Roscommon exhibition charts living colour of rural townland

Photographer Tony Murphy has created a visual record of the people and the area

A photographic exhibition featuring the people, landscape and buildings of the small townland of Cornameeltha in Co Roscommon has opened as part of the Boyle Arts Festival.

Photographer Tony Murphy remembers being at the funeral of an old man in Killaraght near the Sligo/Roscommon border where the talk was of what a great storyteller and singer he was, and what a shame it was that nobody had ever recorded him. Mourners hoped that even a faded photograph would be found.

The conversation planted a seed in the mind of the Ballina native who moved to Cornameeltha, a few miles outside Boyle, 17 years ago, and he decided to create a visual record of the people and the area.

“When I went looking for photographic records of the area, there was very little – none, for example, of the house I lived in or the last man who lived there,” he says.


He started taking photographs all around the townland, which is part of the Curlew mountain range, but “eventually it was not enough”. While the local people are “all historians” and full of stories about the natives past and present, he wanted to create a visual record so that local children, including his own four, would be able to look at images from their childhood in years to come.

Everyday tasks

“So I went along to all the houses and I asked them if they’d mind,” Murphy says. Thirteen of the 17 homes were occupied and the families opened up their lives to the Mayo man who was soon drifting in and out snapping them at everyday tasks such as making bread, peeling potatoes or working in the fields. Nobody was allowed to tidy up when he arrived.

“That was really important,” he says. “So, for example, if there was a pair of underpants hanging on the line [over the range] it had to stay.”

Over the course of the first two years he generated about 1,500 images and patterns started to emerge.

“I found that subconsciously I had started to focus on people’s hands – hands playing the accordion, hands holding a chick, hands peeling the spuds.”

First portrait

Five years on, the Cornameeltha: Portrait of an Irish Townland and its People exhibition is showing as part of the Boyle festival and will continue in the photographer's studio on The Crescent, Boyle, until August 4th.

One of the first to arrive on opening night was Brendan Keville, who is in his 80th year, who drove to town on his tractor. He features in the first portrait, looking at bales of silage being made in the meadow he used to cut with a scythe.

One woman included in the exhibition has since died, and one cottage has been demolished, so Murphy is adamant that the work will continue as the landscape and the community changes.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland