Friday, February 18, 2011

Irish Eyes: Alen MacWeeney

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

From 'Long-Legged Fly' W.B. Yeats, 1938

It's been a while since the last installment of the 'Irish Eyes' interview series here on the blog and no better way to kick off the new year (-ish) with the opportunity to catch up with Alen MacWeeney, photographer of a towering body of documentary work 'Irish Travellers: Tinkers No More'.

MacWeeney's images appeared to me at a time when frustration and a lack of inspiration were dominant in my photographic world. My usual tricks of poring over 'Dorchester Days' for motivation had begun to fail me and the short days and harsh, dwindling light of Irish winters were only adding to my laziness and my yearning for the photographic exotic; somewhere, anywhere else.

And then I found it, this exotic, in the most unlikely source, close to home. So close to home in fact I wondered how I had never seen these amazing pictures. It was true that the great American photographers had been here to snap pictures of the Irish Gypsies: Dorothea Lange and Mary Ellen Mark among others, but MacWeeney's images were something different, filled with pathos and intimacy.

Not only was the photo book laden with heartbreaking images but also a series of recordings of the Irish Travellers from Cherry Orchard and other 'gyspy' campsites that Alen had gathered during his time photographing 'Tinkers No More', documenting perhaps the most important thing about this unique culture: it's oral history. Songs and conversations, poems and voices spoke from inside caravans from an era long since disappeared. Romantic Ireland was indeed dead and gone.

In essence what Alen managed to capture was a certain interior migration that fundamentally changed the Irish Traveller culture and experience forever, something that does not exist in history books, anthropological studies or any other documents. An essential piece of work by any standards, it's a great pleasure to be able to hear Alen discuss the project in his own words...

'Child with Cellophane, Cherry Orchard.' by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

First off, I’d love to get a bit of background to ‘Tinkers No More’. You were living in the US at the time and starting your career as a photographer. What was it like returning to Ireland with a camera in your hand? Things have changed so much there, can you give us your impressions of ‘going home’…

Before my involvement with Travellers, going back in time after a year of assisting Richard Avedon in New York in ’62, I returned to Ireland with an idea of making portraits of the men and women of the Catholic Church, the priests, the nuns, and the church leaders who control the church in Ireland.

But, I failed to find support, or indeed have the wherewithal myself at 22 years of age to manage the underpinnings needed to gain both access and recommendations for the project. At that time there was no hint of scandal attached to the church.

So, I put my Hasselblad aside, bought a Leica, and went out into the streets to photograph for the best part of the next two years in Dublin.

Unlike portrait photographs, which involve choosing and directing not only the subject, but the situation and everything else; I chose street photography which is dependent seeing an image in a myriad of moving parts. And, in essence requires synthesizing a confluence of elements, to make an image in a moment.

I returned to New York in 1964 as a place to find work and where photography found a more supportive audience in a country of limitless possibility. The centenary of the poet W.B. Yeats was in 1965. Harpers Bazaar magazine promised me some pages based on my proposal of a photo essay about the poet and his sources: of the kinds of people, places and things in his poems. With the help of others, I left New York for a year long stay in Ireland to begin this project.

'Woman in a White Dress, Dublin.' by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Watching: A Dublin Street Scene' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Glowing White Pony, Ballinasloe Horse Fair' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

Did you know that working with the Traveller community was something you wanted to do or like all great photo essays was it something you just stumbled upon?

I was out one day looking for a Tinker woman to photograph as part of the Yeats essay, and by accident (as I am convinced is the best way to begin anything) I came across a big sprawling field that was a Traveller’s campsite on the scruffy outskirts of Dublin, opposite Cherry Orchard fever hospital.

I went through a gap in the hedge and into a hut and met with Joe Donaghue there, the self-styled leader of the camp. We talked (or rather he talked and I listened) and he gave me a well rehearsed monologue over the next few hours of the injustices the Travellers had been subjected to by the authorities in Dublin and aided by the church. After our initial meeting, I brought up a tape recorder the next day, which became my passport, it lent an air of seriousness and purpose to the interviews. The tape recorder was my ally and helped me to interview many other Travellers in the years ahead.

'Joe Donoghue and Olivene, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

What I found there in Cherry Orchard would occupy me for the next five years was a deep well of a hidden Irish culture. The Travellers went to Dublin to collect the dole; before ’63 there was none. They could now send their children to school, and due to an increase in motor traffic and restrictions to camping along the roadsides it was difficult for them to maintain that older way of life. By accident, I coincided with the exodus of Travellers from the country into the city.

'Building a hut, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'The Ward Family, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

Now that Traveller culture is set to hit a kind of vogue with the success of the documentary 'Knuckle' and other projects, can you give us an insight into the community at the time you were shooting ‘Tinkers No More’?

I was alone, with a camera and tape recorder, there were no other photographers about, nor were there tape recorders or radios among the Travellers in Dublin then. With the advantage of being able to play back the recordings of the music and songs which began spontaneously one evening and quickly evolved into dense gatherings of children, women and men, singing ballads, playing the tin whistle and telling stories in Joe Donahue’s hut for all the nights I was there that year. The excitement of course centered on the Travellers hearing the recordings of themselves played back for the first time.

As a photographer my presence was welcomed as an unexpected explorer might land in a new world in another era from another place. After a few weeks I began photographing and was treated with little suspicion and accepted into a world completely unknown to me, but gripping. The Smithsonian magazine noted: I “became the first amateur anthropologist of Traveller culture, - by accident.” Accepted and treated as familiarly as another family member, or better. I returned to Ireland in 1999, to co-direct a feature length documentary film, (Little Bird Productions), that was about what happened to the lives of the people in the photographs that I had taken 35 years earlier. Many of my Traveller friends had died or moved away, but others reacted as though I’d only gone to the corner for a bottle of milk. Our friendships have endured and always will.

