When ‘Na­tional Ge­o­graphic’ Came to Town

And where are its sub­jects, 20 years on?

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - CONTENTS -

My mother-in­law is a big fan of Na­tional Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zine and has more back copies in the house than you’d find in an over­stocked med­i­cal-cen­tre wait­ing room. I re­cently found an old edi­tion that fea­tured Ire­land on the cover, which was pub­lished in Septem­ber 1994 — ex­actly 20 years ago. For once, it didn’t con­tain the hack­neyed images of don­keys, thatched cot­tages and re­mote is­lands beloved of

Na­tional Ge­o­graphic writ­ers do­ing fea­tures on Ire­land. There were pho­tos of child beg­gars on O’Con­nell Bridge, U2 fans at a con­cert, Pres­i­dent Robin­son greet­ing school kids on Inish­bofin, and young­sters with a pony in Clon­dalkin. Peace groups in Belfast, Fungie the dol­phin and blue-painted Mac­nas performers made an ap­pear­ance, too. It also con­tained the prophetic enough headline, “Ire­land on fast-for­ward”. The jour­nal­ist, Richard Con­niff, wrote about drug abuse and nee­dle at­tacks, the demise of the Catholic Church and he even no­ticed the rise of turbo sunbeds back in 1994.

The last 20 years have been tu­mul­tuous for Ire­land with our great economic boom, fol­lowed by the crush­ing re­ces­sion that we are still suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of. Fast-for­ward­ing to 2014, we now have enor­mous debt, high un­em­ploy­ment, and em­i­gra­tion has re­turned with a vengeance.

Twenty years ago, we made do with A/B pay­phones, now we’re ad­dicted to iPhones. In­stead of Enda and Joan, Al­bert and Dick were in charge. We par­tic­i­pated in soc­cer World Cups back then, in­stead of be­ing spec­ta­tors. Sec­tar­ian killings were still rife in the North, but now Gerry Adams is best known for tweet­ing about his teddy bear. We were still win­ning Euro­vi­sions and com­ing up with ge­nius ideas like River­dance, in­stead of crash­ing and burn­ing be­fore the fi­nals this year.

To quickly reel in 1994: it was the year of OJ Simp­son’s ar­rest; Brave­heart was filmed here; it was the year of the Fr Brendan Smyth con­tro­versy and sub­se­quent col­lapse of the Gov­ern­ment, and a time when Of­faly could win All Ire­lands.

Try as I might, I couldn’t get that 1994 Na­tional Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zine out of my head. All those peo­ple who were pho­tographed and in­ter­viewed — where were they now? How did they get on in the in­ter­ven­ing 20 years, and what did Na­tional Ge­o­graphic writer

Richard Con­niff and pho­tog­ra­pher Sam Abell make of their Ir­ish ex­pe­ri­ence? This ar­ti­cle is about how I tracked down the peo­ple from that Septem­ber 1994

Na­tional Ge­o­graphic.

I found most of the peo­ple who were fea­tured in the ar­ti­cle, mainly through Twit­ter; that most 2014 of things, a mi­croblog­ging so­cial­me­dia site. Twenty years ago, ran­dom thoughts were kept to our­selves. Now, with Twit­ter, you can in­flict them on the world. Track­ing down the au­thor and the pho­tog­ra­pher proved more chal­leng­ing. I even­tu­ally found writer Richard Con­niff in South Africa. He was writ­ing a Na­tional

Ge­o­graphic fea­ture on leop­ards and shoo­ing vervet mon­keys away from his cof­fee while I in­ter­viewed him. I made con­tact with pho­tog­ra­pher Sam Abell on hol­i­day in Nova Sco­tia. Sam has vivid mem­o­ries of the shoot, car­ried out in 1993 and 1994, mainly for the wrong rea­sons. “The rea­son is that the first week I was in Ire­land, I had been mugged and robbed in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin by two skin­heads who wanted my cam­era. Talk about a dou­ble-digit downer at the be­gin­ning of an as­sign­ment!”

Af­ter that bruis­ing wel­come to Dublin, Sam ended up bump­ing into Bono, as you do. “I met Bono by chance in a small Ital­ian restau­rant in down­town Dublin. He knew NG and liked the mag­a­zine. He also seemed amused that I’d been mugged and robbed in St Stephen’s Green. ‘You was mooged!’ he said with rel­ish, and asked for de­tails. When I got to the part about be­ing kicked in the back when I was al­ready down on the ground, he said, ‘They re­spected you!’ That thought hadn’t oc­curred to me, so I asked what he meant. ‘They thought you might get up and chase them. Kick­ing you kept you down’.”

