Faces Full Of Stories


SOCIAL HISTORY:With their second volume of ‘Vanishing Ireland’, historian Turtle Bunbury and photographer James Fennell have once again documented stories that would otherwise be lost. They tell Miriam Mulcahyabout their search for characters and a good yarn

TURTLE BUNBURY AND James Fennell, childhood friends since school days in Dalkey, are disconcertingly like brothers. They finish each other’s sentences, and have a visible shorthand of communication honed by years of working together. Fennell’s house, where we meet, is the converted stable block of his family home outside Ballitore, Co Kildare. Antique chairs politely gather around the time-worn, scarred oak table. Old prints line the walls. A dog is gnawing away at a bone at my feet.

The Fennells were once Quakers. Fennell thinks one of his ancestors came over with Cromwell and was kicked out of the army for turning Quaker. Bunbury’s family owns Lisnavagh House and demesne outside Rathvilly in Carlow, which has been in the family since 1702. He’s a keen historian and loath to reveal the provenance of his unusual name. He finally does: he was the third boy and his father called him Tertius, Latin for third. His granny then called him Turtle, and it stuck. You can imagine how many times he has been asked the question.

Their latest collaboration is the second volume of Vanishing Ireland: Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World, for which they travelled around Ireland, interviewing and photographing life’s veterans in remote townlands and villages.

Bunbury catalogues the interiors of their homes with the keen eye of a magpie, captures the family history, recounts memories of disappeared brothers and sisters lost to tuberculosis or emigration, fills the accounts with illuminating details of abandoned cars, abandoned educations, imagined hopes and dreams. Fennell captures his subjects inside and outside their homes, sitting on favourite chairs, holding accordions or fiddles, sitting beside cavernous hearths, walking through fields and down lanes with their dogs. There are coats tied with twine, rheumy eyes, a kitchen full of boots, and faces full of stories.

It’s a winning combination and these books are important records of social history. What started them off? They began their collaboration with a series of freelance travel articles, which grew into handsome coffee table books focusing on exotic interiors. “We’d go to places such as Zimbabwe, Mexico and Sri Lanka, track down the best possible houses we could find to photograph, and then come back and sell the stories,” Bunbury explains.

The Vanishing Irelandproject began almost by chance, when he began to collect histories of local people around the family estate of Lisnavagh.

“I started taking photographs of some of the characters,” says Fennell. “And I think we both had the same idea – we saw the potential in it and decided to work on it together.”

An extensive network of friends around the country supplied them with names of interesting locals. From there, they progressed to making inquiries in small villages. “We would go to a post office or a pub and ask, ‘Who is the oldest person around, with some good stories to tell?’ That’s what we were after, and there was no shortage of them,” says Bunbury.

Fennell especially enjoyed photographing bachelors. “Their houses are so unchanged, and they have a slightly wicked glint in the eye. There’s a serious spark out of them.”

Yes, there are more men than women in the book but that’s because they have found women to be particularly averse to having their photo taken.

“Some of them would not be that into it, initially, and you might have to talk them round a little bit to let me take the picture,” says Fennell. “Women especially didn’t like it. It was very disappointing, because for the first volume we had very few women, and we really wanted more of their slant on life for the second book.”

Bunbury loved collecting the individual stories. “I’m first and foremost an historian so for me it’s amazing to have history brought to life through talking to people who have lived through very different – though very recent – times. Suddenly, the whole spectrum of life as it lived in Ireland is coloured in by real living people and their stories. It has definitely given me a much deeper sense of what Irish history’s about.”

There have been many road trips, most memorably those undertaken for their book The Irish Pub, which was published last year. Fennell recalls driving from Kerry to Derry, and trying to visit every county in Ireland. Bunbury delights in the end result and says they were lucky to have begun the project just before the closure of so many rural pubs. “The pub book also provided us with a general excuse to be allowed out,” he laughs. Both are young fathers.

For Fennell, their travels are nothing less than an intensive course in Irish history, with his very own in-car tutor. “Everywhere I drive with Turtle, he knows pretty much what has happened in the locality. I bring all these CDs with me but I never get a chance to listen to any of them.”

Fennell is shooting three books this year, including The Irish Country Housewith the Knight of Glin. Their next joint book will be about Irish sporting legends.

Bunbury published a history of the Dublin docklands last February, An Urban Voyage, and has launched an ambitious family history project. “It’s called Your History in a Book. I’ve got lots of clients, and hopefully it’s the type of thing I can expand.”

Both stress the importance of local history. “Surely the Government must realise that it’s the history, the people, the fabric of old Ireland that visitors come to see. It’s the past, it’s the guys in this book – that’s who the tourists hope to meet when they go into an Irish pub.”

Bunbury believes everyone should record their family histories, and not forget the elders in the neighbourhood. “I’d like to encourage families and individuals to keep of record of their lives, to get children involved, to upload projects to the internet and take photographs when you can. I think that would be a huge plus.”

V anishing Ireland: Further Chronicles of a Disappearing Worldis published by Hachette Books Ireland, €29.99