Thursday, September 5, 1996

'Shadows from the Pale' - John Minahan's Book

"This Book is dedicated to the people of Athy, County Kildare, both living and dead". The book in question is "Shadows from the Pale" subtitled "Portrait of an Irish Town", a book of photographs of Athy and it's people compiled by John Minahan and published this month by Secker and Warborg of London. The cover footnote claims that for the past 35 years John Minahan has been photographing his home town of Athy and it's people. "It is an ordinary Irish country town which is gradually feeling the incursion of industry, comparative wealth and modernity." Whatever the accuracy of this latter claim, there is no doubting the importance of Minahan's photographs and the wonderfully intimate insight they give us into our town and it's people.

The children of Plewman's Terrace figure prominently in many fine studies executed in 1973, or is it 1963 as one of the photographs would lead us to believe. The timing however is immaterial as one observes in the faces of the children that timeless sense of innocence which might prove all too difficult to recapture today.
The Christian Brothers schoolyard in St. John's photographed in 1965 stands alongside a beautifully evocative snap of the roadside pump leading on to St. Joseph's Terrace. Both scenes are now changed, never more to be recaptured. The same applies to Julia Mahon pictured lifting her bicycle off the footpath at Leinster Street in 1970. Looking at Minahan's fine photograph of Julia who passed away over 3 years ago, it is easy to see why she was one of the best loved characters of our town.

The older generation are well represented in the monochrome studies which have made John Minahan one of the finest photographic artists today. Memories were triggered when I saw Sarah Power's image captured for all time and that of Jack Dalton of Foxhill, a former engine man in Hannon's Mill whose photograph was taken in 1967.

I have often seen Minahan's 1972 study of Mary Byrne holding a photograph of herself as a young girl. It has previously featured in a poster for one of the photographic exhibitions held by John Minahan in Dublin some years ago. Another photograph shows Mary in the County Home four years later and there follows a number of photographs taken in the 1960's in what is now St. Vincent's Hospital. We are not felt to be intruding as we look at photographs of the elderly patients lying in their beds, rather does Minahan's superb camera work create an intimacy between the onlooker and those photographed which is re-assuring. It dispels any discomfort which might otherwise be felt and raises Minahan's work to the level of an art form in which he has few peers.

Peter Boland's photograph in Bertie Doyle's pub in 1963 is on the front cover of the book as well as on the inside pages and the clientele of that famous drinking establishment feature in many of the photographs. Mrs. Maggie Allen of Meeting Lane is to be seen in three photographs evoking memories of times seemingly long gone, but in reality only a few short years ago. It is not only the local people such as "Rexie" Rowan portrayed here who have passed on. A different way of life captured in the picture of John Hickey and Damien Moloney collection refuse in Duke Street in an open lorry in 1969 seems more than a generation ago.
Coffin making in the early 1960's with Martin Rigney speak of a time before mass production put an end to the exercise of that local skill. Cuddy Chanders, so sensationally overlooked by the Kildare selectors for the goal keeping role when County Kildare last played in an All Ireland final 61 years ago, is shown in 1974 checking the runners and riders in the local betting office. Brendan O'Flaherty and Gerry O'Sullivan, two stalwards of the local soccer club are photographed together and further on there are two fine studies of Gerry who, like Brendan, has since passed away. Everywhere in the book are to be seen faces long gone from our streets. Here is local history captured for all time, motionless, yet able to prompt and stir memories. Joe O'Neill, musician extrodinaire, playing side by side with Michael Dunne, a schoolmate of mine who died long before his time. Munsie Purcell in his bar in William Street in 1970. Bapty Maher, publican and undertaker, captured in both roles, the latter at the funeral of another great Athy man Paddy Prendergast, one of Ireland's greatest horse trainers.

From every page there appears faces and places that were once familiar and in some cases still are. "Wexford" Foley, Christy Rochford and Pat Rochford are shown as young men, while the smiling cavalier of a local grave digger, my friend Paddy, provides a happy study of a man with his spade at the ready. This is a lovely book. No doubt it will be bought by those who appreciate good photography, but nowhere else in Ireland should it find a more appreciative readership than here in Athy.

No where else will we have an opportunity to look again at the Dominican Lane as it was in 1973 with "E. Johnston - dressmaker", over the doorway of the first small house on the left. The good dressmaker herself, Eileen Johnston, is featured, by then an elderly woman and her neighbour Miss. Burley is captured in the Dominican Church, bent over peering at the Dominican publications. Paddy Hubbock, another face from the past looks directly and with a whimsical smile at Minahan's camera, while two young nuns walk self consciously across the Barrow Bridge, mindful of the photographer's all seeing lens. It was thirty three years ago that Sister Teresa and Sister Dympna caught Minahan's eye as they passed Mulhall's Public House.

Eugene McCabe, Monaghan playwright, has written the introduction to John Minahan's Book of Photographs of Athy. Before he did he visited Athy "to walk and talk and read." Coming across local place names which spoke of Gaelic and Anglo Norman origins, he did not dare to say which "conjures up the most poetry". Clonmullion, Shanrath, Ballybough, Tonlegee, Woodstock, Chanterlands, all offered images giving a sense of the Anglo Norman town.

Like John Minahan's photographs, the images are a timeless and moving reminder of a town's past and the photographer who spent his youth in Athy has done us proud.

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