The men who rose to fame over lunch

A new film explores the Galway roots of workers in iconic image, says Pádraic Killeen

ELEVEN iron-workers sit precariously upon a girder at the top of the Rockefeller construction site in 1930s New York, in Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

When filmmakers Seán and Eamonn Ó Cualáin saw it in Michael Whelan’s pub in Shanaglish village, in Co Galway, it was a short note beneath the picture that caught their eye. It read: ‘As promised, picture of my dad and my uncle, far left and right, Sonny Glynn and Mattie O’Shaughnessy — Pat Glynn.’ The two men sniffed a story.

By the end of the night, Eamonn had phoned Pat Glynn in Boston to discuss making a documentary about his claim that two of these iconic men were his relatives, emigrants from Shanaglish.

The result is Men At Lunch/Lón sa Spéir, a film that charts the claims of the Glynn and O’Shaughnessy families and investigates the photograph itself, its origins in Depression-era New York, and how the men’s identities had been lost to time.

“We went into it with the sole intention of proving that Sonny and Mattie are the men in the picture,” says Seán Ó Cualáin, the film’s director. “Within about two weeks, we realised we weren’t going to be able to do that. No work records survived from the construction of the Rockefeller building. The story had to change. We couldn’t prove if it was them or not, but we knew there was still enough in the claim itself, and in the power of the photo, and the history of that time in America.”

Since its premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh last summer, the film has been a major hit at festivals. Narrated by Fionnuala Flanagan, it focuses on the photograph, but it also captures a formative era in American history and New York’s immigrant culture.

“The documentary isn’t meant to be a history lesson, but you have to explain why the men are up there,” says Seán. “So much of what makes it a great photograph is the struggle that these men have had — the struggle that you can see in them. In New York, most Irish immigrants — or immigrants from any country — start off in construction and that is the familiarity of the image.”

The lack of research into the famous photograph surprised both men. They expected books and documentaries. They found little, but their research has revealed new information. Even though they cannot conclusively verify the original claim of Pat Glynn, by the end of the documentary they had discovered the names of two of the other men on the beam, as well as two photographers also up there the same day.

“At the end of the screenings, people have asked us, ‘why didn’t you follow down the names of the two guys that you did find?’,” says Eamonn. “But we found those names at the very end of filming, by accident, while cross-referencing records. At that point, we had to follow through on with what we had, but also include that new information. Hopefully, there’ll be a chapter two.”

Having unearthed this new information, Seán says they have no choice, as filmmakers, but to explore the story further.

“I think we have to,” he says. “It was never meant to be, but this film has become the opening chapter.

“What’s quite strange is that we’ve become authorities on the photograph now. We’ve been inundated with claims from families who say, ‘that’s my dad’, and they’re all sending us photographs. As soon as there’s word of it being shown at a festival, a family contacts us and says ‘that’s my uncle,’ or whatever.

“So we have countless leads to chase down. But we've definitely got to find out more about the two men on the beam that we do conclusively identify in the film.”

*Men At Lunch/Lón sa Spéir is in cinemas from Feb 1-7


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