Life through the lens
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Congratulations to well-known photographer Eamonn O’Boyle, who has just published a book, ‘A Peopled Landscape’. Publishing a book is a brave thing. It leaves one vulnerable to critics.
I once heard of an Irish historian who regularly provided acute, and sometimes acerbic, reviews of books written by his colleagues. He was afraid to write a book himself lest he invited retribution from injured colleagues.
I first met Eamonn O’Boyle about a quarter of a century ago. I climbed a rickety stairs to a little room on American Street in Belmullet where I was told a photographer had set up shop. I needed passport photographs which he duly provided.
He told me that he hoped to make a living from photographing weddings, other family celebrations and and local events. Looking around at the desk and the cramped studio I feared for him. A photographic studio in Belmullet then was an exotic thing. There were already established players in that field in North Mayo. Ireland was struggling through a recession. Professional photography seemed a luxury.
Eamonn’s talent, ambition and hard work ensured that he soon established a significant reputation. His wedding photography won plaudits and awards. He is adept at coaxing bashful grooms and stressed brides into unconventional poses.
From 1991 onwards I got to know Eamonn well. I had been appointed editor of ‘Intercom’, a religious affairs magazine published by Veritas in Dublin. The magazine looked drab. Most of its photographs were of bishops performing ceremonies or rows of priests at pious events. Photographs of clerics, looking uncomfortable in casual gear at diocesan golf, were as far as it went in terms of adventure.
I admired the images that had begun to appear in the window of Eamonn’s now expanded studio. So I asked him to provide photographs for ‘Intercom’ on a regular basis. He was excited about the challenge. His work adorned many articles for the three years I edited the magazine, as it did for Céide, a journal which I edited later.
We went on the same assignments together. A memorable one was to Inishbiggle Island to record a Station Mass at the home of Mrs Kate Sweeney. It was a bright and blustery day in July 1994. As I stepped gingerly into Michael Leneghan’s boat, I thought of the Breton fishermen’s prayer, ‘My boat is very small and the ocean is very big’.
Fr Micheál O’Hora, who then had pastoral responsibility for the island, accompanied us. He said that on some days, as he made his way to the island for Mass, the weather was so rough that he prayed fervently. Paradoxically that morning I was reassured as Fr Micheál did not seem to be praying.
A keen amateur photographer himself, he lumbered nonchalantly around the boat, taking his own images. As the boat rocked I remember wishing fervently he would sit down.
One evening about that time, Eamonn and I started to talk of our dreams for the future. I told him that if I won the lotto I would take a two year break from my ministry to travel throughout Ireland, get a sense of its contemporary cultural, social, political and religious impulses and write about them. I had been influenced by a recent reading of Seán O’Faolain’s travelogue ‘An Irish Journey’, published in 1941 and beautifully illustrated by the paintings of Paul Henry.
I told him that if I ever wrote such a book, I would like it to be illustrated by photographs of his quality.
For me it never happened. Telling Eamonn of my forlorn dream, however, sowed a seed in his mind. He decided to produce his own book, ‘A Peopled Landscape’.
It is a testament to his talent and industry. There are many stunning images of the awesome beauty of North Mayo.
Taken from his back catalogue of the last twenty years the book straddles two millennia. It telescopes the social, cultural and religious life of a traditional community moving towards modernity.
I believe that historians of the future will study his photographs as they try to understand how we sported and played in the 1990’s and 2000’s. There is no greater accolade.
I am sure there will be further books from Eamonn in the future. He is still a young man. Have you noticed by the way how the fifties are the new thirties! Memo to myself, dream on Kevin.
To Eamonn, in the words of the psalmist, give continued success to the work of his hands. And his eyes.