City Life Through A Lens
The Irish Times
15 Sept 2010
on a documentary about the life of Waterford photographer Annie Brophy, Catherine
Foley discovered that the woman best known for her touching family
portraits also recorded some of the most important events in the city’s
STRANGE to walk in the footsteps of an icon. You sense a presence. At times, you
imagine you are being taken by the hand and guided towards certain places.
That’s how it felt when my sister RoseAnn and I were making a documentary
earlier this year about Annie Brophy, the Waterford photographer, who left an
archive of more than 65,000 negatives behind her.
day, myself and RoseAnn, who was directing the film, got a glimpse of how life
must have been for her as a photographer for much of the 20th century. We became
detectives, tiptoeing around our subject, trying to understand and discover what
made her tick.
one morning in particular I felt as if Brophy was leading us by the hand.
had filmed photographs from private albums owned by families around the county
and beyond, including the handsome Dungarvan business man Jack Curran with his
young family seated about him; Brendan Bowyer as a young school boy with his
family on the occasion of his sister Olive’s communion; local Ferrybank woman,
Mrs Vera Whelan also as a young communicant with her two brothers Don and
Vincent Martin; and the singer Gilbert O’Sullivan as a toddler in Waterford
before he became famous and wrote such anthems as Claire , (the
Moment I Met You ) and Get Down!
had combed our own family albums too and found a photograph of my grandmother,
Mary Ellen Martell, as a young woman photographed by Brophy in Hughes’s studio
where she was training, and a later photograph Brophy took of the Waterford Boat
Club’s Maiden Eight, when they won the Gough Shield with my father as the
stroke in the line-up. With each photograph, I found myself imagining how she
had gone about arranging her sitters.
March this year, we stood with a camera crew in front of Annie Brophy’s house
at 9 Barker Street in Waterford, where she lived all her life. She opened her
photographic studio here in 1922. Opposite the house stands the old jail wall.
This was the scene of a terrible tragedy in 1943. A plaque marks the spot where
nine people were killed.
old disused jail was being used by the army to store turf and as headquarters
for the Local Defence Force, who were recruited as part-time soldiers to bolster
army numbers during those war years.
days of heavy rainfall, the foundations of the old wall had become unsound and
one Wednesday night it began to crumble under the weight of a sodden mountain of
turf. Early on that Thursday morning, great stones, mortar and 120 tonnes of
turf fell heavily on the row of houses. It happened at 12.45am while the
inhabitants were sleeping. More than 100ft of the wall fell, demolishing four
houses completely and damaging a further three.
happened on Annie Brophy’s doorstep. She would have known all the victims.
They were her neighbours. Seven of the victims were aged under 20. One was just
two-and-a-half years old. As well as fatalities, 17 people were injured,
including one man who died later of his injuries. It must have been a
terrifying, heart-wrenching scene that morning. But in spite of this, Brophy had
the compulsion – and determination and focus – to take her camera and tripod
outside and photograph the scenes outside her door.
that March morning this year it was RoseAnn who noticed the significance of the
date on the plaque and she called us over to have a look. The cameraman Seamus
Hayes, soundman Kieran Curtain and I stood in front of the jail wall. It took a
moment for it to register but then we realised that the tragedy had happened all
those years ago on a Thursday, March 4th. We happened to be standing on the very
same spot, filming, on a Thursday, March 4th. A shiver ran down my back and I
knew that the guiding hand of Annie Brophy was stronger than ever.
woman behind the camera
BROPHY was born in 1899 in Waterford city into a relatively well-off family. Her
father was an RIC officer. She was a pupil at the Mercy Convent until 1916 when
she was selected because of her flair and artistic ability to train as a
photographer with Hughes Photographers of Manor Street.
1922, after discussing the idea with her parents, she opened her own studio in
the family home at 9 Barker Street. Later, Billy, her youngest brother, became
her assistant. She never married.
photographed society weddings, newly-ordained priests and newly-professed nuns,
family celebrations, religious ceremonies and processions, social events in the
city, victorious hurling teams, burgeoning businesses, committees, mayors, and
all manner of other events in the city. She even photographed buildings and
had a great eye for symmetry and detail and captured the evolving story of the
city. As there were no injuries, the appearance of a professional female
photographer caused more of a stir than the derailed train did in Tramore at the
height of the summer in 1947.
was a ahead of her time, blazing a trail for women before professionalism,
ambition and artistic integrity were spoken of.
continued to work even after her retirement in 1978 and she died in 1986,
leaving her archive of more than 65,000 negatives intact, along with ledgers of
customer names, addresses and dates, having coded and catalogued them and stored
them away in an upstairs bedroom.
The collection is now held by Waterford City Archive.
– Catherine Foley
Trí Shúile Annie Brophy will
be broadcast on TG4 on Sunday September 26 at 8.30pm and again on Friday
October 1 at 7.30pm