Saturday’s Irish Times carried a picture that in 2009 would be remarkable.
“Messages from the Margins’, is the headline for Heather Ingman’s review of Desmond Hogan’s latest book. Ingman writes, “The stories in his latest collection, Old Swords and Other Stories , continue to deal with the lives of Irish marginals: music hall artistes, bohemian garda sergeants, a teacher who manages to inspire in at least one of her pupils a love of Proust and Flaubert, an Aids victim, suspected pornographers and various species of alienated youth. Hogan’s Ireland has always been more diverse than official histories would let us suspect”.
A photograph by Brendan Farrell of the Irish Post is included, presumably to illustrate the point about Hogan dealing with people on the margins. “Irish working on Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham” reads the caption. Spaghetti Junction was built around forty years ago, so in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the Post must have run a piece about the Irish employed on the project.
It was the shiny shoes that caught the eye; looking closer at the picture, there was a surprise. The man dressed in black with a white hard hat, in those days before the prevalence of health and safety regulation, was a priest. What occasion had this been? Had the teams of labourers their own chaplain or was this a special visit by a priest from Ireland? Most likely the latter, gathering for a photograph like a platoon of soldiers or team of football players would hardly have been warranted if the chaplain was routinely present.
Some of those in the picture could come from a photograph taken at any time between the 1920s and the 1970s; the tall man in a Cossack hat looking more historical than contemporary. Even the young men seem from an older time; the ‘teddy boy’ haircut of one being something from a decade earlier. At a time when pop culture had moved on to Hippies and psychedelia, the group in the picture remained firmly rooted in a more traditional past. They are the men you would see in the pub on a Friday night; men folding bank notes into a letter to send to wives and families back at home; men who stood together.
Amongst the sandpaper hands and the cement dusted clothes, the priest stands as part of the group, not the most prominent, not in any place of honour. His black gaberdine coat and scarf suggesting a cold winter’s day at Gravelly Hill. His presence matters to group gathered before a brick wall, with the huge pillars of the interchange in the background; they gather there smiling.
Forty years later, and the presence of a cleric, even if it were likely, would probably elicit responses ranging from polite bemusement from some, to rejection on the part of others, whose memory of the church has been less than happy.
In forty years, the men in shiny shoes and clerical collars have gone completely from the picture.