A website (www.manonbridge.ie – a somewhat unreliable link; try it yourself, good luck) related to a documentary film currently in production and a Guardian website article and photographic feature on the work of the late Arthur Fields (born Abraham Feldman in 1901), who took snaps of passersby on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge for fifty years, from the 1930s to the 1980s, have awakened a memory for me ‑ as I am sure the name, or as likely a half-recollection of the bridge photographer himself, does for very many Irish people. Fields’s commercial technique, it appears, was to pretend to have taken a photograph of any half-likely prospect and then, if they showed a flicker of interest, to take the real photograph a moment later. If you seemed pleased to have had your snap taken then Arthur would hand you a ticket and you could redeem your photograph the next day in a small office/studio just off O’Connell Street, which was run by Mrs Fields. If anyone under sixty is reading this I should perhaps explain that with the technology then available there were costs attached to taking a photograph merely on spec, so film tended not to be wasted. Also, a camera, at least during the earlier part of Fields’s career, was a luxury item which might appear only on formal and ceremonial occasions or, if you were the kind of family who could afford to take holidays, perhaps once or twice during a summer at the seaside.
Fields captured couples and groups, both visitors and Dubliners, from 1930s swells to 1950s teddyboys, 60s mods and hippies and 70s and 80s punks, often with the O’Connell monument – and earlier, the Pillar – visible in the background. In all it seems he took more than 180,000 photographs, so it is fairly likely that he took one of someone you knew. I am almost certain that he took one of me. I do not have it to hand but I have a memory of having seen it.
I can’t vouch for what percentage of Fields’s paid-for shots were of out-of-towners, but I would guess it was quite high. Dubs, we know, are sophisticated creatures, while culchies are as likely as not to walk straight into the first jackeen ruse they encounter. Citizens of the capital also tend for the most part to be just going about their business and will perhaps not be hugely interested in having their photographs taken, unless of course there is something they need to prove to a girlfriend (“Mean? Me?”). Folk from Castleisland or Abbeyfeale or Mooncoin on the other hand could be just up for the match and might wish to have this famous football or hurling victory ‑ and their part in it ‑ recorded for posterity.
It was perhaps in 1968 that my friends Seamus and Augusta and I were caught by Arthur on the bridge. Two Dohertys and an O’Doherty and none of us related to each other ‑ it should not be necessary to ask where we were from.
One of the great advantages of occasionally escaping from the home place is that one can do things that might, were they to get out in the local community, lead to talk. It is pleasant, when one is barely seventeen, to have vodka and limes (genuine synthetic cordial, not the poncey real fruit they give you nowadays) served to one’s table on a quiet afternoon in a carpeted upstairs lounge just across from Trinity College (today it is Doyle’s – and no longer carpeted; then it was the College Mooney). The very engaging barman, I am almost certain, was the same one whom William Trevor described in a memoir of Dublin in the 1950s, a Dev lookalike (according to Trevor, that is – he had a few more miles on the clock when I came across him) whose stock-in-trade was to compulsively parrot the advertising slogans of Radio Éireann’s sponsored music shows (“Bird’s custard, Bird’s Angel Delight”). What I now recall, though I think it passed me by at the time, is that he seemed to exhibit a greater interest in myself and Seamus than in the very attractive Augusta, who was in fact the only one of the three of us legally entitled to be served alcohol.
Another thing that you can do in a place that is not your own is to challenge public morals – though you had better choose your place well. I was walking, during the summer of 1967 I think, down the main street of Buncrana, Co Donegal with my very fetching Culmore Road neighbour Maeve when we were approached by a stern Garda sergeant who told us (well, her) that we must leave town immediately as the shorts she was wearing could lead to a traffic accident or even cause respectable married men to walk out on their wives and children. Sheepishly, we complied. That was Donegal. I cannot be absolutely sure of this but my recollection of having briefly seen Arthur Fields’s photograph perhaps a decade ago is that of the three young Derry people squinting into the sun on O’Connell Bridge on a summer’s day in 1968 one was wearing short shorts. And no one said boo to her. It is little wonder that young people migrate in such numbers to large cities.