Full Frame: Roots on an Irish farm

Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field.

My grandfather John Joseph O’Mahony was born in a small farmhouse on a strip of farmland called Bawnea Kilbrittain in County Cork, Ireland, in 1890. I have pleasant memories of my grandfather, “Pops,” as we lovingly referred to him. I still remember the sweet smell of his weathered hands, the roughness of his whiskers, which he would playfully rub up against my face, and the ever-present pipe he smoked.

At the turn of the century times were tough in Ireland, and Pops decided to emigrate to the United States. He never again stepped on Irish soil. Years later, Pops met my grandmother, Abina, who was from Cork city. They married and had four children. They lived in a small apartment in Cambridge, the neighborhood of Boston known for Harvard University. Abina worked as a domestic maid for wealthy families and Pops worked as a laborer digging ditches for the water works of the city. My great aunts and Abina kept the line of communication open between Boston and Cork and exchanged letters regularly. After my great aunts and my grandparents died, however, we lost all communication.

In the summer of 1987 my father and I went to Ireland for the first time. For an 18-year-old American, Ireland seemed like a place forgotten in time. It was still a predominantly rural country with windy narrow roads woven through the rolling green hills of the countryside. Apart from seeing Ireland for the first time, we had an additional mission: to reconnect with our family. Since we knew the names of the towns from old letters, we started by visiting the church cemeteries in each town. After a day or two of this, we went to the church cemetery in Kilbrittain. An elderly man was tending to one of the gravesites. After answering a few questions, the man said to my dad that his wife would never forgive him if he didn’t take us home with him, because she was my father’s cousin.

The next day they took us to visit our cousins, Bob and Dan. When we opened the gate to the courtyard of their farm, there was the white-painted stone house where Pops was born. It probably hadn’t changed much since 1890. Bob and Dan were dressed to work in their overalls, rubber boots and Irish cap. They would smile shyly and nod their heads whenever they finished speaking as if to remind us that it was our turn to respond.

We were offered tea, brown bread and tomatoes, and although they never drank, they offered us a shot of Irish whiskey. With them we talked of family and they shared photos that my grandmother had sent them over the years. The next day, we continued our vacation and before long we were back to our lives in the U.S. — but I never forgot the experience of meeting my family back in Ireland.

Many years later I felt a desire to return to Kilbrittain, this time as a photographer to document my relatives' rural way of life. In April 2008, I flew to Kilbrittain and spent a week living with my cousin, Betty O’Donovan. Her family's farm is just down the road from Bob and Dan. My cousins live a simple yet pure life and each day has its rituals. They wake up early to move the cows and sheep from the stalls to the fields and then they feed the animals. Around mid-morning, they return to the house to warm their feet and have a breakfast of tea, scones and hot porridge. It’s a quick affair and they are right back out again, cleaning the stalls, placing clean hay and tending to the lambs. At mid-day, things slow down and everyone congregates at the kitchen table to have dinner. With Ireland National Radio playing in the background, we eat a meal of sliced cooked meat with potatoes, mixed vegetables and gravy. Conversation moves quickly and shifts from EU measures affecting farming to world events to news of a neighbor who had passed away. Like the news, however, conversation always ends with the weather. It doesn’t matter if it is hot, cold, clear or cloudy. What’s important is that it’s dry, because if it’s dry, a farmer can work and if it’s wet, he can’t.

Due to the demands of life on a farm, many farmers are bachelors. Bob, 80, and Dan, 78, live together, take care of one another and share the work on the farm. They have resisted change and still use many traditional farming techniques. As Dan says, “as long as we be here, we’ll be doing things our way.”

About the photographer:

Charlie Mahoney is an award-winning photographer currently based in Barcelona, Spain. His clients and publications include Time Magazine, BBC News, GEO, National Geographic Traveler, Lonely Planet Magazine, The Times, The Independent Sunday, Financial Times, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC), CS Monitor Weekly, 100 Eyes, GlobalPost, The Times Travel Magazine, Public Radio International, Out of Focus Magazine, Die Tageszeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, De Standaard and Viva Magazine.

Charlie especially likes to work on stories of human interest and has experience working in remote locations. He strongly believes that photojournalism can promote change by functioning as a witness and giving a voice to people who are powerless to tell their own stories.

His most recent awards include the Life category of the 2008 Travel Photographer of the Year, the 2008 PX3 Prix de la Photographie for photojournalism, honorable mention in the 2008 International Photography Awards Photo Essay category, the 2008 SOS Racism Photography contest and the new talent category of the 2007 Travel Photographer of the Year.

He is represented by Bilderberg in Austria and Germany, Cosmos in France, GraziaNeri in Italy and Aurora in the rest of the world.