Vanishing Ireland is a series of books that combines revealing interviews with some of Ireland’s oldest residents with striking photographs of the subjects.
There’s often not much to review in a coffee table book; featuring lots of large glossy pictures of beautiful places, things, or people, they’re only really good for daydreaming. I prefer my coffee table books to have a strong textual element, to marry striking photographs or illustrations to interesting arguments or well-structured stories. Vanishing Ireland: Friendship & Community, photographs by James Fennell and words by Turtle Bunbury, succeeds on both counts.
Traveling around the country, Fennell and Bunbury interview Ireland’s oldest generation (all the subjects seem to be in their late-70s or 80s, when they admit to any age) and the stories that pour out are remarkable. Many grew up in large families who saw a great deal of emigration. Perhaps surprisingly, several of the interviewees actually came back from abroad after relatively short periods, to inherit farms, get married, or just out of a deep need to return home.
The various careers of the books’ subjects illustrates the social and economic history of work in Ireland, with some starting off in trades soon to be rendered almost obsolete (blacksmiths, coopers) or replaced by cheaper goods from overseas (textile manufacture, sugar beet harvesting), and going on to have varied careers. Emigration to the building sites of London or a transient existence picking sugar beet seasonally in England allowed many to make some money before returning home to marry or set themselves up with a farm.
Many, perhaps most, operated small farms on the side while working at various careers in the ESB (state-owned power generation) or Bord na Móna (the semi-state body that manages the bogs). Others were among the first in their localities to own a car, which they cannily turned into a source of income by operating as hackney drivers, ferrying neighbors to mass, GAA matches, or the big city for a day’s shopping.
This generation is remarkable for having lived through so many stages of Irish history: occupation, rebellion, independence, the modernization of the 1960s, and now the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger. From the pictures of their houses — old, family homes all — it’s clear that these people did not lose the run of themselves in the boom years. I remember many such houses in our parish while I was growing up, many of which were replaced by new build or simply left to wall into ruin after the older generation died during the boom.
Clearly grounded in their communities, and with a wealth of knowledge of not only their own family’s history, but the history of their entire communities, this remarkable generation comes alive in the pages of this beautiful book.
Turtle Bunbury also organizes the History Festival of Ireland.
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Read about other great coffee table books about Ireland…
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