GERRY Andrews first discovered the Limerick Milk Market on the eve of the 1960s. It was the run-up to Christmas. For a seven-year-old kid, it was the most intoxicating place in the world — the bustle, the carol singing, the haggling and the slaughter, complete with airborne turkey feathers.
“I was hooked on the Limerick Milk Market,” he says, “from an early age, from the time I used to go with my mother when she was doing her shopping at Christmas time. It was an annual trip to get the turkey there. It had that buzz. The minute you went through the gate, you knew you were in a special place.”
Andrews went back there in the 1970s to document it with his camera. He was only 19, but he had the wit to realise the cobblestoned market was part of a disappearing world. Today, he marvels he was the only photographer — known as “the young fellah with the camera” — doing it. He has gathered 85 black-and-white photographs in a collection, Shaped by History, which is on exhibit in Dublin’s National Photographic Archive, and has been published as a book.
“My father used to describe the Limerick Milk Market as the university of life,” he says. “Its characters had some fantastic ways about them. They were very generous, and giving of their time. There was a deep-rooted community in the marketplace during that period. It was a fantastic place, and quite evident it was going to close down because it was practically a derelict site. No money had gone into it.
“Ireland was at the cusp of change. Limerick particularly was going through a sea change with the developments going on — the university in Limerick, with multi-nationals coming into the city. You could see a new Limerick was emerging. I kind of thought, ‘This is traditional Ireland and it’s going to be gone so I better record it while I have the opportunity’.”
There are all sorts of detail that catch the eye — a goose in a car boot, old women using rickety prams to ferry their messages about, children running amok in wellies. Women in headscarves huddle together. One sits with a pipe plugged into her mouth.
The picture of the boy with the dirty face that accompanies this article was taken in 1975. Andrews tried unsuccessfully to find out who he is.
“The kids used the buildings as their playground, scrambling over the rubble. It would be impossible to be other than dirty. You’d never see a kid without a knee that was scarred or bloody. They were hardy kids, full of laughter. He was with three friends. People said there was a very sad look on the boy’s face, but I always took it that there was a look of hope. He was a little bit of a rascal.”
Andrews cautions, however, about drawing comparisons between his photographs and the portrayal of Limerick in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which attracted criticism for denigrating the city. “The photographs, while they depict hardship and adversity, they certainly also show the resilience of people. The adversity is obvious. You can see the difficulties in the people’s faces. I would see those images as a celebration of that struggle.”
Two of the photographs’ backstories particularly stand out. Mary White, or Old Moll (pictured above), as she was called, lived until she was 100. She never married, and lived alone in her final years in an old farmhouse outside Limerick city, having outlived her bachelor brother. She used to sport a stylish hat to the market every weekend, and treated herself to a pint of Guinness and a glass of whiskey after collecting her weekly pension from the Post Office. Although only eight people attended her funeral, and she is buried in an unmarked grave, her photograph hangs over the revamped market.
Andrews’ picture of Pa McCarthy, left, is also captivating. “He was a settled Traveller. When I took that photograph, he was the lad about town. He was about 15 years of age. The girls were always hovering around. He essentially looked like a mini-Elvis with his collar up and his quiff and his pinstriped trousers.”
In 1993, McCarthy was stabbed to death, an incident which would later help fuel the Limerick gangland feud.
“Paul Williams wrote about it in his book where at the night of the wake some people in balaclavas broke into the campfire and indiscriminately opened fire. People were wounded. There was mayhem. It could have been a massacre. One of his brothers died. It was really the start of that family feud that has bedevilled Limerick for so long.”
After spending a chunk of his working life running a printing business and raising his family, Andrews returned to photography after the death of his wife, June, in 2004. His eye for pictures of embattled cultures around the world, from Cuba to Ethiopia and Burma, has won him several awards.
Unfortunately, last August, he was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. “I was in with the consultant the other day. She was asking me had I anything planned. I have a period of time before the next phase of treatment. I suggested I’d love to go to Lhasa up in Tibet.
“I think she thought for a second about sending me to the funny farm. I wouldn’t be one for being tied down. I’d love to get a backpack and my camera and head off into the Himalayas, and quietly do my own thing until the good Lord calls me.”
Shaped by History runs at the National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin, until January 5. Shaped by History: Photographs of the Limerick Milk Market in the 1970s is published by Juniper. www.gerryandrews.com