Sens­ing his op­por­tu­nity, Sam asked to hang out with Bono and pho­to­graph him off-stage. Bono en­thu­si­as­ti­cally agreed and said: “Line it all up with Paul here,” ges­tur­ing to the man with him.

“Bono left; Paul took over and squelched ev­ery­thing Bono had agreed to. Later, I came to un­der­stand that Paul was the bad cop. What Paul got me was an or­di­nary and limited photo pass to the con­cert. I was one of about 50 pho­tog­ra­phers held in a hold­ing pen prior to the con­cert. We were only to take pho­tos for the first three songs of the con­cert,” says Sam.

What Sam got ac­cess to was the Zoo TV gig at the RDS in 1993. When the three songs were fin­ished, he de­cided to turn his cam­era on the crowd. “So I turned my back on the stage and con­cen­trated my see­ing on the rapt and densely packed crowd.

Af­ter all, my story was about Ire­land, not Bono,” he says.

The re­sult­ing im­age is an evoca­tive crowd shot of the 90s U2 fans, with their step hair­cuts and perms, large, wire­framed specs and baggy T-shirts, star­ing at the band. Some have marker-drawn tat­toos on their arms, and even their fore­heads, with the words ‘Larry’, ‘Bono’ and ‘Edge’ writ­ten on them. I man­aged to track down some of the fans, in­clud­ing the Keane broth­ers, Derek and Mor­gan, from Sk­er­ries, who were 11 and 14 at the time. “Mor­gan’s T-shirt is soak­ing in that pic­ture. Be­lieve it or not, Naomi Camp­bell saw that he was soak­ing with wa­ter and gave him a dry T-shirt. She was en­gaged to Adam Clay­ton. Mor­gan also man­aged to catch a har­mon­ica from Bono when he threw it down af­ter De­sire,” Derek says.

“I re­mem­ber that Na­tional Ge­o­graphic mag­a­zine. It was un­be­liev­able, be­cause my fa­ther got the mag­a­zine for years. We framed the pic­tures af­ter­wards. We still live in Sk­er­ries, but I did live in Oz for two years. Bono has a long con­nec­tion with Sk­er­ries. He was friends with the priest Fr Jack Heaslip from Sk­er­ries, and my brother, Mor­gan, and older brother, Barry, are re­ally mas­sive fans of U2. They have been to loads of their con­certs since, all over the world,” says Derek. The el­dest brother Barry (42) is now in the car-sales busi­ness, Mor­gan (32) is a model, and Derek (35) is an elec­tri­cian.

An­other U2 fan in that crowd pic­ture was David Mullen (39), who was wear­ing his brand-new black-and-white U2 base­ball cap, stand­ing in the cen­tre of the shot. “I was 18,” Mullen says now, “and had just fin­ished the Leav­ing Cert in Bal­lina, and 24 of us went up to Dublin from Mayo for the U2 gig. We booked into a grotty hos­tel, and I re­mem­ber wak­ing up on the Satur­day morn­ing and star­ing out at the Pool­beg chim­neys, which we recog­nised from their videos. I was a mas­sive fan then, and re­mem­ber trav­el­ling to Dublin to get tick­ets with my mate, Kevin. We got the last ones at a yel­low-fronted shop in Tem­ple Bar.”

“I was one of those peo­ple be­sot­ted by U2, and the Zoo TV tour re-imag­ined the whole vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence. We were bang-smack in the front as we’d queued from early in the day and got arm­bands,” David says.

His de­vo­tion to U2 has dimmed over the years. “I’ve seen them ev­ery time in Ire­land and I’m one of those guys who always staunchly de­fends Bono. I will def­i­nitely go see them if they play again, but the last cou­ple of gigs dis­ap­pointed me. The sec­ond-last time they played the same song twice and it’s now all about the show rather than the mu­sic.”

What did David do with his life af­ter the Leav­ing Cert in 1994?

“I went to col­lege and then I went to work. I was in a cou­ple of re­la­tion­ships and now I’m due my first baby in De­cem­ber with my part­ner, Nicky. I work in project man­age­ment and am self-em­ployed.”

David also tells me what he thinks of the changes in Ire­land over 20 years. “In Ire­land, so much has changed and so lit­tle has changed. It’s good that we’ve be­come more multi-cul­tural, but we are a lot less for­giv­ing. It’s cer­tainly a more in­ter­est­ing place to live in.”

