Turtle Bunbury is an Irish journalist and historian, whose photo-book series “Vanishing Ireland” chronicles the lives of Ireland’s eldest living residents and institutions, through interviews and photography. Mr. Bunbury partnered with photographer James Fennell in 2001 for the first volume in the series, and this year they’ve completed the third volume in the series, Vanishing Ireland: Recollections of Our Changing Times.
The “Vanishing Ireland” series is handled in the United States by London-based publisher Hodder & Stoughton: The third volume will be released in the United States in February. Mr. Bunbury also runs a family history service, in which he researches and writes family histories under contract.
The WildGeese.com’s Daniel Marrin spoke with Bunbury about his work on the Vanishing Ireland series.
TheWildGeese.com: So what drew you and James Fennell to begin this tour of the Irish homeland back in 2001?
Turtle Bunbury: I grew up on a farm, which had employed over 100 men, when my father was a boy. In my childhood, a lot of these men still lived in the area, although most had long since retired. I became acquainted with some of them, peak-capped old timers who'd stand against white-washed pebble dashed walls of downtown Rathvilly [in County Carlow] watching the world go by. One of these guys was Bob Murphy, the first man we photographed.
I was in Hong Kong from 1996 to 1998, three years. By the time I returned to Ireland, the country was booming at breakneck speed, and it struck me that the old-timers were being left behind. I had a whacky idea to drive around Ireland on a tractor, stopping off in pub after pub, talking to them all, writing down their stories. That didn't pan out but what did happen was James Fennell, an old buddy of mine, came to meet Bob Murphy one day. He photographed Bob and “Vanishing Ireland” was born.
WG: Were you immediately envisioning a book series? How did that come to form as the idea?
Bunbury: We weren't sure where it would go. We simply started by interviewing and photographing some of the old fellows who lived around our respective homes. Initially we thought we might focus on bachelor farmers but then we started interviewing women and married men, too.
Eventually, we had seven characters’ [interviews] published in Cara magazine, owned by Aer Lingus, and the accompanying article said we were looking for a publisher. Hodder Headline Ireland, now Hachette [Ireland], took up the challenge and published our first volume the following fall.
WG: The institutions you mentioned, like the rural pub, the post office, family run shops, farmers. Why are these institutions in particular in jeopardy? Is it the influence of globalization?
Bunbury: Yes, it’s globalization to an extent. We are all much more dependent on technology than each other these days. The post office gave way to hand-held gadgets that you can use to send e-mail and texts, or as a telephone, without having to go anywhere or queue up for a day.
Family-run shops became redundant because they don't have enough stuff on their shelves to satiate our voracious appetite for more. The pub pretty much buckled under pressure from drunk-driving rules, but there were other forces, not least the fact it’s so easy to zip out to a garage and pick up a bottle of wine these days, which you can drink in your own home, safe from other people. We've become a much more private race.
WG: Do you think there's a sense of anger or frustration among rural people in Ireland about the disappearance of these local institutions, or do they mostly see it as signs of progress?
Bunbury: There is anger in places for sure, but I think it’s chiefly dismay and surprise. But I think John Joe Conway [a 76-year-old cattle farmer and horse breeder interviewed in “Vanishing Ireland,” Volume 3] summed it up best when talking about the closure of the creamery, the shop and the school in his area of County Clare. “This area has been turned upside down. But there was nothing we could do. Like a lot of the country areas, it came so gradual at first that no one took any notice.” Few of the elder generation can understand the Internet, but those who do tend to empathize with the idea that times are changing and not all of it is bad.
WG: You’ve done some televised interviews with characters from your book for networks like RTE, like the one with Ms. Baby Rudden. How do you generally explain your project when you go visit someone like Baby Rudden? What is it that you say you're doing, so as to avoid sounding condescending, for example? [Note: Bridget Rudden, known by everyone as Baby, is an 88-year-old farmer from Drumcor, Redhills, County Cavan, interviewed in “Vanishing Ireland,” Volume 2. She never married.]
Bunbury: I am utterly honest. I say I am gathering stories from the area, local history, trying to gain a better understanding of how things were so that we can preserve the past for future generations. I was probably a good deal more coy in the early years of the project as I was aware I was going into houses to ask people about a childhood which, in many instances, was framed against a backdrop of rebellion, war and civil war.
WG: Does that still come up from time to time? Do people become guarded about talking about the era of the 1910s and ‘20s?
Bunbury: At this stage, they're clever enough to simply say nothing! Ask no questions, you'll hear no lies. But seriously, yes, some people are still guarded. And understandably so because civil wars are dreadful things and it takes a long time to heal. I've met old men in Tennessee who still haven't got over the fact their grandfathers were on the losing side of the U.S. Civil War. There is also the fact that many of the people I met genuinely do not know what their fathers and uncles did during the years of rebellion. ... And then, of course, there are some who are proud of it all.
WG: Do you worry that some of these older people like Baby Rudden may be in danger of dying alone at home, or abandoned?
Bunbury: Baby should be fine because she's about the most popular biddy in Cavan. In fact, just being in “Vanishing Ireland” does seem to elevate people's standing in the locality so more people will look out for them, which does make me wonder about the thousands of people who are destined to die alone. But I think Ireland is still reasonably good at keeping track of who's missing and such like. Mass used to be near vital for that: You'd say “Hey, why wasn't Mick at Mass on Wednesday. ... Somebody better get up there and see how he is.”
WG: What have you learned from doing this book?
Bunbury: As a historian I have benefited enormously. The Easter Rising, World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Black & Tans, the [Irish] Civil War, the Blueshirts -- all these have been vividly brought to life for me by people who lived through them. I think it is incredible that the grandparents of many of those I've met were children during The Famine. Ginger Powell's grandfather, whom he knew, was a teenager when the Blight struck and yet Ginger is still practicing as a vet down in Tipperary. And Statia Kealy, who died aged 108 in September -- she was Ireland's oldest woman for 5 days -- was the daughter of a woman who was born in 1862 [during America’s Civil War], back when those Tennessee boys were having a hard time of it.
WG: What would you most want people in Ireland, or the States, to take away from this book?
Bunbury: For people who are in the U.S., I hope this gives them an insight into the Ireland that their forbears left behind because, in many ways, the Ireland that I write about in these books is one that would be much more familiar to them than the post-Celtic Tiger Ireland of 2011.
Likewise, I hope that the books inspire people in Ireland to stop and think when they watch the old folk walking by, to wonder what [these elderly] did with their lives, to maybe see how they're getting on, to call in and see an elderly neighbor or maybe even to take their photograph and write their stories down.
DANIEL MARRIN is a Queen's, N.Y. -based journalist and videographer.
DANIEL MARRIN is a Queen's, N.Y. -based journalist and videographer.