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Ireland raw, happy and dysfunctional.

By Shirley Clerkin.

While viewing the images in The Photo Album of Ireland exhibition, currently showing in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin’s Temple Bar, it occurred to me that we know exactly who we are. We just do not always want to admit it, or show it.

Photos can make judgements just like words; on a baby: “She’s a wee dote”, or on a good-looking girl: “You would stand to look at her” or on one with confidence “She thinks a lot of herself, that one”. God forbid the family tree would be let down with a “Would you look at the state of her ” or even worse: “It was far from that she was reared”.

I am one of those women that was doted on in my chubby, baby years, all softness and pallor. It was okay to be outrageously babyish, as I was in fact a baby.

I was an awkward teenager, less doted upon, spotty and pasty (and oft reminded of this). But God, I tried to rise above it all, based on a piece of information I gleaned from a documentary on the human brain which said that humans only used 10% of their grey and white matter. I determined to use more of mine to make up the gap.

As a result of my diligence I was fifteen when I found myself on a boat to Station island, Lough Derg, County Donegal to work on St Patrick’s Purgatory.

The boatman, Michael, was a hardy, fair (he insisted strawberry blond) fella, with ruddy cheeks and strong arms to match his accent so naturally I bit his head off, as I was a bit above my station with nerves.

It was a good come down, working on the island. The nun in charge immediately put me on the back foot and pulled the rug from under my carefully tended confidence, by insisting that I was days late for my duty.  Thankfully though, not a bare one, as staff could wear shoes, unlike the pilgrims.

Then she befuddled me with tales of how she had lost six pounds since arriving on the island a week or so previously. I was well put out, and thought I better hold tightly onto my few bob in case someone nicked it. It took me a right while to realise that she was talking about her weight, and subconsciously I suppose, she wanted me to commiserate with her or more likely congratulate her on her figure. You might have stood to look at her. Only she was a nun.

Then of course, I made the mistake of climbing down off my salt pillar and striking up a friendship with the boatman, who was only a lad himself.

I was found fraternising with the pilgrims one day when some of them were looking for directions. Next thing, I was moved from my post in the Priests and Staff kitchen, to the laundry. Pulling yards of sopping wet sheets from industrial washing machines was not easier than cutting cabbage and carrots by hand for coleslaw.

But I had further to fall yet. My career prospects on the island were cut short with a “You know what you’ve done” accusation by the chief-nun. I never found out what I did; but at the time I thought it might have involved the disappearing ice-cream (but that wasn’t me).

Only in later years, while in fact talking to a Magnum Photographer about the island one night at the Prix Pictet photographic exhibition in Dublin, did he hit upon a reason for my expulsion. It wasn’t what I had done at all, he said, provocatively. They all wanted to sleep with you. You were stirring up suppressed feelings in others. They needed someone to blame.

On reflection, I think he was on to something. As a permanent reminder of those short but luminous few weeks, my likeness was taken and is in the 1988 book ‘On Lough Derg’ by photographer Liam Blake and Deirdre Purcell.  Grinning together with my friend Bernie, I am standing there holding a copy of ‘To Light a Penny Candle’ by Maeve Binchy.

If you saw that picture, you would not know the story, but you would glimpse us, two young girls in baggy t-shirts, and see something that the photographer wanted to say. We pestered Blake to take our photo, which he did very grudgingly. Only afterwards probably did he notice my reading material and then he saw that it would made the cut.

Unlike Blake’s photo of us on the island, most of the photos in The Photo Album of Ireland exhibition are taken by family members for private use, and have come from biscuit tins or carefully sheathed leather-bound albums. They are frozen memories: moments, often so carefully choreographed to give the best impression that it is what they don’t show, that sometimes makes the viewer wonder.

The project team invited people to share their family photographs, to look at the social history of Ireland from the viewpoint of family.

Sontag in her 1977 book ‘On Photography’ wrote, “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness”.

My father took part in the project, and shared old black-and-white images of our extended family and some of his extensive slide collection, covering happy and sad times from the 1970s on the border. A 1940 image of my thoroughly modern grandmother pictured in trousers with a bicycle, blown up to almost full-size on one gallery wall shrank time for me, although she died in 1976. Written on the back of the tiny original she had written “What will J.J. [my grandfather] think of this?”.

The invention of cheap cameras like the Box Brownie made photography a democratic medium. A documented, chronicled life became possible for many, un-reliant on expensive portraiture and family archives.

Photographs of the Irish, whether here or abroad, new or old, allow us as individuals to be pinned down into small exactitudes, but together we are one large and dysfunctional family. •

The Photo Album of Ireland continues in the Gallery of Photography, Temple Bar, until 31 August