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Gentleman Joe: documenting Cork on Twitter
Throughout the 1980s, Joe Healy took thousands and thousands of photos documenting the development of Cork. Those pictures have now found a home on Joe's Twitter account.
Joe Healy has had a Twitter account since 2018, but it’s only this year, indeed in the past few months that it’s really got going. Since re-joining the global soap box a few months back, Joe, now in his 70s, posts regularly, but the time frame is quite narrow.
Even though the former Cork Examiner staffer has likely well over 100,000 photos to draw from, what ends up on his Twitter account is an evolving snapshot of Cork in the 1980s. That was the decade when governments fell as often as showers, when the Taoiseach Charles Haughey reprimanded the country for living beyond its means (while living a galaxy beyond his means), when you could still walk freely out to the lighthouse on the Old Head of Kinsale, when a treat in town was in Burgerland or Mandy’s, when you could still expect the Cork footballers, hurlers and camogie players to regularly win All-Ireland Championships, when Turners Cross stadium was not at all a stadium but more or less just a pitch and a raised mound, and when, for some odd reason, possibly in a sign of late (or early?) modernity, the developers behind Douglas Court shopping centre on the Southside of the city, erected a clock tower that was a shiny blue imitation of Big Ben in London. It was blown apart in a storm in 1997.
You want to know how Cork city and the suburbs, and indeed the county looked in the eighties? Talk to Joe, or look at his Twitter account.
Joe said there was no “eureka” moment as to why he decided to return to Twitter, rather, but, as he told me, he’s retired and has plenty of time to do these things now.
He decided to go with Twitter, and not Instagram, as he likes the conversation that flows from the photos he posts there, or “the photographic feedback” as he calls it.
In the beginning
Originally from Montenotte -Joe’s father worked as a manager in The Irish Independent when it still had a bureau on St. Patrick’s Street, just next to Woolworths - like many a new parent, Joe decided he needed a new camera when his first son Stephen was born in the late 70s.
“I said to myself a proper camera is needed,” Joe recounted over a cup coffee in Douglas Court Shopping Centre, and so he bought his first SLR, an Olympus OL10. While he didn’t study photography at college, Joe has always been interested in the art form and his first ever camera was an Instamatic from Kodak, and he shot using 110 film. As a younger man he used to regularly head off on his motorbike out along the coast to Kinsale or Owenahincha and take snaps.
A lot happened in the eighties for Joe. He became a father, and like many workers he lost his job when, in 1983, the company he worked for closed down. Not wanting to go on the dole straight away, he enrolled on photography courses in order to gain some certification and accreditation
“If you're going to go into photography you obviously need to put a few letters after your name,” Joe told me.
From there he decided to take a chance and open a studio on the main street in Carrigaline, the kind of photography studio that was once commonplace throughout towns and villages across Ireland, where families came to document birthdays, christenings, communions, family portraits and even pet portraits.
“It lasted two years. It was the mid-eighties into the late eighties and the place was dead really you know,” Joe recalled. He was working seven days a week, 12 hour days and what was coming in wasn’t enough.
But while he was setting up the studio he was also active in local media; he was editor of local publications in Carriagaline and through this work he formed a wide network with clubs and communities and he was continually called on to document the milestones that make up community newspapers and magazines.
It was very satisfying work Joe said. During that time he was also a stringer for The Southern Star and he often worked alongside journalist Leo McMahon. Both men are currently involved in the Passage West Maritime Museum.
“Things were ticking over and I was building up a portfolio,” Joe said, but around 1987 he decided “enough was enough of trying to eke out a living.” He knew he’d have to step off and step up.
Delivering de paper
Fortune was on his side however, as there was an opening in The Cork Examiner, as it was known throughout the 80s. However, it was not as a photographer that he was hired, but as a driver and his job was to cart de paper across county boundaries.
“I was tearing around Munster and Ireland for a few years and always looking for an opening as far as the photography was concerned,” Joe said.
He has some great memories and photos to document his time as a delivery driver.
“You could write a book about it,” Joe says, “any of the lads could.”
There was plenty of accidents and near accidents, and on one occasion he recalls, during a fierce storm he was the only vehicle to make it on the road from Cork to Tralee overnight.