Your images seem like something from the era of the Farm Security Administration era but you were working at the time with Richard Avedon, presumably not in the field of documentary photography. Did you feel like you were making something original for Irish photography at the time?

I am aware of the Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans quality to the photographs, which may find an answer in that the Travellers were not all that different from the tenant farmers of the American depression, - being also poor, white and dispossessed.

I thought the Travellers were breathtakingly beautiful, with remarkable features; a raw dignity and a fearlessness about them. Of course their raggedy clothes framed and only emphasized their features. And, yes I did feel I was making something original. Irish photography did not exist at that time in my opinion, except for anonymous work.

'Bridget and Paddy Furey with their children, Loughrea.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Julia and Bernie McDonagh, Cherry Orchard' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Tommy Hutchenson and girl, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

What happened to the series after you had finished working in Cherry Orchard, did you maintain contact with the families who lived there? How were the images received?

I have maintained friendship with many families. And yes, the photographs I can only describe as being received as treasured items. That was in 1966 and 1971. I’m sure it is different now, but so many Travellers could not read then and the photograph was an essential link to a family’s past.

Were you tempted to pursue a career in documentary photography and take a more photojournalistic course with your work?

That was my intention, but the failure to find a project of such personal discovery as the Travellers made me feel like an ill fitting hand in the glove of magazines that assigned reportage photography then, and their subsequent decline caused an unexpected adjustment of my future direction.

How do you feel about Ireland today, do you feel this series captured something essential about Irish culture that is now gone, especially regarding the ‘Tinkers’?

The Travellers represented an older way of life to me, as they were connected by a tight family bond. They are adventurous, resourceful and with a wealth of oral traditions they shared with me so willingly. My debt is to them for all of that.

'Ginger Navins (Paddy Rourke), Rathfarnam.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1967

Title Image: Bill Cassidey and Kathleen Connors, Saggart' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1967


kleinberg said...

Hi Alen,

Yours is a Blog worth reading and seeing...

... it is remarkable body of work you created, leaving an indelible mark in pictures , both in stills and film...



Eddie Mallin said...

Ross, my 15 year old told me to look at your website, some good images of Ballymun I'd like he said, Amazing work indeed. Clicked on your blog and read the interview with Alen McWeeney, I have been raving about this book since it was first published, "best Irish Photography book ever" not only in content but also print quality. I believe there was an exhibition in Tallagh recently but I only learned about it after the event. Hope someday to see the images and would love to get my book signed. Thanks for sharing the interview and congrats on your own amazing work. I hope it too gets published some day.

JB said...

Wow, weird, i've never seen this work before.

Bill Schwab said...

Alen, Great interview! And it's wonderful to see all these photographs again. You've always been a big influence. BTW- I need to get my book signed someday.

Best, Bill

Anonymous said...

hi alen my name is margaret cash my family irriginated from cherry orchard in dublin as some people might have beenmy reletives i would love to see some pics so if you have any pics of any cash traveling people such as mick lizzy cash my grand parents aere famil weding photo t would be easier just o send me all your images of cash or connors to my email addres cash.girls@ thankyou

Genies tits said...

I met the Furey's in 1974, they lived at the end of our road in Athenry, it was on the bend as you approach the railway bridge, they had nothing, mud, sticks, plastic cover various things to lie on and a fire and nothing. We had everything. Why did we not put them in our enourmous shed? It has just occurrefd to me now. We fed them the same food we ourselves had on Christmas day and the same the next year, then they left. They didn't just get the same great food but they also got all our best cutlery and plates, plus the serving dishes, all delivered by car, both myself(11) and my now dead older brother(13) were horrified by how they were forced to live and made great friendships with Paddy(left front of photo) and less so Michael(right front). Paddy died from the drink &-10 years ago, dso did his dad(Paddy). So did Norah(sister), Brigid is alive and in Loughrea I hear, must to visit. I don't know about the rest. Michael was a hard man and Paddy was a sensitive soul who saved me many times from the town savages, there were settled people who got as bad a time as they did and became outrageously awful, I did a bit as well but I'd had a Foxrock upbringing and was more able to cope, in fact Foxrock was the first place I met travellers, I found one guy in his 40's, drunk in Cornelscourt with his face chopped open, he was in a worse place than I, so I brought him to hs caravan and got the police and ambulance, I was 8 and when I got home my mother did not believe me. Ah well, what can I do. Thanks for the memory!!

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Tina said...

Incredible history. I am familiar with many Traveller Families who settled in Killarney, but I knew nothing about their oral tradition. In retrospect, of course it had to exist. I hope it has not been lost. I hope it can be preserved as an essential part of our past. Too many cultures have been destroyed by the onslaught of civilization and the over zealous Roman Catholic Church. I would love to get Alan McWeeneys book, and I hope he will write the oral tradition or Sean Nós as he knows it. What an incredible experience to have had. I hope you share more with us, Alan, so the history of these peoples are not lost. You are the true and only Anthrolopologist of the Travelling People, and their history and oral needs to be written, and not lost, and you are the only person to do it. It may be that today, with the education of the travelers that a young Traveller may be able to do it, but you lived it first hand. I would love to hear your story. I'm off to Amazon to get your book. Please write what you know so that this oral history and tradition is not lost. As you are aware, you were there as times were changing for the travelers. Some of what you know may be lost in the meantime, with settled a Traveller children rejecting their origins; this is only natural and to be expected. They will come back to it when they are older but may have lost the essentials of the culture as they strive to fit in with the rest of society. Only you have the full history. Please, please write what you can. Thank you. Kathleen M. Quinlan M.D.

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