The Garda put his two hands together to form a stirrup. I placed my foot in the hold and he hoisted me over the high wall. Shimmying down the other side, I looked for a gap in the crowd of protesters, then landed squarely on Lansdowne Road. Not a glamorous exit from the oldest rugby ground in the world, but I was on a mission. I barged my way through the mass of people and headed for Jury’s Hotel, Ballsbridge. There, a telex-operator took the Press Association copy and transmitted the breaking news directly to London.
The occasion was an international rugby match between Ireland and South Africa in 1970. A large group of anti-apartheid protesters had gathered outside Lansdowne Road, and I was delivering copy for my brother, a news reporter with the Press Association in London’s famous Fleet Street. This was my first time to experience the excitement of a hot news story, breaking before my very own eyes, and I was a part of it. A small link in the chain from eyewitness to reader. While I didn’t own a camera to capture this bit of history, I believe it was here I got my love for a great news story.
Moving from being a press messenger for one day off school to being a staff photographer with the largest newspaper group in Ireland proved as big a jump as over that stadium wall. Yet in 1973 I was offered the position of staff photographer with the Irish Press Group. Shooting pictures for the morning daily and The Evening Press, alongside excursions for The Sunday Press, saw the start of a forty-three-year journey that culminated with my current position on The Irish Times. A four-decade whirlwind, and a bit of a blur.
I photographed presidential inaugurations and state funerals, rioting on the streets and peaceful protests, everyday life in rural Ireland and a vastly changing capital city; the job was never predictable. But what was predictable was the necessity to put ‘my old negatives’ in some form of order. And so when I was invited by The O’Brien Press to publish a selection of my work, I jumped at the opportunity.
Poitín-making in Mayo shot on colour transparency film in the 1980s, Tory Island life in black & white in the 1970s, rock music by Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and U2 over three decades – it all fell into place. With a good editor and a great layout, all that was required of me was to assemble a selection of work and write some copy to accompany the images.
Everybody at The O’Brien Press came on board, and with their guidance and encouragement I managed to put my photographs in order. In many ways the experience was as much fun as taking the original pictures.
Dalkey barber Dom McClure:
It’s funny how we overlook what’s sitting on our own doorstep. Growing up in Dalkey, County Dublin, the local barber, Dom McClure, featured regularly, providing a short-back-and-sides to satisfy the demands of the local school principal. Years later in the 1980s, I went back to photograph his barber shop, and spending the day observing him at work helped to produce a small piece of local history which I now look back fondly on. The interior of his establishment looking somewhat like a theatre set, with Dom on stage in the spotlight. These pictures provided a neat selection for the chapter on Dalkey in Looking Back.
Martin Sheen on Main Street:
Sifting back over ‘my old negatives’ I also came across a photograph of local man Des O’Brien with the actor Martin Sheen. This was not a Hollywood-style photo shoot but a pint interrupted and a favour for a friend, recording the movie star’s appearance on Dalkey’s Main Street to film the Hugh Leonard film Da.
Tory Island, Donegal:
My first visit to photograph Tory Island in the 1970s was not as simple as planned. Without transport to the island, I worked my passage by helping to load a boat with turf. On arrival I was surprised to find the island didn’t support a hotel or pub, and I was eventually accommodated in a local cottage. With great hospitality the islanders welcomed me, and the selection of photographs taken over the following ten days provided the bones for a chapter in the book on Tory. Many trips since have brought this work up to date.
Looking Back has given me a platform to show photographs that otherwise would be gathering dust in my attic; the archive of forty years has now got a new lease of life. Working for newspapers, I’m used to a photograph getting great exposure on the front page only to be replaced twenty-four hours later by a new front page and a new accompanying photograph. This lovely hardback presentation by The O’Brien Press is here to stay, and I look forward to leafing through the pages for years to come.