And what about his fetch­ing U2 base­ball hat? “I bought it at the gig from the mer­chan­dis­ing peo­ple. I don’t still have it. I’ve had to have a clear-out for the baby and a lot of my old stuff has been re­cy­cled!”

Sam Abell had to stop tak­ing pho­tos af­ter the three songs and had to hand his cam­era into a lock-up. But his wife was in the stands with an­other cam­era and man­aged to get the band shot that was used in a two-page fold-over pho­to­graph in the mag. The pho­tog­ra­pher’s favourite photo of the en­tire shoot was Fungie the Din­gle dol­phin leap­ing out of the wa­ter, while a lit­tle ter­rier dog looks at him from a boat.

“I use the images from that Fungie ex­pe­ri­ence to teach the prin­ci­ple of ‘com­pose and wait’ — a core prin­ci­ple of how I make pho­to­graphs,” Sam says.

“In this in­stance, I had been told that the dog in the photo had ‘a re­la­tion­ship’ with Fungi. For 20 min­utes noth­ing hap­pened, de­spite the bark­ing of the dog. Then Fungie shot straight up out of the wa­ter. At the top of his leap he looked down, saw the dog, and chirped. Pan­de­mo­nium. For the next spell of time we cruised the har­bour with the leap­ing, chirp­ing Fungi as our com­pan­ion.”

Still, Abell wasn’t sure he would be able to take a good shot: “I chased the two highly an­i­mated an­i­mals from one side of the boat to the other, de­spite know­ing it was a fu­tile ap­proach to mak­ing a pho­to­graph. I knew from the Gala­pa­gos that when you see a dol­phin leap, the mo­ment is al­ready past, pho­to­graph­i­cally.”

In­stead of chas­ing the dol­phin and dog around the boat, he com­posed a scene with no dol­phin. “It’s a three-layer com­po­si­tion: layer one, the side of the boat with the dog; layer two, the sea; layer three, the coastal land­scape. All that was miss­ing was Fungie.”

“By and by, the dol­phin ap­peared along­side the boat. The cap­tain shouted, ‘Here comes Fungie!’ I sensed his im­mi­nent ar­rival and clicked the shut­ter when he shot into view, oc­cu­py­ing the place in the com­po­si­tion that was va­cant. There was no way to know I got it. It was the era of film, and I worked on faith. The end of the story is that the pic­ture worked. It is con­sid­ered a clas­sic of the ‘com­pose and wait’ school of pho­tog­ra­phy,” Sam says.

The only Ir­ish public fig­ures fea­tured in the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic ar­ti­cle still re­ally ac­tive are Bono, Mary Robin­son, and Fungie. It’s re­mark­able that when the photo was taken in 1994, Fungie had al­ready been in Din­gle for 11 years.

Jimmy Flan­nery Jr is chair­man of Din­gle Dol­phin Tours, has been a cap­tain since he was 17, and has taken peo­ple out to Fungie for 22 years. Just what has Fungie been up to since 1994, and has he ever got sick of it all? “He has never taken a break. He may go away feed­ing for an hour or two, but that’s it. There have been other schools of dol­phins ar­rived over the years, but he’s not in­ter­ested. The only rea­son that Fungie stays in Din­gle is be­cause he wants to,” says Jimmy.

Even though sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that Fungie is now push­ing 40, Jimmy doesn’t see any ev­i­dence of mid­dle age set­ting in. “He is not one bit slower. He is as lively as he ever was.”

Jimmy has been do­ing the trips for so long, he feels that he’s in tune with Fungie’s moods. “When you spend time with Fungie, you get to know him. Dur­ing the first five min­utes of the trip I know whether his form is good or bad.”

The skip­per also feels Fungie has an un­canny power. “Fungie has this strength. He def­i­nitely knows what you’re think­ing. I always worry about him. He is part of the fam­ily. If I’m having a bad day, I take a small boat out and chat to him,” Jimmy added.

Since 1994, Fungie has faced some chal­lenges that did put him in dan­ger. “The har­bour was dredged and we coaxed him out a bit away from it. Then, a few years ago, a Span­ish boat hit a rock com­ing into the har­bour and breached its diesel tanks. Ten thou­sand litres of diesel were spilt. Again we coaxed him away from there by get­ting him to fol­low the boats.”

In the 20 years since he was snapped by Sam, many celebs have been anx­ious to see the world’s most fa­mous bot­tlenose dol­phin. Jimmy’s favourite was Pierce Bros­nan, who swam with Fungie 19 years ago. Re­cent celebrity Fungie fans have in­cluded ac­tress Laura Dern, and ac­tor James Nes­bitt.

