Photos of an Ireland That No Longer Exists

County Mayo-born photographer Tom Wood has been photographing his country for almost half a century.

27 October 2021, 8:00am

Tom Wood was in his sixties, visiting Ireland for a BBC documentary, when he learned of his parents’ shotgun wedding. His mother being Catholic, and his father Protestant, meant they left Ireland for England not long after Wood was born in County Mayo in 1951. 

“My dad never wanted to leave. He absolutely loved farming and the land, so he was torn – in England, he was nobody, had no status. It was still the days of ‘No Irish, No Blacks’,” the photographer says today. “They thought in a different way to English people, coming from this rural life with horse and carts and no electricity; a different world.”

Returning with his father each summer, Wood experienced his own version of the Paul Durcan poem Going Home to Mayo, Winter 1949, in which the poet describes leaving behind the “alien” city of Dublin.

“It was that journey every year,” he says. “On the train, my dad was so excited to be going home, he’d walk up and down to see who was interesting and engage in conversation. We’d cross on the boat, stay with family in Dublin, go to the pub, then eventually find a car of Irishmen travelling to the west. Sometimes he’d leave me there and go back home to the factory, collecting me six weeks later.”

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During a winter visit to Ireland as an art student in the early 1970s, Wood began taking pictures for what would become a mammoth personal project. Initially a painter, he’d taken up photography to assist his practice, and began shooting what he saw around him in County Mayo. He continued to photograph Ireland annually, stopping only on account of the pandemic. The images, taken between 1972 and 2019, have now been collated into a book – Irish Work is a handsome 280-page volume published by RRB Books.

Wood is a long-time champion of the medium, having produced his first book while working at Butlin’s, using the pictures he took for his day job. Titled The Happy Snaps, he later sold it for a tenner to a lecturer who was interviewing him for a job. The images in Irish Work, meanwhile, have previously been exhibited in Wales and Paris in 2013, around the time of the BBC documentary. The new volume features many additional pictures and took form over lockdown, sequenced by the artist Padraig Timoney. 

Intelligence of sheep, Portacloi Bay, Ceathrú Thaidhg. Photo: Tom Wood

“He lives in Derry, but went to Berlin and said he wouldn’t return until he’d finished the book,” recalls Wood. The pair have collaborated for several years, ever since Photie Man, the 2005 visual survey of Wood’s time living and working in New Brighton (“Photie Man” was what the local kids called him).

“On some contact sheets you’ll see images of Liverpool, then you’ll see pictures from Ireland,” he notes. Wood photographed Merseyside from 1978 until 2003, and it’s this body of work for which he’s enjoyed widespread acclaim, shooting would-be couples at the Chelsea Reach Disco (Looking for Love, 1989) and daytime scenes around the city (Men/Women, 2013). 

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“There’s a lot of Irish and Irish descendants in Liverpool. When I was at Great Homer Street market [later published in Women’s Market, 2018], the women had no pretence, they were just themselves. It was like looking at my own mum. There was a shared understanding, so I was lucky to end up in Liverpool, photographing there.”

His mother’s side of the family, he learned after her death, were fiercely political, making her decision to marry his father even more complicated. “They were really active, so the fact she married a Protestant, all of that made it much worse,” he says. “It wasn’t just religion, but political division as well. No one ever told me, of course, but you can imagine, in 1949/50 Ireland... none of her friends spoke to her again.”

While Wood is adamant that his work be observed through an art lens, as opposed to that of a documentarian, he has avidly recorded his life. He kept a camcorder rolling when he was a pallbearer at his father’s funeral.

“My interest first and foremost is to make interesting images,” he says, “and to make a book that works like a volume of poetry.” Irish Work is that book, foregrounding an Ireland he knew only sort of intimately, its pages oscillating between bright green landscapes and black-and-white portraits, in the backs of cars and across great plains.

Never made with explicitly political intention, the work nevertheless references Ireland’s militant past. “I met this girl on the boat over once and was cycling to see her,” Wood explains. “On a wall there were images of IRA people with guns, I was really shocked – at home we never spoke about it. She said, ‘Oh, one of your relatives made these pictures, he lives just over there,’ so I knocked and discovered the son of this photographer, Jack Leonard, who was an activist campaigning for tenants’ rights.”

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A few of Leonard’s pictures appear alongside Wood’s own in Irish Work, which ultimately examines the changes Wood witnessed. “Nostalgia is the wrong word,” he contemplates. “But that world that was there, of my dad and that generation, really has gone, and a lot of charm has gone with their loss.”

Irish Work is out now on RRB Books.

The Passing Show, 1996. Photo: Tom Wood

Psalms on Croag Patrick. Photo: Tom Wood

Walk to the Green Rooms, Kilshannig, 1987. Photo: Tom Wood

Violet in blue (having to sell the land), 1991. Photo: Tom Wood

Standing Tall on Gráinne. Photo: Tom Wood

Coastline near Renvyle, 1987. Photo: Tom Wood

@zoemaywhitfield

Tagged:

Photography, Ireland, Nostalgia, County Mayo

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