Kya deLongchamps meets the man who is opening a new chapter on his native Fermoy
Everywhere we go and in so many things we do, we generate a piece of paper — termed ephemera by collectors. The work comes from the Greek ephemeros, meaning “lasting only one day” or “short-lived”.
Ephemera of even the most banal kind, placed in context by the right finder, can trace the minutia of life with forensic precision, adding texture to forgotten lives and happenings. The response to ephemera, in particular photographs is immediate — it strikes straight at the heart, and Facebook has many groups collecting and sharing their own highly personal pieces of familial and social history in digital galleries.
Vanishing Ireland hosted by author Turtle Bunbury and photographer James Fennell, is one of the best-known of these Irish resources, recounting a huge variety of the Irish experience, largely through photographic imagery. There are a growing number of sites, offering individuals a riveting peek back through the decades at their own home place, using salvaged written and printed materials often displayed for the first time to public view.
One man has championed the County Cork town of Fermoy, and he soundly refuses to even put his name on an online site, saying: “It’s about Fermoy, it’s not about me.” John O’Connell was born in Fermoy, emigrating with his family to Leicester in 1960. The separation from Ireland intensified his sense of connectedness to his home town and engendered a growing interest in the local history specific to a ten mile radius of Fermoy. He had a Kowa SLR camera which he paid for by the week, and today he carries a rucksack with his precious DSLR equipment. “It’s like walking the dog,” he says with amusement.
While John has always enjoyed his own picture taking (he’s a gifted snapper) a long held instinct to salvage the wider body of paperwork and photographs documenting life in Fermoy is what really drives him.
“I felt deeply protective about these day-to-day records — things that were being thrown away,” he says. “The stuff that no-one else wanted fascinated me. It really started with some postcards my wife and I spotted in a skip in the town — I had to clamber in to retrieve them. One of them showed Éamon de Valera visiting the cemetery of Kilcrupper, probably for the 1st anniversary of Liam Lynch (1893-1923) former Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Republican Army. From there I became a collector of what other people binned.
“A lot of the best photographs are actually not here in the locality at all,” John continues. “They were taken to send abroad to friends and relatives, emigrants and extended family. That’s the trouble, some of the best imagery, is just not here in Fermoy and the area.”
John gets tip-offs about interesting ephemera or photographs, and diligently follows them up. “I was intensely shy to start with, especially cold-calling to someone’s house. There’s no monetary value to these pieces, its historical value. Building trust, I’ve gone as far as to leave my photography bag in the person’s home to reassure them while I go and scan their pictures in the town. I do try to return the items the same day. Sometimes the owner can identify who, where and what is in the picture or the finer detail of a document — sometimes not. I don’t usually take family photographs, they are more personal. In general, I don’t get into one to one communications with those using or sharing from the site — that could get too complicated, but I’m striving to make as much of the collection available as I can for the general public, wherever they live”’
I’m drawn to two photographs showing a proudly posing lady framed by the doorway of a shop.
“That’s Eileen Stritch,” John explains. “Those pictures were gifted to me by John Murphy. His wife was a relation of the Stritch family. Eileen was married to Patrick Stritch who had a photography business on McCurtain Street.
“She was a determined entrepreneur and of course in those days (1950s) shops were never involved in just one thing. In one picture you can see Mrs. Stritch with her first pile of home-made sandwiches in jars in the photo shop. She also hawked her own ice-cream! I have the entire archive of the business — it’s going to take years to get through it, and some of the best pictures were taken at the end of a photographer’s day.”
John has invested in devices that show images from both negatives and slides right to the PC screen. “Another terrific donation were copies of some very old town council records by well know resident Jim Bartley,” he recalls. “He was concerned old but interesting material might be dumped. Some of the paperwork dates right back to the 1800s. I was just recently given some fantastic maps of the old Barracks (now demolished) and the old military hospital.”
John has a generosity of spirit to make these finds part of the public record. He donated an early acquisition, a piece of the first flying bomb to hit London in the Second World War, to the Cork County Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park. He also handed over some postcards celebrating the visit of JFK to Ireland in 1963, and a memorial card from the time of Michael Collins’ passing.
Following a precious tip by former hairdresser Tommy Baker, John was able to gift an important collection of hobnail boots discovered in the renovation of a public house in Conna to the Traditional Farms Museum at Muckross House. “Tommy had a super collection of photographs on the walls of his shop. One day I noticed a boot up a shelf — hence the discovery.”
Apart from photographs, “all sorts of bits of paper” interest him, he adds. “Flyers for circus visits to the town, ledgers, receipt books, advertising stuff — anything really that ads to the story, that crystallises that moment in time,” he says. “The material posted on telephone posts today is interesting, so elaborate using modern printers compared to the old-fashioned handwritten notices. These things are saturated in history. I wish more clubs, of every kind from fishing to sports clubs, would make an effort to digitally archive their activities. It is time-hungry work gathering and storing.”
In 2009 John put the collection online in a Facebook group which accepts postings related to the town. “There has been a remarkable response from people overseas, identifying individuals in pictures or just reacting to places they knew as children,” he adds. “There have been really touching stories — families seeing pictures of their parents in their youth, for example. I love that, it makes the hunt all worthwhile. I’m hoping some day to donate the entire collection including those papers to the County Archive where it might in time be fully catalogued. I hope they will value it as I have — as the people’s story.”
With thanks to collector John O’Connell. Fermoy.ie: https://www.facebook.com/Fermoy-241844877097/
Cork County Archive: corkarchives.ie