector of the loyalist Royal Ulster Constabulary carries an injured women from a shopping arcade in Donegall Street, Belfast, after an IRA bomb went off there. March 20, 1972.Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The Troubles Taking Aim
A British soldier trains his rifle on a suspect in the Republican Ballymurphy estate in West Belfast on April 12, 1972.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Child On Knee
Local Lisa Darrah, 9, climbs on a British soldier's knee to have a friendly word in Belfast. May 3, 1981.Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Fire Soldiers Guns Man
As buildings burn, British Army troops patrol the streets after being deployed to end the Battle of the Bogside in Derry on August 15, 1969.

The conflict, beginning on August 12 and ending on August 15 with the arrival of the army, involved police officers from the loyalist Royal Ulster Constabulary and the nationalist citizens of the Bogside neighborhood and was one of the first major incidents of the Troubles.
Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Looking Down Scope
A British soldier lets a young boy look through the sights of his rifle in Belfast on May 13, 1981.Central Press/Getty Images

Gun Child
A boy sticks his tongue out at a British soldier in the Republican New Lodge district of Belfast on February 20, 1978.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Pointing Gun On Street
British Army soldiers patrol the Bogside quarter of the city of Londonderry during heavy clashes between Catholics and Protestants. November 4, 1971.DARDE/AFP/Getty Images

The Troubles Kids Masks
Two young boys pose in masks near a fire in Belfast amid the violence and destruction that erupted over the death of IRA leader Bobby Sands. May 1981.Joe McNally/Getty Images

Walking Past Armed Soldier
A schoolgirl talks to a British soldier on patrol in the Falls Road area of West Belfast on May, 13, 1981, soon after the death of nationalist leader Bobby Sands, which set off an especially disastrous wave of violence.© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Blood On Ground
A dead victim's blood stains the pavement near the Rossville Flats in Londonderry following the Bloody Sunday killings on January 30, 1972.

Perhaps the most tragic incident of The Troubles, the Bloody Sunday killings saw the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians, shot at by British Army paratroopers during a protest of the policy of internment of suspected Irish nationalists.
William L. Rukeyser/Getty Images

Children Soldier On Corner
Children play near a British soldier in Belfast on May 3, 1981.Henri Bureau/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Fire Arms Up
Flames rage in East Belfast during a street celebration of the fall of the power-sharing government between loyalists and nationalists in Ulster. May 28, 1974.

After this failed experiment at compromise collapsed, due largely to protests from loyalists, rule of Northern Ireland returned to the British and The Troubles raged on.
Frank Tewkesbury/Getty Images

Kid In Mask
A young boy dresses up in the mask of those worn by the Ulster Defence Association, a loyalist paramilitary group, in the Protestant area of Belfast. September 1971.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Standing In Doorway
Two Provisional IRA gunmen, wearing stockings over their faces for disguise, stand in a doorway on the Republican Creggan estate in Londonderry on January 30, 1978 to mark the sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Smiling Boys
Two young boys smile at British soldiers on patrol on Ulster Street in Belfast on April 20, 1971.Chris Ware/Getty Images

Bombing Crater
Two days after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) exploded a truck bomb on London's Bishopsgate road, officials examine the huge crater left behind. April 26, 1993.In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images

Burning Truck
Children hijack vehicles to celebrate the shooting of a British soldier by an IRA sniper in West Belfast on April 12, 1972.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Soldier Holding Large Gun
"A child seems impressed by an IRA gunman" [per original caption] during a demonstration in the Republican Creggan estate in Londonderry on January 30, 1978 to mark the sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

London Burning
Flames leap from Westminster Hall at the House of Commons in London after an IRA bomb exploded there. June 17, 1974.Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty Images

The Troubles Sidewalk Soldiers
A young girl skips past patrolling British soldiers, who had become an every day reality to her. Belfast, 1972.Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Tipping Truck
Rioters turn a burning lorry into a barricade in the Divis Flats area of Belfast after violence erupted following the death of IRA hunger striker and Member of Parliament Bobby Sands in the Maze prison for nationalists. May 6, 1981.Keystone/Getty Images

