Gripping images of a 'despised' people
Forty photographs taken during the lean, mean 1980s expose a neglected part of the capital. This exhibition reveals an often forgotten and inconvenient story
The Little Museum of Dublin is not showing an exhibition about poverty in the capital. It is, however, showing 40 photographs of urban dereliction taken during the drug and crime epidemics of the 1980s.
“I dislike the idea of presenting pictures of poor people as curiosity,” says curator Simon O’Connor and we stare at a portait of a two-year old, in Summerhill about 1980.
She wears dainty earrings and a knitted cardigan, broderie anglaise dress and patent shoes. The same child would have been a statistic on a Government agency report, says the writer Ronan Sheehan. Standing here in front of ruined Georgian houses, on a cratered pavement, she is like hope rising from an abyss.
In 1979 Sheehan, an arts graduate and solicitor, met Brendan Walsh, a photographer from Cork Street. Walsh was drawn to the north city centre because “no one else was”. Sheehan discovered in Walsh’s work “a vision of the city that Irish literature didn’t have”. They became involved in campaigns and an action project, teaching classes at Liberty Hall.
They got to know the worst streets – Sheriff Street, Rutland Street, Seán McDermott Street, Cumberland Street and Summerhill. They interviewed people and they wrote and photographed a book together. The Heart of the City came out in 1988. It is out of print, but the photographs are not.
This exhibition questions the nature of a republic. It is about the people who were forgotten while Ireland developed a confident modern economy. The introduction of shipping containers in the 1960s had made thousands of dock workers redundant. And in the 1970s heroin ripped communities apart.
Sheehan draws attention to a term we have been all too hasty to adopt, “north inner city. It originated in the US among . . . professional observers; then journalists took it up. It suggests a category rather than a place, a malaise rather than a situation.”
Trust is implicit in the photographs; the subject looks softly back. Walsh never asked permission. Sometimes he prevailed upon people to pose or gave them some money. The contract often provided an overtly political message.
Two Traveller women stand outside the Pro-Cathedral in a gripping piece of invective. The girls are in blankets and worn boots, holding begging boxes. One has a bandaged wrist, the other a plaster across her face. They are a mess. Behind them is a poster for a Trócaire Lenten campaign in South America. They grin at the photographer and no one can but be in on the joke.
Cumberland Street Market is shot from the pavement and we look upon a busy jumble sale that hasn’t much changed. Poverty is only the backdrop to the images. There is no grass or trees, though in one photograph a little boy stands behind his father’s leaf cart. These people were “marginalised, despised”, says Sheehan.
The exhibition notes the Gregory regeneration deal that the late Tony Gregory, as an Independent TD, negotiated with Charles Haughey in February 1982. Its promises were not all fulfilled.