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memory lane Pictorial trip down memory lane with snapper Tony O'Shea, who chronicled the city's street life


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107_90_42 001


If three words summed up the makeshift Christmas turkey market in Mary's Lane near Capel Street in 1991, they wouldn't be "health and safety".

Two men casually light a cigarette beside carcasses for sale from the shabby boot of a dilapidated car.

Women watch a seller display a turkey on a bust- ling street corner, where a disinterested dog pays as little attention to the dead bird as it pays to the photographer capturing this fragment of Dublin street life.

What's fascinating about these photographs of turkeys being bought for Christmas in a very different Dublin is how everyone there is disinterested in Tony O'Shea, the brilliant photographer who chronicled the city's street life.

The people he photographs have no interest in posterity and no reason to believe it would be interested in them.


Christmas Turkey market in Mary's Lane in 1991

Christmas Turkey market in Mary's Lane in 1991

Christmas Turkey market in Mary's Lane in 1991

They're too engaged with living their lives to pay him any heed, beyond making a discreet enquiry that he wasn't a dole office snoop "from the scratcher".

O'Shea earned his living for years working for a national newspaper, but the Dubliners he pictured in 1990 sense he isn't representing any media outlet.

Their world of turkeys hanging from the railings of corporation flats or old clothes sold on the pavement at The Hill Market on Cumberland Street rarely made the news.

O'Shea's explorations of his adopted city were fuelled by his fascination with rituals others might miss.

As novelist Colm Tóibín notes in a new book of his photos, he's "interested in the moment where the ritual and the casual face each other, watching for the second when, even if his subjects are performing, a guard has been let down and the camera becomes an uneasy, tentative, hesitant window into the soul".

This instinct made him travel to Finglas on Good Friday 1990 to record a religious parade, a silent army of women carrying a heavy cross in procession.


His images of that day have none of the pomp of elaborate services from Rome or the exhibitionist fervour of the Philippines, where men are physically nailed to crosses.

His strong Finglas women are unabashed about their faith, yet under no illusions about life.

Their dignity comes from how they aren't putting on a display for anyone.

Nobody is there to capture the moment, except for this photographer who they acc-ept because of his unobtrusiveness.

O'Shea isn't there to sensationalise and sentimentalise their lives but to capture the ess- ence of this ritual in an understated, painterly way.

Today, we all have a camera on our phone and often obsess about recording every moment of life for Instagram.

If a tragedy happens to a young person, an internet search may throw up dozens of their selfies.

However, the person posing or pouting in them is often subconsciously acting out a role, imitating facial expressions of celebrities, trapped into presenting the persona they feel they need to adopt to blend in with their peers.

What makes O'Shea's images of Dublin in the pre-Celtic Tiger decades so memorable is that, unlike such selfies, his subjects aren't saying "Look at me" and trying to impress.

Youths deliver logs by horse and cart in 1987, oblivious to Georgian tenements crumbling behind them.

A motorcyclist rides up Aungier Street, his vision obscured by the dog seated on his lap, its paws balanced on the handlebars.

Often the work of brilliant photographers who roamed Dublin was lost.

Many of the negatives of Austin Finn's images - his street photos appeared in the Irish Press for decades - were dumped in a skip outside that newspaper's offices when it closed.

However, master craftsman O'Shea has always preserved his work with the same painstaking attention to detail he applied to composing each shot.


This month, a book of his finest photos, The Light of Day, is published by RRB Photobooks in the UK in association with Dublin's Gallery of Photography.

The gallery has been essential to the city's cultural life since 1978, when it started showcasing photography as the superb art form it can be.

Early next year, it will stage a retrospective of O'Shea's work to coincide with this book, although, as with so many arts events, dates are dependent on the pandemic easing.

For years, images taken by O'Shea have been shared and admired on community websites, like the Finglas Memories Facebook page.

This new book is a chance for people to appreciate the man behind such images of Finglas, Inchicore and the North Inner City.

It would make a unique Christmas present in what will be a unique Christmas where - whatever else we do - we won't be buying turkeys hung from railings outside blocks of flats like thirty years ago.

The Light of Day, by Tony O'Shea, is published by RRB Photobooks and is available for pre-order for €40 from www.photobooks.site/product/light-day-tony-oshea-pre-order/ Dermot Bolger's short story, Supermarket Flowers, from his book Secrets Never Told, is shortlisted for Short Story of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. To vote, visit www.irishbookawards. irish/vote2020/