Jimmy would love to know what Fungie makes of it all. “He has opened up the world of the ocean to thou­sands of peo­ple. A lot of peo­ple would never have gone out in the wa­ter if it wasn’t for Fungie. I of­ten won­der does Fungie re­alise what he has cre­ated in Din­gle. There are 18 peo­ple in full-time em­ploy­ment and enor­mous tourism spinoffs.”

Two lit­tle girls get­ting their First Holy Com­mu­nion out­side St Mary’s Church in Din­gle made an­other ar­rest­ing im­age for the ar­ti­cle. The girl on the right is An­gela Ryan. She still lives in Din­gle, is mar­ried to Dar­ren and has one lit­tle girl named Chloe, and a step­son, Kil­lian.

“The other girl’s name was Michelle,” An­gela says. “She was in my class for a lit­tle while, but her fam­ily were trav­el­ling around be­cause of her dad’s job, so she left a few months af­ter the Com­mu­nion. I re­mem­ber the day vaguely. My aunt made the dress and the Com­mu­nion was a re­ally big deal. The same as all other Com­mu­nions in Din­gle! There are five of us in the fam­ily, and I have three sisters and one brother.”

“I stayed in Din­gle. I went to col­lege for a while, study­ing De­sign Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in CIT. Col­lege wasn’t for me, and then I met Dar­ren and got mar­ried at 23. I have a 10-year-old step­son, Kil­lian, and daugh­ter, Chloe.”

Chloe has cys­tic fi­bro­sis and the fam­ily are pas­sion­ately in­volved in fund-rais­ing and aware­ness. Dar­ren is to climb Mount Kil­i­man­jaro next Jan­uary to raise funds for Cys­tic Fi­bro­sis Ire­land.

“We have a great sup­port sys­tem in the But­ter­fly Unit in Lim­er­ick Re­gional Hos­pi­tal,” An­gela says. “We go there ev­ery two to three months. It was di­ag­nosed in Lim­er­ick through the heel-prick test when she was three weeks old.”

When Chloe is six, she will be tak­ing a ground-break­ing drug to treat CF called Ka­ly­deco. “It’s the clos­est thing to a cure that they have,” An­gela says, “and works on lung func­tion. She can only take it be­cause she has CF with the gene mu­ta­tion G551D. Ka­ly­deco works on that.”

Ka­ly­deco is a first of its kind in the world, as it works to pre­vent de­te­ri­o­ra­tion and keeps peo­ple with cys­tic fi­bro­sis at their cur­rent level of lung func­tion. Since its sanc­tion­ing by the HSE last year, ap­prox­i­mately 120 pa­tients will be suit­able for Ka­ly­deco treat­ment.

The re­porter of the piece is renowned writer Richard Con­niff, who spent eight weeks here. A last­ing mem­ory was his en­counter with Loy­al­ist ter­ror groups in North­ern Ire­land. “I met the Protes­tant para­mil­i­tary lead­ers at a Loy­al­ist town out­side Belfast. I met th­ese guys — they were ter­ror­ists — but it was an in­con­gru­ous meet­ing place. We met over an ice-cream par­lour called Melt­ing Mo­ments. It was a dark room and we had con­ver­sa­tions about the whole na­ture of the Trou­bles. Steven Spiel­berg’s movie Schindler’s List was just out. The lead­ers of the para­mil­i­tary move­ment then had in­tense con­ver­sa­tions with me, com­par­ing their sit­u­a­tions to the Jews in Ger­many. It stuck with me be­cause it was such a twisted in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that movie.”

What does Richard think was dif­fer­ent about Ire­land back in 1994? “I did have a lap­top, but I didn’t have in­ter­net as far as I know. Peo­ple didn’t spend their days with noses in iPhones and they talked a lot more. Some­body walk­ing into a Dublin pub and pop­ping out an iPhone would have been greeted with such ridicule back then. Back then, drunk driv­ing was much more tol­er­ated. The idea of go­ing out and having five pints and then driv­ing home was seen as fine, and to­bacco was ev­ery­where.”

The Amer­i­can writer is of Ir­ish de­scent and vis­ited an­nu­ally from the 1970s, but saw things he didn’t like in 1994, and hasn’t been back since. “Af­ter 1994, I dropped it. I was dis­tracted by other things, but also I wasn’t en­thu­si­as­tic about the way Ire­land was go­ing. In Ire­land, I liked the older way that was ori­en­tated to the beauty of lan­guage, and wasn’t so much into the mod­ern con­ve­niences. Peo­ple started to be­lieve in them­selves, but the vi­sion that re­placed it was a ma­te­ri­al­is­tic vi­sion,” he says.

