ABOUT a decade ago, my parents experienced what appeared to be a small domestic nuisance. A corner of the garage roof leaked in a steady pernicious dribble over the winter.
What we only realised years later, was that the damage ran deep, very deep.
Boxes of old family photographs both loose and in albums recently moved to a new home had been set down in the chaos and forgotten.
Many of our recent and elder treasures were lost. The remainder were seriously damaged.
Last winter, a fire caused by a faulty clothes dryer destroyed their entire house.
The flames and smoke, chased by the necessary work of the fire hoses, ran through my grandfather’s carefully catalogued 35mm and medium format slides which were left on a book shelf.
Tenderly peeling apart sodden pages and huffing splintering dust from the collective debris, I steadily worked with a macro setting on a Panasonic Lumix bridge camera in daylight.
Back-lighting the slides and bubbling Ektachromes, we slowly recovered a precious few dozen to copy in digital images.
A degree in history had left me with neuroses regarding any paper sources relating to the past.
Without a word to anyone, before the flood and fire, I had slipped a group of shots out of the family archive, leaving behind the weirdly sun-drenched Irish beach holidays, and great, great aunties, their girlish legends vanished in time.
This separate, stolen group included my grandfather’s adventures in daring and stubborn remnants of the IRA in the late 20s and 1930s. The few shots, and his prison autograph books, had struck me as having some interest beyond the family.
A founder member of the Dublin Camera Club, Claude O’Loughlin (1910-1964) had kept a box brownie even during internment in Tintown in Kildare (an Bhaile Stáin/The Curragh).
He printed out the images at home in the 1940s, revealing his skinny IRA pals delivered from the military courts, lounging with smiles and fistfuls of playing cards in Nissen huts.
In the darkroom, Claude framed their implied suffering in a key-hole vignette, as if taken from solitary confinement, something he had endured, losing all his hair and training up a pet mouse for company. An earlier shot, on card and in sepia from his days before capture, still makes my forearm hairs prickle.
Recalling Seán Keating’s Men of the West hanging in the Crawford Gallery (1917), it shows the bold young Claude and two handsome men, dramatically poised with firearms on a mountainside.
Young, whip fit, in brimmed felt hats, heroically in profile, it was fabulous theatre from the years after the Civil War when the IRA were still (despite defeat), covertly active and a significant force in the country.
Other campfire scenes include chattering women making tea in the bowers of trees and rocky wind-breaks. Dozens of men stand arm-in-arm smiling through gapped, early 20th century teeth in ragged, but proud legions.
Topographical and incidental clues suggest that these were training exercises somewhere near the base of the Sugar Loaf mountain in County Wicklow. Discreet republican weekend socials — or genuine preparations for manoeuvres — it’s hard to say.
Intrigued, I sent the pistol-boys-shot by email to a college friend, who bounced it onto historian and author Brian Hanley, who was by a stroke of fortune, working on a book The IRA – A Documentary History 1916-2005.
He not only identified the other men in my gunslinger shot, but told me more about my grandfather’s considerable role as a volunteer under the patronage of 1916 veteran, 1921 Treaty plenipotentiary, politician and businessman Joe McGrath.
Intensely loyal to even low-ranking members of the brotherhood, McGrath employed Claude (alongside many others) as an “accountant” in the Irish Sweepstake from the mid-1930s.
The recently released Dubliner, who had married on the run, had no formal training of any kind.
Dr Hanley included in his book the principle mountain photograph, and two other images showing a group of IRA prisoners (including Claude) at a reception after their joyous, wildly celebrated release from another enforced holiday in Arbour Hill on the 9th of March 1932. I’m so pleased, and I know Claude and his beloved Madge, my Nana, would be too.
I’m making a plea with this indulgent, personal story, to take care of your paper photographs, slides, negatives card mounted images and even tintypes.
Social or even minor national history, it’s simply the irreplaceable geology of your family — photographs, despite their individuality and importance, get a very rough time. These are fragile, vulnerable materials that tear, stain, bend, scratch and degrade in the wrong conditions.
Small prints slip behind mounts, often ignored and casually disposed of as they cannot be identified. Archival level storage sheets and boxes are widely available. Copying using digital photography might cut down on quality or shades of colour and contrast, but it can preserve the meat of originals indefinitely, allowing for further online researches and sharing.
Perhaps the next generation or even the one after that may take a lively interest in the relics of a period this one doesn’t want to even discuss or acknowledge.
My grandmother passed away in 1984. She was cool, quiet, inscrutable, grieving and secretive. She flatly refused to discuss Claude’s life before he settled down into an upright, uptight middle class hide. It can take 80 years, even 100 hundred years of distance for someone else to pick up on a surviving and revealing paper trail — I did.
The IRA: A Documentary History by Brian Hanley (2010), contains many never-before-published documents, and remains a compelling standard and illustrated history, Gill & Macmillan, €24.99.