“Is that Patrick?” asks photographer Ross O’Callaghan and, for a moment, I think he must be psychic. Then I remember that, for him, betting that a call is from a Patrick/Paddy/Pat is a pretty easy bet to win. He’s the man behind the Paddy Irishman Project, for which he has photographed a diverse array of Patricks, Paddys, Pádraigs and Pats (including this journalist) in their natural environments.
O’Callaghan’s more Paddy-free day-job is as a film and television cameraman, most notably on Hector Ó hEochagáin’s travel shows, for which he has gone to more than 100 countries. “As an Irish man travelling, you obviously get the Paddy thing thrown at you quite a bit. And it’s just something that never sat well with me.”
He was filming for Channel 4′s Grand Designs when this discomfort bubbled up into an idea. “We were filming in Derry with a guy called Patrick Bradley. He’d built this very famous container-home on his parent’s farm. I was driving home one night, and I thought, ‘Here’s a farmer’s son building a house on a farmer’s land, but he’s also an award-winning architect’ and it kind of got me thinking about how interesting would it be if that story was told, showing all these Paddys for what they are, telling real-life stories and challenging the stereotypes.”
Cut to a few Covid-filled years later and, with the help of Roisin Keown from the Brill Building creative agency, he has been invited to exhibit a selection of his Paddy Irishmen from large plinths in Pershing Square Plaza, in the shadow of Grand Central Station, New York, through which 58,000 people walk every day. They will be on view there March 15th-22nd. The full collection will be launched in the Lume studios in Tribeca on the 14th. On April 12th they will be moved to the New York Irish Center to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. There will also be a billboard promoting the whole thing on Times Square.
Before each photo O’Callaghan takes, he interviews his subjects about their lives and world views, before then thinking about locations and themes. He has ended up with a fascinating array of faces and places. There are some familiar Paddys. There’s Patrick Kielty, the comedian, in a forest. Paddy Breathnach, the film director, is depicted in front of a projector. O’Callaghan’s golf idol, Pádraig Harringon, is pictured standing on a large tree stump.
But there are less famous Paddys who are no less intriguing. There’s a photo of Patrick Sheary, a tailor, sitting in his shop window. Paddy Smyth the gay rights and disability activist is captured in Merchant’s Arch with the Ha’penny Bridge lit up in the night behind him. Pa O’Dwyer, a weightlifter, sits near his weights, a plume of powder coming from his hands. Astrophysicist Dr Paddy Kavanagh is seated to the side of huge telescope.
The youngest Paddy was photographed just two days before we speak. He lives with his mother in a refugee centre in Citywest. “She came over seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine,” says O’Callaghan
There’s a moving close-up photograph of Paddy Fay, the first man Fr Peter McVerry housed before founding what went on to become the Peter McVerry Trust housing charity. O’Callaghan is amazed by how people respond to the pictures. “Paddy Fay is blind and has been for the last eight years but even though it’s a really tight picture of his face, no one has seen that he’s blind.”
The youngest Paddy was only photographed two days before we speak. He lives with his mother in a refugee centre in Citywest. “She came over seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine,” says O’Callaghan. “She was eight months pregnant. She had a baby boy born in the Coombe a month later and she named him Patrick as a thank you to the Irish people. I only did that two days ago. He’s only six months. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I’m even talking about that stuff.”
Traditional musician Paddy Hazelton is photographed on a road in Sligo with Benbulbin shrouded in mist behind him. When I call him he tells me he’s looking at the mountain as we speak. He was born in Uganda and adopted by an Irish family. His mother christened him Patrick. Then at the age of five, a fellow Paddy showed him how to play the bodhrán and his future was set. “He gave me a few tapes and a few lessons and then said, ‘I don’t need to give you lessons any more.’” He laughs. “I’ve been playing music ever since.”
What does it mean to him? “It’s a seductive jazz healing thing. It’s my own kind of euphoric story.”
Music brought him back to Uganda in 2018 where he represented Ireland and played for the Irish ambassador. He tried to find his birth parents. “It was emotional ... I met a few people over there who worked in a hospital and I became friends with them ... But I’m still searching.”
It’s not an art persona. It’s not a project. It’s who I am. Then my partner, when I met him, he started calling me ‘Paddy’. I was like, ‘Actually I sort of like it. It’s cute’— Patrick Blue, born Patryk in Poland
The make-up artist and Instagram star Patrick Blue is photographed doing his make-up in a nightclub mirror. He was born in Poland. He tells me he did not, initially, feel qualified to be called a “Paddy Irishman”. But he’s since come to embrace it. He’s been here since he was three, after all.
He discusses the complicated history he has with his name. “Originally my name was spelled the Polish way: Patryk.” He spells it out. “My teachers would always kind of put an accent on it and I’d say: ‘It’s just ‘Patrick’. When I started doing make-up [online] I changed it to the Irish spelling of ‘Patrick’ [because] I didn’t want my grandma finding out I do make-up ... I kind of gave it a persona/character: a confident, creative artist ... I would shave my head once a week and dye it a different colour ... I’ve covered myself head to toe in red lipstick ... I did a tan photo shoot once and put duct-tape halfway down my body, so I was tanned on one side and pale on the other side ... [The name] helped develop my art style and let me free to express myself. In recent years it kind of just became me. It’s not an art persona. It’s not a project. It’s who I am. Then my partner, when I met him, he started calling me ‘Paddy’. I was like, ‘Actually I sort of like it. It’s cute.’”
There are downsides to filling your world with Paddys, says O’Callaghan. “It’s hard when you’re looking to contact one of them and there’s 50 of them in your phone.” On the plus side, he adds, “I do struggle with names when I’m working, so it helps me to know that they’re all called Paddy.”
For this project he has painstakingly photographed 50 Paddys but when he initially sought volunteers, more than 500 got in touch. He’s trying to figure out ways to include more. “I did have this idea that possibly, after the madness of the New York launch, we might do a touring ‘photo booth’ thing where we could actually document more in some way.”
In the meantime, a selection of Paddys also have a spot in the New York St Patrick’s Day Parade marching under the Paddy Irishman Project banner. “If we have eight in the parade this year, we could have 25 in the parade next year,” says O’Callaghan. “I’m certainly not done yet ... There’s so many more Paddys out there and so many more stories to tell ... It’s the start of a movement.”