His shifts typically started at one o’clock in the morning and drivers were always racing against the clock. Readers wanted the news, in print, and on time.
And operations didn’t always go smoothly, as when the sheets broke during printing on the night Cork won an All-Ireland final, and Joe was late arriving to West Cork with The Examiner.
“So you can imagine the reaction going all around West Cork and all the the lads at the shops waiting for The Examiner.”
There was, as he recalled, plenty of “dirty looks” like it was Joe’s fault entirely that The Examiner was late. “Little did they know,” Joe says, laughing it off.
Another time, Joe was snowed in for hours in the mountains up in North Cork; stuck there in his van there was nothing to do except wait for help, which eventually came in the form of a local farmer in his tractor.
“I was stopped up for over five hours I'd say shivering in the van, but by chance I had the camera with me that day so I got a few shots of the snow,” Joe recalled.
On the picture desk
After a period of three to four years in the delivery van, Joe finally got a job indoors in Academy Street, when The Examiner was still located in the city centre, but it wasn’t as a snapper. Rather, he was assigned to the image management desk. Part of his duties were on the picture desk, assisting with publishing duties.
Joe recalls that it was “hair-raising” at times, because, with a daily newspaper there is above all that daily deadline: come hell or high water, or both, you have to gather the news, package it all together in pre-press and then get it off to the printing presses where it’s folded and bundled into delivery vans and out to New Ross and Tralee, Kanturk and Cahirciveen and all points between.
When Joe began working with The Examiner it was the pre-digital era and widespread internet adoption was still a ways off. Joe can still recall the first time they were able to search Google for images. By the time he left in 2011, by which time the paper was called The Irish Examiner, the process had largely been digitised.
Joe is soft spoken, good-humoured and mild-mannered and you get the sense he is also meticulous, which was clearly noted in The Examiner as he was tasked with archiving hundreds of thousands of photographs which were stored away on the top floor in Academy Street in no man’s land.
Joe first started going upstairs when the paper “was put to bed” (sent to the printing press) around 11 p.m. each night, and he recalls seeing a “fantastic array of old glass plates.” (Basically, these plates were negative images).
Those glass plates consisted of every picture “that was ever taken from say 1900 right up to the 1960s or possibly even later,” Joe said.
The images documented everything form the burning of Cork city, the death of Michael Collins, to the birth of an independent country, to crowds welcoming home Christy Ring and Jack Lynch, and so much else in between.
Joe laughs when he remembers that he was once asked by the managing director to count how many plates were in the archive “as I was the only one really interested in them.”
He came up with a rudimentary counting system and came back to the managing director with an answer.
“I’d say about a quarter of a million,” Joe told his boss.
But the boss had picked the right man in Joe to send up to the top floor. Joe was reeled in by the abundance of history on that top floor, but he was also concerned.
“I said to myself, ‘this is unbelievable’, because I was so interested in history. And there were plates scattered on the ground, broken plates, you name it, nobody gave a damn. And this was in a reinforced floor, you know, I think there was about two feet of reinforced concrete, holding up all these plates.”
Joe set about cataloguing and scanning the pictures from the top floor. Every night he’d haul down a collection of glass plates and scan them into the paper’s picture database. It was a slow and laborious job and Joe saw thousands and thousands of religious and GAA photos, but he also laid eyes on photos of Michael Collins.
There wasn’t as many photos of streetscapes as he’d hoped for, diplomatically he tells me some of them went missing. Joe said that the vast haul of glass plates eventually made their way out to the Cork Archives Institute as The Examiner and The Echo moved out of Academy Street, first to Lapps Quay, before eventually settling into its current office environment in Blackpool.
While Joe had and still has a huge grá for all things photography-related, it was probably this element that kept him going at The Examiner as often he didn’t like the atmosphere there and some of the big egos and personalities that are or were common to newsrooms.
Together with his wife Joe moved out to Carriagline in the early 1980s and prior to moving to the suburb, he would always “mozy” around town with his camera. New developments were always on his radar: he wanted to capture the new city that was emerging, as well as the one that was being erased.
