Fast-retreating memories of the 70s and 80s are brought back to life in a new book from a photographer with strong Kilkenny roots.
Religious festivals, pattern Sundays and Corpus Christi processions were still a major community celebration not so long ago. Photographer Tony Murray was a young photographer when he embarked on a project to record the rituals and traditions of rural religious celebrations.
Now, 40 years later, Tony has produced a selection of those photographs in a book that doesn’t just remind of us the recent past but also makes us think about what society has replaced these traditions with.
It’s not just the faces and festivals that have started to disappear, but the freedom a ‘street photographer’ had back then has also slipped away, Tony said, with the multiplication of camera lenses, suspicion and distrust caused by the abuse scandals and privacy issues.
“It’s a different country now, people can’t imagine what it was like,” Tony told the Kilkenny People this week.
However, Tony is anxious to avoid a cheesy ‘rare, auld times’ image of Ireland. To this end his book includes an introductory essay by Daithí O Corráin from the School of History and Geography at DCU. In his essay, Daithí places the photographs in their historical context, pointing out the great changes that were already underway in Irish society.
Part of the story told through photographs is the secularisation of the country. From the black and white photographs of graveyards the images move to colour prints that show how mourning has evolved, with people put county colours or toy cars on gravestones.
Our changing views of church personalities is also highlighted, as figures like Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary feature.
Religion wasn’t questioned, but that has changed with church scandals and with education.
Tony’s photographs span the late 1970s and early 1980s, events as vast at the visit of Pope John Paul, in 1979, to small, parish patterns.
When the photographs were taken it was assumed everybody in the community was Catholic. It’s the opposite now, Tony said.
Born in Fatima Place, Kilkenny, in the 1950s, and returning for summer holidays after the family moved to Dublin, Tony was aware of the St Fiacre’s Well celebrations.
In 1980 he went along with his camera, an unobtrusive Leica, and captured some of the images on this page. Prayer, yes, but also dancing and the importance of a community ritual.
The photographs show how religion was public and celebrated on the street. “People couldn’t tell you when Corpus Christi is now,” he said. “These rituals are not imbued in children from a young age anymore, we don’t have that type of pageantry.”
Although he moved to Dublin with his family as a seven year-old, Tony is a staunch Cats supporter. Dublin, he said, allowed him a life with music shops and fashion that hadn’t reached Kilkenny, but he had the best of both worlds being able to come back to the city for summer holidays with his cousins. His mother was a Fahy and he had family links to the Denieffe family.
Kilkenny is definitely in his blood, because his way to describe silent streets during the coronavirus lockdown was to recall his childhood saying ‘it was like a very bad, wet Sunday in Kilkenny’.
If he hadn't been living in Dublin Tony thinks he might not have gone to the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). But he did and it was soon after graduation that he won an Arts Council bursary to photograph holy wells and places of pilgrimage.
He had realised it would be hard to make a living as a painter and had an interest in photography.
The holy places and people photographs Tony took would form an exhibition that was staged in the UK, and New York. It was the first bursary of its type from the Arts Council and the surrounding publicity proved great promotion for Tony, who went on to other photographic work, eventually work with RTE and going on to teach at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
This book - Holy Pictures - is not only a nostalgic look back four decades, but Tony also wants people to read it with a certain critical voice and ask ‘what have we replaced it with?’
Holy Pictures by Tony Murray is out now - it's available in bookshops and directly from the publisher Hi Tone Books click here.