In 1965, looking for an image to illustrate the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Dublin-born photographer Alen MacWeeney stumbled into what he calls “a deep pool of hidden Irish culture” – the world of the people known as Travellers – and found himself “lost in their lives and stories” for almost six years.
MacWeeney, collaborating with actress Aedin Moloney, brought that hidden world to exuberant life recently at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, where he wove his blunt, evocative images with the music and stories he collected 50 years ago into an evening of illumination about the people he encountered in camps outside Dublin. It became his job, he told the audience, to “represent their struggle.”
Sharing affectionate memories of the people in his now famous images, MacWeeney said it was his camera and tape recorder that first earned him an entree into their ranks. Soon he was a trusted friend, finding himself surrounded by 30 people in a hut as he recorded a storyteller. He witnessed, “completely by chance,” how modernizing influences in the late ’60s, like the dole and increased automobile traffic, transformed the traditional Traveller way of life. Despite his outsider status, “Nothing in their behavior ever made me uncomfortable. They never asked anything of me.”
A rapt Ireland House audience heard a recording of Johnny Cassidy, a rapid-fire storyteller who recounted his tales while sitting up in bed. Moloney, founder and artistic director of New York’s Fallen Angel Theatre Company, defied all known laws of human breath control as she animated a host of characters – human and supernatural – in a rollicking Traveller tale called “The Grey Headed Norrisey’s Skull.”
MacWeeney speculates that American interest in Traveller culture comes partly from jealousy of “a romantic perception of freedom,” but really is fueled by a fascination with the unknown. The audience that night – like Brooklynite Alexandra Holt who wondered about Travellers in Irish history, or Terry O’Leary of Manhattan who yearned to hear even more “about such a mysterious population” – reflected that strong attraction.
Moloney and MacWeeney are hoping to repeat their collaboration and expand this program to include his feature-length BBC/RTE documentary from 2000, along with more stories and music. The photographs, including stories and downloadable music, appear in Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More, a paperback reprint of the 2007 hardcover edition.