The unraveling of Ireland from Catholicism to Liberation through photographs

Martin Parr practices the art of storytelling through people. From the visit of Pope John Paul II to a cup of flat white, he narrates the Irish history through photographs

The Exhibition titles: From the Pope to a Flat White: Ireland 1979 – 2019. Martin Parr foresees the transitions of Ireland in its phase of Catholicism to Liberation, and its caving into the seduction of industrialism and globalization. The chapter opens with Phoenix Park in Dublin on September 29, 1979, the visit of Pope John Paul II to celebrate the Feast Day of archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. More than a million huddled next to trees, some standing on stools while others sitting on the field, positioning themselves to afford a view. Parr stepped back from the scene and captured the trance of the attendees with their eyes fixated on the Pope. In his mass for the young people at Galway, John Paul II warned Ireland about the lure of pleasure that would animate them to capitulate their old ways as they moved forward to autonomy and liberation from rules: ‘Satan, the tempter, the adversary of Christ, will use all his might and all his deceptions to win Ireland for the way of the world. What a victory he would gain, what a blow he would inflict on the Body of Christ in the world, if he could seduce Irish men and women away from Christ. Now is the time of testing for Ireland.’

Parr’s photographs expose the testament to its citizens’ self-indulgence and consumerism, and the rise of technology hubs and laws that bend the Bible’s beliefs. In the year the Pope visited, the Nevada Burger fast-food restaurant in Westport snaked through Ireland, the entrance of the American culture that the Irish residents clamored for later on. Parr photographed from the outside, granting a glimpse of patrons chatting and horses in idle, a symbol of how warm the reception had been for the burger joint. He captured the enduring search for pleasure through the Mayflower ballroom in the little Leitrim village of Drumshanbo in 1981 and the Amethyst ballroom in Roscommon in 1982. Parr entered the toilet room and witnessed the men, donning either a leather jacket or a suit, fixing up their hair with a comb. Outside by the Mineral Bar, guests lazed about with drinks in their hands. In the parking lot, cars crowded on the side to pave a way to the entrance where arrivals filled the doors. In the hall, a man snatched a woman’s arm to ask for a dance. Around the edge of the ballroom, women lined up while the men circulated to hunt for a lady to invite for a dance. Such a spur of events dawned in an evening, bestowing Parr time to document Ireland’s camaraderie with the ascent of lust for pleasure.

The unraveling of transformation and revelry persisted when globalization made its way into the heart of the country. When Parr started photographing, almost half of the Irish exports still had landed in the UK, but forty years later, the percentage ran down to 14%. Ireland drifted from a society portrayed by agriculture and rural to becoming one of the most open and tech-sought countries across the globe. Such permeation and transnationality predict alteration in culture, amidst being rooted in tradition, and the way of life. In the ebb of Ireland’s renewal of identity, Parr focused his lens on each transition. The courtship rituals he had observed in the dance halls multiplied as prosperity rose in the countryside after the country’s European Union membership, encouraging those couples to stay rather than to emigrate. In celebration of their union, the couples yearned for their own property, but not the houses where bachelors lived nor where families had fled into exile. They longed to be the proprietors of a house published on Jack Fitzsimons’ Bungalow Bliss, an anthology of blueprints and designs to construct Irish bungalows. Parr’s photographs conjure an invitation to compare the past and present as his images underscore old houses standing still behind the new ones, a gesture of snaking into the contemporary. His sequence of images of Morris Minors in the 1980s sum up desertion of the yesteryear and adoption of the now.

OConnell Bridge Dublin 1981 © Martin Parr Magnum Photos 1
O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, 1981 © Martin PARR / Magnum Photos

In the mid-1980s, Parr transitioned from black-and-white to colored photography. Having viewed such methodology to images that emerged from the US from photographers Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore hooked Parr into tinkering on the contrast and saturation of photographs. Back in the early Seventies, color had piqued his interest while working at Butlin’s and he stumbled upon the postcards of John Hinde. He dismissed the immediate pursuit, yet his attention lingered. Years after he postponed his color switch, the change came about along with the persistence of Ireland towards openness. The flow of inevitability may have struck his change, but it granted him a leeway to deepen his penchant for storytelling.

«The photographs in color present a distinction in its evocation. We afford a glance at the modernity that Ireland has undergone rather than its tradition, which took the core of my black-and-white photography back in the day. Once, I contributed to a book titled A Week in the Life of Ireland. When I received the invitation, I asked the editorial staff if I could photograph supermarkets. I knew no one would be interested in such a place as their subject matter, since artists were keen to go to the West to chase their perception of the image of Ireland. I took pleasure in photographing the life of the contemporary, which started to emerge in the late 1980s». One of such photos appears in the artist’s photo book. A pushcart brims with canned goods, boxes of flour and cereals, and rolls of tissue paper while a baby sits at the front, nibbling on his fingers and dangling his arm on the side. Behind them, stacks of meat and poultry wrapped in plastic tower in the freezer. In the frame, shoppers either glance at the products or stroll their carts onto the next aisle.

