‘Irlande 66/69’: photographs of Ireland taken in the 1960s

This new book by photographers Nutan and Yellow documents life almost 50 years ago

It's a hot Sunday in June, and the photographer known as Nutan is doodling unselfconsciously on a piece of paper as we talk in the heat of his wild Burren garden, not far from the village of Kinvara.

What Nutan is doodling is first a fish, and then, a fishing rod with a reel. He doesn’t even realise he’s doing it, but it couldn’t be more appropriate, because fishing is the element of his life that he describes at one point to me as “the spinal column of my life”. The fishing rod could well be his spinal column, so integral is fishing to the choices he has made in his life.

Nutan was christened Jacques Piraprez, and was born in Belgium in 1948. As a child, his father took him fishing. "We fished for roach and bream, and I quickly moved on to game fishing; trout and salmon," he says.

The career he chose, photography, requires many of the same skills required of a fisherman. Both need patience, experience, knowing where the right place is to wait, the ability to slowly and carefully reel in the fish and also to know when to let go and leave the fish uncaught, the subject uncaptured.

While still a photography student, he came to Ireland in 1969. He liked it so much he came back again after he had graduated. He taught photography and commuted for a time from Cootehall in Co Roscommon. Sitting in his garden, he recalls a man in the area who used to go out farming wearing a nun's habit. A nun's habit? Where did this man get the habit?

“He was living at home with his mother, who was being cared for by the country nurse, who was a nun. She gave it to him,” Nutan says. “He used to wear it when he was out in the fields.”

He photographed the man, but has never published the images. “I didn’t want people to make fun of him,” he explains.

In the mid 1970s, Nutan went to see a tarot card reader who worked in a room above the Golden Dawn, a vegetarian café in Dublin he frequented. "After a few minutes, I was on the floor of her room crying," he says. The woman lent him a book called The Silent Explosion, by a mystic called Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, which had just been published.

“Everything I wanted to know in my life was in that book.”

Within three weeks, he had left everything behind, and gone to India. He went to Puna, to live in the ashram run by Bhagwan Shree and he remained there for eight years. He received the name he is now known by, Anand Nutan, while he was there. "It means blissfully new. It means that I am not meant to look to the past."

After eight years, he returned to Ireland. “I wanted to experience real life again. It is very easy to feel blissful when you are surrounded by thousands of other people on the same level as you.”

Since then, he has become an Irish citizen and has continued to teach photography and work for international photo agencies. His work has appeared in several books, and now his 14th book has just been published. Irlande 66/69 is a joint publication with an old Belgian friend of his, Yellow.

Yellow's given name is Guy Jungblut, but as Nutan explains, he's known as Yellow, after an art gallery he once ran. Yellow also came to Dublin as a photography student in the 1960s.

The black-and-white photographs that Yellow and Nutan took in 1966 and 1969 that now appear in Irlande 66/69 respectively have never been published before.

They record an Ireland, particularly the city of Dublin, that has since been covered over by many more layers. As writer Brian Leyden observes in his introduction,

“It is hard to appreciate the silence that fell over Dublin on long hot summer Sundays in the 60s. The population at rest after Sunday Mass and the midday Sunday dinner. No shopping. Everything closed. No cattle herded to the boat. No traffic congestion. Just the sun-struck glass of closed shop windows. The pub doors bolted. The Holy Hour in force across Ireland.”

They two young Belgian students wandered around a city in the 1960s that was new to them both and took their cameras out when they saw something that interested them. They didn’t realise they were documenting a city that would be virtually unrecognisable in half a century.

Dublin’s streets are almost empty of traffic, with more bicycles in evidence than cars. Men wear trilbys in bars. A woman holds a clay pipe between her teeth. Cows are herded down streets. Horses and carts act as lorries, hauling loads. A woman walks up the steps towards what looks like a derelict building; it’s one of the tenements that were still in existence then. People look poor. It’s a compelling insight into a world that has vanished.

Having been a student of photography when he took many of these pictures, what advice would Nutan now offer to contemporary students?

“Bend your knees,” he says. What does that mean? “It means, learn where to position yourself in the scene instead of recalling it just as it is. Make the picture yours.”

Irlande 66/69 by Nutan and Yellow is on sale in Charlie Byrne's Bookshop in Galway for €20