Twenty years ago ran­dom thoughts were kept to our­selves. Now, with Twit­ter, you can in­flict them on the world

Be­cause Ire­land faced a host of con­tro­ver­sial so­cial is­sues in 1994, from abor­tion, con­tra­cep­tives and child sex­ual abuse, Richard found him­self in trou­ble with his Na­tional Ge­o­graphic edi­tors.

“They were is­sues which were pretty cur­rent ev­ery­where in the world like abor­tion, the Catholic Church and con­doms. Na­tional Ge­o­graphic had never pub­lished the word ‘con­dom’ un­til that time, and I also had a fight about the end of the story. It was a bit of a downer, and the ed­i­tor didn’t want read­ers to be left with a pes­simistic end­ing and I did.”

Richard also got his wires crossed more than once as he tried to en­gage with Dublin’s chat­ter­ing classes. “The US am­bas­sador Jean Kennedy Smith had just ar­rived, and I had her to din­ner at the house I was rent­ing in Dublin. David Nor­ris was there and some ac­tivists, and they were talk­ing about prob­lems in East Ti­mor. I thought East Ti­mor was a sub­urb of Dublin! We were clue­less.”

The long­est-last­ing legacy for Richard about be­ing in Ire­land was a cer­tain band that wouldn’t go away af­ter­wards. “My chil­dren, on that trip, be­came great fans of The Saw Doc­tors. I had to lis­ten to The Saw Doc­tors for years af­ter­wards,” he says.

One of the most poignant pic­tures in the ar­ti­cle is Pres­i­dent Robin­son greet­ing the school­child­ren of Inish­bofin. “We were in the West of Ire­land and com­mit­ted to at­tend the mu­sic fes­ti­val on Inish­bofin, when I read of Pres­i­dent Robin­son’s plan to also be there. That dou­bled my in­ter­est. At the time, she had a sig­nif­i­cant pro­file and pre­sented a most mod­ern face of Ire­land to the world. She was ap­peal­ing,” says Sam Abell.

Fiona O’Mhuiri is one of the proud mums in the pic­ture greet­ing the Pres­i­dent. “The rea­son she was here that time was to of­fi­cially open our Arts Fes­ti­val, which, be­cause she was the first fe­male Pres­i­dent and we had an al­l­ladies arts com­mit­tee, we felt it was fit­ting to ask her to do the hon­ours! There’s Oisin Lavelle, Regina King, me, Vivienne Lavelle, Orla Day and the teacher, Rachelle, at the back. At the front is Ni­amh Fox, Elaine Day, Aoife King, Ja­son Pren­der­gast shak­ing Mary Robin­son’s hand, and her hus­band, Ni­cholas, stand­ing be­hind her, then Rob­bie Mur­phy and Philip Coyne.”

Twenty years on, em­i­gra­tion has hit that lit­tle class very hard. “Oisin is in New Zealand, self-em­ployed and do­ing nicely. David and Vivienne Lavelle, his two pa­ter­nal first cousins, are also abroad. David is liv­ing in Syd­ney, also selfem­ployed and mar­ried with a baby girl. Vivienne trained here as a sports physio and lives in the UK. Ja­son Pren­der­gast is liv­ing in the USA, mar­ried and selfem­ployed. Robert Mur­phy is liv­ing and teach­ing in Bangkok. Aoife King is a lan­guage trans­la­tor and liv­ing in Italy,” says Fiona.

The Ire­land trip has had a pro­found ef­fect on pho­tog­ra­pher Sam and his wife. “My­self and my wife have hap­pily trav­elled to­gether for Na­tional Ge­o­graphic for 25 years and she longs to re­turn to Ire­land, as that as­sign­ment was her favourite. I’m not so sure. I got mugged and robbed the first week we were there.

“And the pho­to­graphs did not come eas­ily. There was an elu­sive Ir­ish essence I was always try­ing to evoke — part beauty, part hu­man­ity, part cul­tural his­tory. Be­cause I’m Ir­ish the as­sign­ment had ex­tra im­por­tance for me. Per­son­ally and pho­to­graph­i­cally, I wanted to live up to the in­ef­fa­ble mean­ing of the word Ire­land. Of course, I could not,” says Sam.

Pres­i­dent Mary Robin­son greets chil­dren on her visit to the is­land of Inish­bofin. Many of these chil­dren have since em­i­grated

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