The photographic legacy of Jack Leonard

County View

County View
John Healy

Without doubt, one of the major attractions of the packed autumn season at The Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar will be the photographic exhibition early next month of the works of the late Jack Leonard of Crossmolina. Titled ‘In My Grandfather’s Time’, the exhibition will also form the backdrop to the Wild Atlantic Words Festival, to which the evening lecture by historian Diarmaid Ferriter at the Courthouse on October 12 will be central.
The exhibition of Jack Leonard photographs is curated by his grandson, Anthony, and is a striking visual narrative of both the ordinary and the extraordinary of the tumultuous years in our nation’s history. And that narrative is as remarkable as the man himself – photographer, pressman, social historian, freedom fighter, public representative, community leader, and eager observer of a society that was even then evolving and changing forever.
Jack Leonard was born in Crossmolina in 1892 and, at the age of 18, he left for England. But he took the road less travelled by most emigrants of his time and background, for he trained with the Illustrated London News in journalism, photography and illustration.
Returning home, he set up his own photography business, which included both the staple fare of recording family gatherings and social events for the wealthy and the poor, but also the great national happenings of the time – from election meetings to mass protests, evictions, sporting events and public occasions. He was the assigned photographer for many local and national media outlets, covering all of Connacht and beyond.
He was also politically active as a member of the Irish Volunteers and subsequently played a prominent role in the War of Independence and the Civil War. Very often, his military activities overlapped with his professional duties, so that his archive includes volunteers on training camps, volunteer funerals and scenes of public resistance to police and army law. He was jailed for his republican activities, but yet succeeded in preserving his huge body of work to pass on to Anthony Leonard, who now presents them in the form of ‘In My Grandfather’s Time’.
The photographic collection is nothing if not comprehensive, from sports days in Ballina to regattas on Lough Conn, big public meetings in Killala to seven-a-side football tournaments. He was present in 1908 when the famed Olympian, Martin Sheridan, visited Ballina to give an athletic exhibition; a year earlier, he had cycled to Foxford to record the scene as fire swept through the Foxford Woollen Mills.
In 1919, he had photographed the scene of an infamous eviction in Crossmolina, when the Town Tenants’ League sought to resist the efforts of the bailiffs of the landlord to evict the tenant Broderick. Thirty years later, the same album of photographs was produced by defence lawyers in court when the landlord’s son tried to evict an 80-year-old woman from the very same property.
But Jack Leonard’s most famous photograph, the most iconic image of the War of Independence, remains that of the West Mayo IRA Flying Column, taken at Derrymartin on the slopes of Nephin mountain, on a June evening in 1921. It is widely regarded as the best contemporary photograph of an IRA Active Service Unit ever taken. The orderly arrangement of the photo, and the deceptively relaxed pose of the men, belies the pressure under which it was taken, because at that very time the authorities were in hot pursuit after the flying column’s victory at Carrowkennedy days earlier.
For that picture alone, Jack Leonard deserves his place in the pantheon of Irish photographers. And that picture alone says why the exhibition, ‘In My Grandfather’s Time’ is not to be missed.