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Life lighting his lens


Áine Ryan

IT was on one of those early trips in the 1970s to Clare Island when American photographer, Ron Rosenstock decided to impress the late Michael Joe O’Malley with his knowledge of  the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. So there they are sitting drinking O’Malley’s homemade hooch (or mead, as he called it) in the shadow of his big open fire in the village of Ballytoughy Mór when the philosophy major from Worcester, Massachusetts quotes a short tract from the ‘Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics’,  draws a breath and awaits a gasp of affirmation. Instead, the island philosopher – with his inimitable low-key delivery – simply continues reciting at least another two pages of the tract.
“I never tried that stunt again,” Ron Rosenstock tells The Mayo News.
A young woman called Beth Sari (now Moran) was on those first trips with Ron, which always included a walk past Michael Joe’s house to the lighthouse and the panorama of spectacular seascapes from its jagged cliff edges. Serendipitously, she since married islander, Máirtín Moran and runs the renowned  Ballytoughy Loom at her home on the road to the lighthouse.  
“She was an excellent photographer, just like she is a brilliant weaver now,” Rosenstock muses, as we sit in the library of his longtime home, Hillcrest, in Kilmeena. (This Mayo News hack was late because of most confusing roadworks but we are not complaining about any upgrades to the N59.)
Honorary citizen
FORTY five years after Ron first visited Westport, he has just sold the house to which he has brought groups of American photography students three times a year. He plans, however, to continue coming back to his second-home, town as it were.  
“A family with children from Dublin has bought the house and I am sure they will be a real addition to Kilmeena’s wonderful community.”    
As an honorary citizen of Westport, at the behest of the late Cormac Hughes, Rosenstock ensures he is back in the wild west each year for the annual St Patrick’s Day parade.
“I feel like I’ve had two lives: one in Ireland and one in the States. When I am here I feel I’ve been here my whole life. I can’t walk down Bridge Street without meeting great old friends.”
The first time he visited the town was in 1971 after his photography teacher, Paul Caponigro, got a ‘National Endowment of the Arts’ grant, one of the biggest arts subsidies in the United States.
“I wound up in Westport because it was winter time and there was nowhere opened along the west coast. I ended up at the tourist office, which was down on the Mall, and met Mary McGreal. She told me there was a very nice B&B called Barley Hill House opened. It was run by Mary and Doug May who later bought the Sheebeen.”
Well, that famous hostelry soon became his local where he often joined regulars Dick Gannon (who used to travel around in his tractor) and Norman Hewetson for a pint.
Around this time he stayed  at the nearby Rath-a-Rosa B&B, which was near the Sheebeen and owned by Mary and John O’Brien.
“I clearly remember, after the first trip, I thought I would never be returning and I felt so depressed on that Aer Lingus flight back to Boston.
This was not like me, so I said to myself: ”Dummy, just come back.”
And that was the beginning of a 45-year…. and counting …. odyssey introducing American photographic students to the secrets of the byways and boreens of the wild west...
... As well as the beats and the riffs of traditional Irish ceol agus craic, to which Rosenstock often adds the percussion of his bodhrán, alongside old friends like Connie Cullen and Olcan Masterson.
Photographic odysseys
SO he returned to Westport twice a year between 1971 and 1975 and then led his first tour in 1976 after some of his students asked could they come along on his trip.
“Over those years, we led small groups, in the beginning staying at Rath-a-Rosa and, then, at a stone house called Peace View in the Westport House estate, and then at Summerville: I think it was an old dowager house, then owned by Kitty and the late Wayne Harlow.”
Eventually, when Hillcrest House, Kilmeena, came on the market in 1982 – although hesitant because he  did not have the money – Ron applied for a business loan from the Bank of Ireland and bought it.
Owning the house afforded more opportunities for his wife, Cathy, daughter, Elise, and their adopted Korean-born children, Juliet and Nathan, to come along on the trips.
Over the decades Ron’s nine-day tours have ensured he is more familiar with the many oases in County Mayo.
From an early morning shadow over Ballintubber Abbey and Castleburke to a shimmering sunset at Rosnarubble framed by the islands of Clew Bay, Ron Rosenstock’s sensitive lens has captured a lifetime’s gallery of unique photographs.
The first photograph in his beautiful book ‘The Light of Ireland’, is a haunting picture entitled, ‘Three Trees, Doolough, County Mayo, 1975’. At the launch of an exhibition in his home city at the Worcester Art Museum, a man walked up to him and said: “I was the ganger when they were making the road through the Doolough Valley.”

In his own words
“For many years people have commented about my wonderful life, traveling all over the world making beautiful photographs.  The truth is... I am a missionary.  My mission is to be one of the caretakers of our world.  I will work at this mission by raising the awareness of as many people as possible.  Awareness of how beautiful and important our planet is.  It is a living-breathing organism.  The American Indians knew that over a thousand years ago and taught it to their children.  Because there are so many of us now living in this technological era of rapid change, we must not only think of earth as ‘mother earth’ but also as brother, sister, father and lover earth.  We won’t make it without her support and she won’t make it without ours.”