1980s Ireland revisited in exhibition by top photographer

Martin Parr’s evocative images recall rural life at pivotal time of changing values

Dolled-up dance-goers suck self-consciously on fizzy drinks in a ballroom in Glenfarne, Co Leitrim. A young office worker tussles with a bizarre-looking messaging contraption in Castlerea, Co Roscommon. And a television perches – incongruously but appropriately – on a table outside a pristine new bungalow in Keadue, also in Roscommon.

These and other intriguing images feature in So near and so far, an exhibition by acclaimed English photographer Martin Parr, which opened last night at Roscommon Arts Centre.

Taken during the time he lived in Boyle, Co Roscommon from 1980-83, the photographs represent a selection from the images that formed Parr's third book, On a Fair Day (1984).


“I came to Boyle because my wife was setting up a speech therapy course in Co Leitrim,” he recalls. “Coming from a relatively prosperous part of England, it felt like stepping back 20 or 30 years. We couldn’t even get a telephone. But things were starting to happen, and the bungalows were part of that.”


Now 64, Parr is one of the best-known documentary photographers of his generation, having published more than 90 books and edited 30 more. His work has been bought by museums including the Tate in London and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He has spent decades exploring the peculiarities and juxtapositions of modern life, from dwindling rural communities in west Yorkshire to the experience of mass tourism across the world.

In later years, he deployed heightened, often garish colours and unusual perspectives to satirically counter what he calls the "propaganda" of most published images. When he took these photographs in the west of Ireland in the early 1980s he was still working in the preferred "art photography" mode of black and white. However, his sardonic eye for the peculiarities of the modern human condition was already apparent in pictures that combine humour and melancholy in equal measure.

The photographs show a place and a people teetering precariously between tradition and modernity, as they move from agrarian life to a new, brasher consumerism. At the time, the images may have seemed a rebuke to the sentimentalised view of the west of Ireland that dominated official discourse.


He has returned to the locations where he took the photographs. “We’ve been back to all the places we used to hang out in and I’m gobsmacked at how much it’s changed,” he says. “The shopping centres outside the towns. The notion of a motorway to Galway was unimaginable then.”

More than 30 years on, I suggest, the photographs look more than anything like the inspiration for the retro-kitsch humour of Father Ted and Moone Boy.

“You’re quite right, I don’t disagree with you at all,” says Parr amiably.

So near and so far: Roscommon in the 1980s continues at Roscommon Arts Centre until October 11th.

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan is an Irish Times writer and Duty Editor. He also presents the weekly Inside Politics podcast