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Long lens on the proximate past


Celia and John Gallagher of Clare Island

Áine Ryan

FROM intuitive art to dedicated documentation, the photographic lenses used by famous Republican Ernie O’Malley and his American artist wife, Helen Hooker, captures both an intimate and dispassionate picture of Mayo in the 1930s and ’40s.
‘Western Ways: Remembering Mayo through the Eyes of Helen Hooker and Ernie O’Malley’ is a paean to the unencumbered simplicity of a past way of life. Written and researched by Cormac O’Malley, the couple’s youngest son, and Juliet Christy Barron, the black-and-white photographs alone capture a peasant past that is still only a heartbeat away in the history of County Mayo.
Their enhancement with a narrative drawing on Ernie O’Malley’s published writings as well as explanations about the provenance of the photographs as well as biographical and socio-cultural contextual information, ensures the significance of this work in the archive of the county’s folk history.
From portraits of barefooted island children to harvesting the potatoes, watching the races at Carrowmore Strand to a battalion of currachs anchored with flat stones, the photographs in this book invoke a sense of proximity and familiarity with the place and subjects which, since Helen Hooker was a blow-in from Connecticut, exposes the sensitivity of her artistry. (The majority of the photographs were taken by her.)

Exoticism of peasant life
IN the book’s introduction, Cormac O’Malley writes: “Aspects of daily rural life such as thatch roofing and piles of turf would have likely seemed mundane to local people. To Helen, born and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, they were exotic and fascinating subjects for her lens. She was as likely a subject of curiosity to  local people as their life was to her; hints of this can be found in her images, where figures peep around corners and from darkened doorways. Spontaneous portraits in natural settings reveal that at least some people believed that her camera wasn’t a threat as they posed proudly for her, revealing an easy rapport.”        
Of course, Helen Hooker always had her Castlebar-born husband’s familiarity with the area to rely on as she followed her photographic muse. The following is an excerpt from an essay, included here, that Ernie wrote for ‘Holiday’ magazine in October, 1946. Entitled, ‘County of Mayo’, the essay sweeps across the topography in an informative and sometimes poetic tribute.
“Clew Bay with its surrounding mountain coast and islands facing westwards, is best seen from a boat. They are weathered to corvette shape, hump-backed as whales or have their exposed ends cut off sharply to form perpendicular marl cliffs. Squalls tear down from the mountains to make sailing difficult and dangerous, but even in difficulties these islands and hills have an unexpected quality of changing shape and varying mood.”
Each chapter is themed according to the focus of the photographs and is introduced with an excerpt from Ernie’s writings. The titles include: ‘Further Out Beyond the Bar’, ‘An Ease in Life’ and ‘The Supernatural’ and ‘Built of Stone’.
The excerpt used to open ‘The Supernatural’ is a letter to Helen Hooker on May 8, 1935.  Ernie O’Malley writes: “Living is so fantastic and strange and un-understandable that they accept the supernatural or that which cannot be explained as the actual, and with the actual they reverse the effect. The dead are almost closer to us at home than the living and things called miracles seem to fit into life like toast and cream.”

‘Western Ways’, by Cormac O’Malley and Juliet Christy Barron, is on sale in local bookshops with a recommended retail price of €19.99.