50 Francis Street Photographer John Walsh died in 1999, but his photos live on
When Dubliner Suzanne Behan published her grandfather’s treasure trove of photos – a social document of inner city Dublin from the 1940s to the 90s – on Facebook she knew, in her heart, there would be a good reaction. But she never expected that it would also prompt so many replies from people born in that era trying to make contact with their original birth families.
Check out the page here: www.facebook.com/JohnWalsh50Francisstreet
Suzanne, who is also a photographer but prefers wildlife to people, comes from a well-established Liberties family. Her grandfather John Walsh, whom she jokingly refers to as ‘a blow-in’ from the next parish in Usher’s Quay, was apprenticed as a photographer in Capel Street in the late 1930s.+7
He married her grandmother Suey Guy, who had a dairy shop in the Liberties on Francis Street, in 1940 but before long had to go to England to work where he found employment in an ammunition factory in Walthamstow. When the first of their four daughters was on the way he came back and took the top floor of the Dairy Shop for his photography business.
Over the ensuing decades he became ‘the Francis Street photographer’ documenting weddings, First Communions, Confirmations, family events, outings to the Isle of Man, and even just evenings in the local pubs, that part of Dublin’s answer to ‘the man on O’Connell Bridge’, Arthur Fields, across town. In 1968, when Suey died from an illness, her grand-dad became a single father and his photography business supported the family.
“A lot of the pictures were his bread and butter, he would come home from a job and if there were still exposures left on his film he would go out on the street and shoot them so as to use up the film or he would go and take pictures in the pub. He had four girls to raise and would sometimes cover two to three weddings in a single day. The pictures would be put in the window of the shop if anyone wanted to get a copy.
“When they got a TV, one of the first on the street, he insisted that it be turned around and face out the window so everyone could watch Neil Armstrong and the Moon landing in 1969.
“He was taking photos right up until shortly before he died. When he died my mum had to go and get the film in his camera developed because there was someone’s photos on the roll which they were waiting for.
“There’s a whole slice of Dublin and Irish social history there, women who would never be seen drinking enjoying a bottle of stout on an outing to the Isle of Man, people’s graduations and confirmations. There’s also all those pictures of altar boys and it just makes you wonder, with what we now know, were they safe.
“There was one photo of Fr Michael Cleary, the singing priest, and a woman got on to me to tell me how he had lectured her about how she conducted her personal life and years later we learned he had a secret family.
“The other thing I didn’t expect was all the people who have made contact who were sent to places like the Mother and Child homes trying to make contact with family members,” said Suzanne.
Suzanne, who regularly stays in Richmond with her aunt Rita, her grandfather’s sister who is now in her 90s, says she is mindful that given the ages of many of the people featured they are less likely to use social media so she would like to find a way to put the photos on show in a physical exhibit. But, she points out, one person used a tablet to show the Facebook page to a relative with dementia who had not spoken or communicated for a long time, who suddenly started to speak freely and animatedly about the people in the photos.