Kicking Ball
A protestant boy plays football on a street in the sectarian divide of North Belfast where a British soldier is on patrol. January 21, 1972.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Fire Silhouette
A British Army soldier stands in front of a burning barricade in Belfast on August 1, 1976.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Soldier Across Street
Two brothers pass warily through a military cordon in West Belfast after an IRA sniper attack while a British soldier mans the checkpoint on the other side of the street. March 25, 1973.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Smoke Rubble Street
A young boy and an old man stand amid the destruction following a night of riots in the Falls Road in West Belfast. August 1976.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Playing Near Armed Soldier
Children play in the streets of Belfast near a British Army soldier on patrol. August 16, 1984.Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Concerned Woman
A civilian crowd gathers near the Rossville Flats tower block behind a barbed wire barricade erected by the British Army in the wake of the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. August 1969.Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Smiling Young Girl
A young girl smiles in the foreground while British Army troops dismantle a barricade that had been erected in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. August 1969.Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Injured Bombing Victim
A police officer escorts barrister Caesar James Crespi to safety after he was injured in an IRA car bomb blast outside London's Old Bailey courthouse on March 8, 1973.Michael Ledger/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kids Cheer
Children hijack vehicles to celebrate the shooting of a British soldier by an IRA sniper in West Belfast on April 12, 1972.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Women Holding Guns
Women of the IRA pose with M16 rifles during a training and propaganda exercise in Northern Ireland on February 12, 1977.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Jeering Kids
[Original caption] "Terrorists To Be. 7th December 1971: Children jeer at British soldiers while a fire smoulders in the street behind them."Keystone/Getty Images

Holding Gun Near Fires
A British soldier stands with his weapon as buildings burn around him during the Battle of the Bogside in Derry on August 15, 1969.Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Debris Fire Street
Children play amongst debris from hijacked burning vehicles after riots in West Belfast on August 1, 1976.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Woman Walking
A woman walks around a British Army Land Rover as it leaves the Royal Ulster Constabulary police station in Belfast on September 1, 1978.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Kid Flame Rubble
Children stand amid the burning rubble created by the riots in Belfast following the death of IRA leader Bobby Sands. May 6, 1981.Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Camouflage Shields
A British Army snatch squad, used in riots to grab suspects for interrogation, poses for a photo in Belfast in June 1976.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

Preparing To Throw Stone
A young Catholic rioter throws a stone at a British armored jeep during a rally in Londonderry protesting the recent Bloody Sunday killings. March 2, 1972.BOUI DE TOROUT/AFP/Getty Images

Mask Huge Gun
An IRA gunman holds a US-made M60 machine gun and wears a stocking as a disguise during a demonstration in the Republican Creggan estate in Londonderry on January 30, 1978 to mark the sixth anniversary of the Bloody Sunday killings.Alex Bowie/Getty Images

Up Against Wall
An armed British soldier stands on patrol in Belfast on March 24, 1971.John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Soldiers Parents Child
Civilians speak with British Army soldiers at an unspecified location, circa 1969.Michael Brennan/Getty Images

Walking To Work
A man walks to work amid debris and burnt out vehicles following a night of rioting on the Falls Road in West Belfast. August 1976.Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

No Surrender
Various political signage adorns a partially destroyed building in Belfast's Shankill Road, circa 1970.Wikimedia Commons

"I remember the white flash," Noel Downey later told the Belfast Telegraph of his experience surviving an IRA car bombing in 1990.

"I got out of the car and attempted to walk. I kept falling, falling down and falling down. I couldn't understand why... It was only later I realised why. My left leg was gone... It was lying in the back seat of the car."

For nearly 30 years between the late 1960s and late 1990s, scenes like these played out all across Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom in what was among the most bitter and protracted sectarian conflicts in modern history.

Known as The Troubles, the conflict pitted Nothern Ireland's republican nationalists — a largely Catholic faction seeking to break free from British rule and instead unite with the Republic of Ireland — against the predominantly Protestant unionists/loyalists who sought to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

While this battle's true roots stretch all the way back to territorial fighting in the early 17th century, most historians agree that the proximate cause of The Troubles was either the October 1968 civil rights march in Derry — at which police beat more than 100 protesters of largely Catholic/republican sympathies — or the Battle of the Bogside the following August.

This battle, also in Derry, erupted after a pro-Protestant/unionist parade on August 12 upset the local Catholic/nationalist majority, causing widespread rioting and violence throughout the city for days.

On August 14, British troops descended upon Northern Ireland and the groundwork for three decades of violence had been laid.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, nationalist groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on one side and unionist groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force on the other carried out assassinations, arson, and especially bombings, much like the one that took Noel Downey's leg in 1990.

This kind of violence largely, though not completely, came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a truce that kept Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom but made a number of political concessions in favor of the nationalist faction.

However, over the 30 years prior to the agreement, Northern Ireland was a veritable war zone, the likes of which can only be hinted at by the harrowing photos above.

Next, delve even further into the history of The Troubles. Then, see what life looks like on the front lines of the bitter sectarian conflict between Israel and Palestine.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.