Putting on a Good Front

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Broad Street, Limerick, November 1949

Thirty years ago I was involved in the production of a little book about the traditional shopfronts of Roscrea, County Tipperary. A typical midlands market town, Roscrea had many old stores the appearance of which both inside and out dated back to the late 19th century. Largely due to insufficient funds the majority of these properties had since remained unaltered. However from the late 1960s onwards retailers here as elsewhere embarked on a determined programme of modernisation for their premises. Anything old was regarded as outmoded and a bar to progress, and so the old shopfronts with their painted fascias were swept away. Up in their place went expanses of plastic and fluorescent lighting, the same as could be found in innumerable other towns around the world. It may be that on strictly economic grounds the decision to discard the old made sense, but at what cost to the town’s character?
Awareness of this rapidly vanishing element of Roscrea’s heritage led to the project to record its still-extant shopfronts. The book contained pen and ink drawings of each premises included, together with as much information as could be ascertained about the shop and its history. It was a timely exercise: last time I passed through the town very few of the old shopfronts were still to be seen. Had the book not been published, today there would most likely be no record of what had gone.

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Cigar Divan, Carlow, October 1958

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Shopfronts, Askeaton, County Limerick, February 1978

I remembered the little book of Roscrea shopfronts when looking through a recently published collection of photographs taken by the late Maurice Craig. For the best part of a half century wherever he travelled about Ireland Maurice brought his camera, and the result was a wondrous record of a country which within living memory has all but disappeared. ‘I do not think of myself as a photographer,’ he writes in his Introduction, ‘merely somebody who has taken a great many photographs, usually with a purpose in mind…Unconsciously I was collecting the materials for a history of buildings, which I came to realise were at risk of destruction or mutilation.’
A brief biography of Maurice will be helpful for those to whom his name is unfamiliar. Born of Presbyterian stock in Belfast in 1919 he was educated at Shrewsbury before winning a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge where he occupied the same rooms as had the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell some eighty years earlier. Maurice then went on to write a doctorate on the poet Walter Savage Landor at Trinity College, Dublin. His first book, a biography of the Earl of Charlemont (see Casino Royale, March 25th) appeared in 1948 but four years later he wrote the work with which he has ever after been associated: Dublin 1660-1860. It took 13 years for the 2,000 copies of the book’s first edition to sell but since being republished in 1969 Dublin 166-1860 has rightly been regarded as a peerless piece of architectural history. Impeccably written, packed with information and anecdote, more than sixty years after first appearing this remains the best work to read about the city’s evolution during the Georgian period. If I were to choose only one of his other books to recommend it would have to be Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976), a volume as distinctive – and memorable – as its title indicates.

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Shopfront, Rathcormick, County Cork, March 1979

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Hacketts Shop, Killkenny, June 1948

At the close of his preface to Dublin 1660-1860, Maurice comments, ‘I have done my best to get out of the way of the buildings and let them be seen for themselves, relying on a possibly fallacious belief that architecture cannot lie.’ He adopted the same approach to his photography, allowing buildings to make their own eloquent case. Amateur though he was Maurice proved an instinctively gifted photographer. Other people, of course, were taking pictures of Irish architecture before he started doing so in the 1940s, but usually the focus was on friends or family standing in front of or inside a building, or the place was being photographed for commercial purposes, most often to be reproduced as a postcard. Maurice was interested in a structure’s inherent qualities and in capturing these for posterity (somehow he knew of the wave of demolition that lay ahead). But he brought a romantic’s eye to his self-imposed task. Look at the way he frames the house in Limerick in the first picture by enclosing it with the sides of a lane on the other side of the street. And one must be either brave or perhaps foolhardy to devote so much of an image to empty roadway as in the photograph immediately above. Yet that expanse enhances appreciation of the building, not least because the outlines of this are lightly echoed on the surface of wet tarmac.
At the age of 91 Maurice died some eighteen months before the publication of the book from which these pictures are taken, having spent his last years in a little house in Monkstown, County Dublin. Anyone who visited him there will recall walls densely packed with books, Maurice contented in the midst of them with his pipe and a cat called Minna, seemingly surrounded by chaos but actually anchored by a wealth of index cards on which all necessary information on countless subjects was inscribed in impeccable script. Like the old shopfronts of Roscrea he has now gone, but there remains ample testimony to his presence on this earth in words and pictures alike. The photographs shown here are just a handful of those featured in his last book, which includes buildings great and small, many of them long since lost, all of them worthy of being immortalised by Maurice’s camera.

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O’Carroll Street, Tullamore, County Offaly, July 1957

Maurice Craig: Photographs is published by Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie)

6 comments on “Putting on a Good Front

  1. Richard Butler says:

    Hello,

    Could you say a little more about the Tullamore photograph at the end of your post? Is this the old County Infirmary at the end of the broad street?

    Thanks!

    Richard.

    • Yes, that is the former County Infirmary, built in 1788 (architect seems to be unknown) and very much intended to close the vista of this wide street (its width presumably intended so that the space could serve as a market). The town’s oldest public building, it has been converted into apartments (with an extension at the back) and, I think, nothing of the original interior remains – but I am open to correction on this.

  2. fascinating…I love the image of him sitting surrounded by books,content with his pipe and Minna.

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