The Broader Picture: First love, last rites

I NEVER knew Katy Tyrrell when she was alive, but for two nights and three days in 1977 I photographed her wake in the town of Athy on the south-western borders of Co Kildare: the poignant stillness of her face at peace, her body dressed in the Legion of Mary burial shroud, the mirror covered with a white sheet, the clocks stopped, the fires put out. The wake room is prepared for family and friends to pay their last respects, and the vigil lasts through the night with only a candle flickering. Local mythology has it that you should look at the body, because then you are looking at a reflection of yourself. For death is the beginning.

The pictures have been a beginning for me, too. For more than 30 years I have been photographing Athy, where I lived as a boy in Plewman's Terrace before my family came to London. Some traces of the town's ancient history still remain, such as the five- pointed Cromaboo bridge dominated by the massive keep of White's Castle on the River Barrow, and the burial grounds of St Michael's medieval cemetery.

Over the years, the people of Athy have allowed me and my camera to roam the streets looking for random moments that tell a little of their traditions: the corner boys waiting for the Dublin buses to arrive in the town square, bringing friends who might have stories to tell; the townsfolk waiting for the funeral of one of their acquaintances to pass by, so as to join in the bereavement at the church of St Michael. I have photographed the same faces, year in year out - Miss Julia Mahon, riding her bicycle well into old age, or Mary Byrne from Canal Side, holding a picture of herself when she was young, then again, some years later, in the county home. And, as a succession of moments, the photographs make a history in themselves.

They have been my introduction to many people - in particular Samuel Beckett, whose own art was a projection of still images and in whose characters I saw similarities with some of those people I had photographed in Athy. After meeting him, the pictures took on a more philosophical meaning for me.

I had wanted to photograph Beckett since the beginning of the Seventies, and the opportunity came in 1980, when he was in London directing Endgame at the Riverside Studios. We agreed to meet at the Hyde Park Hotel so that he could look at my photographs. He studied my pictures of Athy, not saying a word for several minutes. Then, when he came across a portrait of an old man with his hand to his face, he inquired as to his identity. 'Peter Bolan,' I said (I can name most of the people in my photographs). 'Fine portrait,' Beckett said. Fine praise, indeed. I was able to photograph him, and we met again in Paris and London several times.

I still roam the streets of Athy looking for Beckettian images, but it is becoming harder. There are no house wakes any more; indeed, a funeral parlour has been built that some of the people refer to as 'bed with no breakfast'. The photographs of the wake of Katy Tyrrell are the irrefutable truth of what happened during those days and nights of preparation. And for generations in Ireland to come, evidence of a way of life already being forgotten.

When I am in the town, I never miss an opportunity to visit the medieval churchyard to pay my respects to my loved ones, and to the grave of Katy Tyrrell, remembering the line from Beckett's short story 'First Love': 'Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.'

An exhibition of John Minihan's photographs of Athy opens on Wednesday at the Guinness Hop Store, Dublin. It will be coming to London later this year.

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