While Parr dabbles in the features of Ireland’s modernity, his advocacy towards narration remains at the core of his lens as he encompasses his series with a backstory behind each work in his anthology. In one photograph, four women sit on a wooden bench with three of them looking at his camera. Their background comprises a glass that grants a view of the swimming pool above the room. «This is Butlin’s Mosney. It used to be a holiday camp before it turned into a refugee center. I visited the place in the week of the Orange marches on July 12th. Many of the Catholics from Belfast would escape Northern Ireland during these Protestant marches and come down to the Republic. One of the places they would go to was the Butlin’s Mosney».

Manorhamilton Sheep Fair County Leitrim 1981 © Martin Parr Magnum Photos 1

The temptation in Ireland climaxes as Parr reports the venture the country has veered to. He took a shot of a woman lying back in the sun while shading her eyes from its glare with a paperback she was reading titled Temptation. In this period, the photographer began experimenting with the distance of his lens towards his subjects as he captured up-close shots of bottles of holy water, the back head of a ginger man, two ice cream cones that stand in the middle of the road, a fly on a lady’s hat, and a bald spot on a man’s head. «This was my phase of using a close-up camera with macro-lens, which entitled me to become upfront and close with my subjects. My time in Ireland reflected the development of my language in photography and the growth that occurred in the country as well. One of the things I dappled in with the macro-lens was to look for cliches. Ireland overflows with such subjects. I would do my best to locate and photograph them such as the two gigantic ice cream cones that were photogenic and surreal if seen from the other side and this beautiful kid with ginger hair and freckles».

As the book progresses, the mark of the fortieth year resembles a haul-over in the character of Ireland. Whereas the photographs in the first pages depict its people in reservation and curiosity, the travel in the 2000s navigates through the beliefs of the citizens in politics that lean on liberty and govern the society. «All the set of pictures I photographed in 2019 exhibits the changes that Ireland has encountered and undergone. I cannot think of any other European country that has experienced such a conversion dramatically». The image of a climate change march proves his thesis. Advocates crowd the square, raising their cardboard signs with notes of command to stop the harm towards the environment. «Here we have the innovation area in Dublin. This is where many of the high-tech companies established their European headquarters. Many of them have chosen Ireland since the corporate taxes in the country are much lower compared to anywhere else in Europe». A compendium of photographs of shops, coffee bars, restaurants, and hotels glaze the pages of the photo book, underscoring the gentrification that clouds over Dublin. 

Parr covers Ireland’s status of Catholicism and its virtues revamped to diversity and tolerance. In 2015, Ireland was hailed as the first country in the world to introduce equal marriage rights for couples of the same sex by popular vote. Parr yearned to treasure such euphoria and succeeded in doing so. «One of the remarkable events that have happened in Ireland is the set of referendums the country passed which concerns divorce, abortion, and gay marriages. I want to photograph the latter since it becomes this beacon of modern Ireland. Luckily, my friend Bryan managed to locate a gay wedding. The couple allowed me to gatecrash their union». The ceremony of Barbara and Maeve made its way into the photo book where, in one photo, the couple was captured raising their arms in the air while grinning. Parr practices the art of storytelling through people: «When one photographs, they infuse a story to tell, although it may vary. Some comprise narratives while other pictures just work on their own. The filament lies in how the photographer demonstrates their connection with their subject. Capturing an iconic picture is challenging, but sometimes, when a kind of attention, story, or color glues the harmony of the image together, the amalgamation of storytelling and composition follow».

The Pope gives mass in Knock County Mayo 1979 © Martin Parr Magnum Photos 1

Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole prefaces Parr’s photo book. «There are images like these ones where the note of continuity with established traditions is dominant. Then there are images in which the drama and humor lie in the collision between tradition and modernity. And then there are the ones in which the old seems entirely submerged in the new. Or, as the Pope might have imagined it, there is holy Ireland, then the struggle with the satanic lure of innovation, then a wholly unholy Ireland». After photographing Ireland for over forty years, Martin Parr resonates with the appropriation to recount the country’s history in a chronological manner. While a crowd witnessing the Pope opens the anthology, a cup of flat white on top of a wood platform closes the book. In between: photography, culture, politics, and humanity persevere.


Martin Parr, From the Pope to a Flat White. Ireland 1979-2019
Damiani Editore
128 Pages
98 Illustrations

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.