City Life Through A Lens

Source: The Irish Times

Writer: Catherine Foley

Date: 15 Sept 2010


Working 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 history

IT’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.

Each 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.

On one morning in particular I felt as if Brophy was leading us by the hand.  We 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!

We 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.

In 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.

The 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.

After 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.

This 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.

On 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.

The woman behind  the camera 

ANNIE 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.

In 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.

Brophy 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 streetscapes.

She 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.

She was a ahead of her time, blazing a trail for women before professionalism, ambition and artistic integrity were spoken of.

She 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