“If I ever saw something being built or news of changes in the landscape I was out straight away to document it,” Joe said.
Around that time he was using one of his favourite cameras, an Olympus OM-10 which he traded in for a Canon A-1, which he picked up from MacSweeney’s in town. Denis, the long time owner and a good friend, told Joe to try out the new lens on the day he called in, so he took off down the quays. It just so happened that same day there was a show of naval power on the quays; a Soviet destroyer and an American destroyer were docked up “at the height of the Cold War.”
“I used up a few rolls that day,” Joe says laughing.
To this day Joe still rushes out to new developments as they pop up to document them. In fact, blow-ups of Joe’s photos of Douglas Shopping Centre from the 1980s line the walls of the shopping centre which reopened in 2020 after a fire resulted in it being closed for more than a year.
With the growth of social media there has been an explosion in street photography, especially of people on streets, but Joe said he’s never wanted to go down the route of “shoving his camera in front of people.”
“I prefer not to be sticking the camera in people’s faces…I think it’s intrusive,” he said.
Joe has some received some great reaction, commentary, questions and requests as result of the photos he’s published on Twitter. For instance, the shot of the culverting of Carrol's Quay and the Kiln watercourse for the construction of the N20. Everyone in Cork knows the city is built on water, but that shot is a great visual of what we’ve gained and lost. Many replied with the word “progress” to that photo, with sarcasm intended.
Some of Joe’s shots are of the banal and the mundane, as with the interior shots taken from Burgerland and from Mandy’s. There’s nothing spectacular about these shots, but rather they’re a specific snapshot of a particular time and they’re a dose of nostalgia also.
There’s a line that connects the work of Anthony Barry, the great chronicler of Cork city in the 1960s and the 1970s, and Joe’s work from the 1980s. Both men built up a huge archive of a city in all its guises, and both photographers have captured a city that has changed immeasurably, and in ways that we can only fully understand with the passage of time.
Another of Joe’s photos that, unsurprisingly, was well-received shows the 'old' Páirc Uí Chaoimh as seen from lower Montenotte. The occasion was the All-Ireland football semi-final replay between Cork and Dublin in 1983. It was a glorious day (even though Cork lost) with the sun shining. It’s a beautiful shot of the old stadium showing the lovely gentle sweeping lines of the sporting fortress.
Joe however doesn’t traffic in nostalgia. While he posts snapshots of a time gone by, he doesn’t sit around wishing time stood still.
“I’d be very controversial in my views” when it comes to developments, Joe said.
“There are so many rundown buildings around the city, no matter what kind of a modern building, get it up and the higher the better as far as I am concerned,” he told me, laughing.
As for his Twitter account, Joe said he’s going to keep on posting from his bank of images taken in Cork in the 80s until, well, until he runs through his archive, but that could be a long time coming yet. And after that, there’s hundreds and thousands of other photos he can draw from.
In the meantime, he’s been busier than usual as together with a small team they have been preparing for a bumper exhibition at Passage West Maritime Museum which documents the events and battles in the area during the civil war 100 years ago.
Like all of us, Joe takes most of his photos on his phone now (he has a Google Pixel 3a - “the picture quality is unbelievable”) but he still has his SLRs also.( Hi Twitter bio reads: 'The best camera is the one you have with you'.)
One of the projects that he’s been working on for decades is the progress of Ringaskiddy Port, which will become the main location for all container ships and tankers that dock in Cork harbour.
“I probably have thousands of pictures of Ringaskiddy,” Joe said. His current project is focused on the M28 which will link the motorway to the port.
Joe recalls talking about the project as far back as the 1980s with Micheal McGrath, when he was still a councillor.
“I remember he asked me, ‘well Joe, is there anything you’d be interested in seeing happening?’”
“I said Michael, ‘would you ever build a decent road (to Ringaskiddy)?”, Joe answered.
The councillor’s answer was that it “will come in time.” Joe laughs, because it’s a long time coming and has generated considerable controversy in that time.
But it will come, in time, and Joe will be out there with his camera, documenting the changing landscape photo by photo by photo so that someday generations of people in Cork will look back at how their city and county changed through the decades.