New York Arts / Photography

Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More: Photographs and Traveller, a film by Alen MacWeeney (UPDATED, including audio: Traveller Liam Weldon sings “The Blue Tar Road”)

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Traveller Liam Weldon sings “The Blue Tar Road”: player below.

Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More
by Alen MacWeeney, Introduction by Bairbre Ni Fhloinn
New England College Press, 2007
(with an exhibition at the Vermont Center for Photography, Brattleboro, Vermont, June-July 2009)

In his important collection of anthropological photography, Human Documents, Robert Gardner made clear the connection between the ethnographer’s record of life in western Papua or Ethiopia and the photojournalist’s observation of downtown Barcelona or Dallas. Alen MacWeeney’s Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More is one further document in this fluid branch of study. The travellers were and still are a constant presence in Ireland, where MacWeeney was born and raised, although, at least in the 1960’s when these photographs were made, a largely unseen one—this is, on purpose. A professional need, it seems, sucked Alen MacWeeney into their society, and he remained, to observe and experience it in depth. This was not an ordinary professional desideratum, but a thoroughly Irish one. He was working on a photoessay on W. B. Yeats and was looking for a tinker to photograph. Then, on the outskirts of Dublin he found a vast camp. Now, after some forty years what he observed among the travellers has been made public.

Alen McWeeney is unquestionably one of the stars of the contemporary photography world. Since his early job as Richard Avedon’s assistant in New York in the 1960’s, he has published his work in all the magazines where photgraphers most want to be published, and he has developed a technical virtuosity not one bit inferior to his master. He is also incredibly versatile, defying categorization. In portraiture he approaches the wealthy New Yorker and the Irish pig farmer with equal respect, and his subtle, offbeat sensibility finds the intangible, transient quality which makes them fully alive as spiritual presences before the viewer. He turns his lens to objects with fascination and passion, but preferably to objects of some age and curious allure, if not always the classic quality which would bring them into a museum. Yes, some of these things are a bit funky, but they represent in the first place the taste of the people who hire him to photograph their treasures. And MacWeeney never fails to show his fascination with both. He photographs fashion like no one else today, preserving some of the unique qualities of the couture Steichen, Horst, and Avedon had at their disposal, which has all but disappeared today. He also works with landscapes and buildings—in many parts of the world, but most often in his native Ireland. Focus, composition, color balance are always not only technically perfect, but just what the subject—and the client—need.

Before Avedon, however, MacWeeney, beginning at the age of sixteen, was with the Irish Times and then for a couple of years freelancing, doing portraits, fashion, and theater photographs. In 1965 he returned to Ireland to work on a photo essay about W. B. Yeats. In search of a tinker woman as a subject, he found “a sprawling field of caravans, shed, and horses…on the outskirts of Dublin. On one hut he happened on a curious sign of a political nature, which led to the first of several long term acquaintances among the people of the camp, as well as in others. Alen MacWeeney found himself immersed in the life of the people then called tinkers, but now more respectfully known as travellers, for the next five years.

These people lived in the country he had grown up in, but he knew little about them. Like the rest of his fellow Irishmen, he had ignored them, and, for their part, the travellers maintained a culture of secrecy. To MacWeeney they were like the migrant farmers of the American depression: “poor, white, and dispossessed.” Their life expectancy, even today, is shockingly brief. He “was aware of the appeal of poverty to the camera” and “felt a need to show the world what it had dismissed and overlooked: a dignity, a raw beauty, a deep uncertainty, and perhaps a stripped-down Irishness in the rough-and-tumble existences laid bare before me.” On the other hand, once he had entered the travellers’ world, photographing them as friends, listening to their stories and songs, as well as recording them. Later, when MacWeeney decided to publish some of his material, some of the relationships cooled or ended.

Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More is in fact more than a collection of photographs. Some of the songs and tales he recorded are included on a cd and are transcribed in sections of the book interspersed among the photographs. Bairbre Ni Fhloinn of the Department of Folklore at University College, Dublin, made the transcriptions, provided explanatory notes, and wrote a brief introduction on the travellers and their place in Irish history and society. The music Alen MacWeeney recorded is rough, but there is no want of agility and an intense, wild spirit. Some of the musicians, who were recorded here as young people playing within the family, have become well-known to audiences of mainstream Irish folk music. Some of the stories are curious indeed, nonsense tales, stories told backwards, or recited at such a pace that they are almost incomprehensible, not that the dialect of the travellers, called Gammon, or Cant, is easy to understand. It took Alen MacWeeney some time to get comfortable with it, and we can be grateful for Ni Fhloinn’s transcriptions.

If he had not spent all that time befriending the Donoghues, the Fureys, the Keenans, and the Cassidys, MacWeeney would never have been able to photograph them with the sympathy and involvement the images reveal. These are not the photographs of a newspaper photographer who comes in for an afternoon to grab a few shots for the Sunday supplement. They are the photographs of one who lingers, a man who knew most of the men, women, and children by name. The subjects are as calm and open as their precarious life would permit, and one gathers the impression that MacWeeney did his work in a state of relative calm and easy concentration amidst the presence of friends, however alien their ragged life may have been to the rising young photographer. The human experience among these people who live without the conveniences, diversions, and, in fact, necessities held so dear by the rest of us (like hygiene), makes an unforgettable impression on the reader, especially as one follows one’s path through the book. I’ll leave the details of their social and economic situation, today and back in the 1960’s, for readers of the book, but I can say that, as one gathers in the cumulative effect of the pictures, the contrast of the traveller’s humanity and will to survive and the squalor and filth of their living conditions, becomes hard to bear.

The beauty of the people and the photographs keeps one going, and ultimately one will find the book hard to part with. It isn’t hard to make the connection between this early work and the sophistication of MacWeeney’s mature efforts. The eye for contrasting illumination and textures and for expansive, assymetrically ordered spaces has already developed. The depth and subtlety of feeling is also present, although in a more ingenuous form. Once the reader encounters the Irish travellers in this book, he will not forget them soon.

While the book, Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More, is a moving document of the people MacWeeney came to know back in the mid-1960’s, Traveller, the film he recently made about his return to Ireland to trace them provides a full view of the story from the point of view of the sitters. Alen’s humanity and genuine affection for them is as moving as the photographs themselves. The film is so simple and quiet in style, that one doesn’t immediately recognize its subtlety or realize how much sheer information has been packed into it. The thread proceeds from the sitters to the photographs, and each tells his or her story, including, Nell Ward, the subject of MacWeeney’s iconic photograph, second to last in the gallery above. Beyond that, we learn a good deal about traveller society and how it has changed over the years, materially for the better in some cases, but culturally and spiritually for the worse. The Irish government has made housing available, while making it impossible for the travellers to pursue their traditional way of life, which is itinerant and above all based on proximity to animals. The policy seems to be to eradicate traveller culture entirely. One obvious comparison is the treatment of native peoples in the US and Canada. Violence has risen among them as well. Disagreements that were once settled in man-to-man fistfights behind the pub have now become open-ended clan feuds, carried down from generation to generation.

Traveller Liam Weldon sings “The Blue Tar Road”

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