Celebrating a woman of substance….
I’ve been writing the Queen St. Observer a little over two years now and it’s always been a music thing for me, enthusing about something I’d heard or a band I like, whatever. This month though, and for one month only, I’m straying off the reservation. I want to talk about Waterford photographer Annie Brophy.
Annie was born in 1899 in Johnstown Waterford (Inner city, baby! As Waterford as it gets) and following her education in the Mercy Convent she trained as a photographer with a company called Hughes Photographers in Manor Street. Not long after she set out on her own using her home in Barker Street as a base. From there, between 1922 and 1978, it’s hardly an exaggeration to to say she photographed practically every family in Waterford as well as snapping street scenes. Her images of the Jail wall disaster in 1943, which happened literally on her doorstep, still convey the scale and horror of that terrible night. A side bar here, who thought it necessary to change the name of Jail Street to St. Patrick’s Terrace? Was it really necessary to break that link with the past? Would it require any great effort if the will was there to revert to the original?
Anyway, early in 1968 our mother marched my brother and I to Barker Street for an audience with Annie. I was going on six years old, him in or about three. I have vivid memories of making polite enquiries as we neared the Brophy house, could I maybe pose like Batman does on the telly? (Adam West was THE man for all seven year old boys in 1968!) ‘Not happening’ said my mother, you’ll be told by Ms. Brophy how she wants you. Too bad but probably just as well. I have that portrait somewhere in the house. For years I didn’t get the hand colouring Annie used to apply to some of her photos. Would it not have been easier to just use colour film? These days I think I understand – the hand tinting adds a uniqueness and Olde Worlde charm that colour film just doesn’t possess. Genius.
Part of my fascination with and admiration for Annie Brophy stems from the times she lived in. Post independence Ireland was in many respects a benighted place, patriarchal and with the heavy hand of the Catholic Church wielding influence way beyond what it should have. This is speculation and conjecture on my part but I suspect that as a single woman plying her trade as a professional photographer Annie Brophy would have attracted a certain amount of suspicion if not opprobrium. That she carried on doing what she did is a tribute to her fortitude in my eyes. To their great credit the Council have taken possession of Annie’s 65,000 negatives (Think about that – 65,000!) and these are now held in the City Archives where anyone can access them. Credit too to the Waterford Civic Trust who some years ago placed a blue plaque on the Brophy house in Barker Street. ‘Annie Brophy 1899-1986’ it reads, ‘Celebrated photographic artist and social historian lived and had her studio here.’ Speaking of the house, for years now it’s been painted in a rainbow of colours, so much so that when my daughters were younger they used to refer to it as the Polly Pockets house. If you Google Image ‘Polly Pockets House’ you’ll see why they thought that.
We’ve not been good at preserving our past in Waterford City. The list of things, buildings particularly, which have been demolished with indecent haste is a long one. The train station in Railway Square from which the Tramore Train operated? Gone, just like the train itself. The beautiful North Station across the river? Gone, replaced by an abomination. The architecturally stunning City Jail on Ballybricken? Flattened for no obvious reason to be replaced by the totally unremarkable. The Victorian fountain in the People’s Park, destroyed by visiting football fans in 1977, Shamrock Rovers’ lot if I recall correctly. I can only remember a brief few weeks circa 1972 when the fountain actually functioned as such with water running through it. Left dry as it was for so long it was inevitable that it would meet the sticky end that it did. Incidentally, if you don’t remember the fountain then next time you’re in Dublin drop by Bewley’s Hotel in Ballsbridge where you’ll see an identical one in perfect working order. It brings home what we lost.
Things have picked up though. The modern day city planners have a far greater appreciation of the past and how to conserve it. To that end, and this is where I get to the point of all of this, what about a statue, prominently located in the city centre, of the pioneering Annie Brophy who did such a service to her hometown by recording its citizens as they went about their daily lives? What I’d suggest is something similar to the photo in this article, showing Annie in her natural habitat, going about her work.
I can think of few Waterfordians, living or dead, more deserving than the great Annie Brophy.
More next month, back on the music trail!