The Irish as you’ve never seen them before: Meet the People of the Mud

When an American photographer visited last year, he saw the country in unexpected ways

Hurler layered upon hurler, a faceless body arcing into soil, Irish dancers transplanted to a field, or to a railway line: it’s Ireland, but not as it routinely appears.

These are among the photographs that Luis Alberto Rodriguez, a Dominican-American artist now based in Berlin, created last year during a residency at Cow House Studios, in Co Wexford. He has called his series, and the book they appear in, People of the Mud, after the Old Norse name for the county: Waesfjord, or Inlet of the Mudflats.

Sometimes, when you freeze the video, the hurling was like a loving relationship, other times it was a total war. I started to take that physicality that they use on the field to focus on relationships of intimacy between the players

Approaching the country with a fresh eye – it was his first visit here – Rodriguez was particularly struck by the intense physicality of hurling. Watching slow-motion footage, he saw that within seconds the players would go through pushing, shoving, grabbing, hugging, knocking each other down and then lifting one another up.

“There is a lot of intimacy that happens during those moments that I’m not even sure that they are aware of,” he told the British Journal of Photography. “Sometimes when you freeze the video it was like a loving relationship, other times it was a total war... I started to take that physicality that they use on the field to focus on relationships of intimacy between the players.”

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In the photographs, he and the players create sculptures out of bodies, layering players upon one another to form “intimate compositions that reflected the tight camaraderie they have on the field”.

The body’s interaction with its surroundings was also key to the way Rodriguez collaborated with Wexford communities to look at the relationships between individuals, landscapes, traditions and the land in rural Ireland.

For some of the photographs he moved the exaggerated glamour of Irish dancers from ballrooms into fields. For others he photographed families who have been farming the same land for centuries. “I was focusing on physicality, the form and the tools, to make up a larger body – like a strong machine,” Rodriguez said. “In the end, it became a large portrait of the community.”

Rodriguez studied dance at the Juilliard School, in New York, and then danced professionally. As the photography historian Orla Fitzpatrick writes in the book, he brought his dancer’s eye to his work, choreographing and arranging “physical and sensual aspects of Irish life that are too often hidden or denied”.

People of the Mud, by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, is published by Loose Joints

All photographs © Luis Alberto Rodriguez 2020, courtesy of Loose Joints