Monday, July 27, 2020

The Royal Mail Car from Ballina to Belmullet in 1910. Picture: Copyright of the Leonard Collection

Few photographer’s careers have been defined by a single image as much as Jack Leonard’s, the north Mayo cameraman whose remarkable portrait of the West Mayo IRA Flying Column, in the foothills of Nephin as dusk descended, on June 21, 1921, has become one of the iconic images of Ireland’s War of Independence.
Leonard was a member of the North Mayo IRA Brigade, which gave him the sort of access to the IRA squads most other photographers would have been denied, and his collection from that historic period is among the most important in Irish photojournalism.
But there was much more to Jack Leonard’s career than those famous images of ‘The Men of the West’.
Indeed, it was only when this writer visited Crossmolina Civic Centre, last Thursday, to view a new exhibition, ‘In My Grandfather’s Time’, that I appreciated the extraordinary diversity and longevity of Leonard’s life behind the lens.
The exhibition has been painstakingly curated by Jack’s grandson, Anthony Leonard, and it is a must-visit for anyone with even a passing interest in Mayo history or just someone who wants to spend a leisurely hour or two viewing scenes from an era when virtually nobody had a camera.
The images in the Leonard Collection span a half-century of Mayo life, from a pilgrimage to Michael Davitt’s homestead in Straide on the first anniversary of his death in June 1907 to the opening of Bellacorick power station in the early 1960s.
So much lost history is captured in this exhibition and the selection of images included with this article is only a very small taster of the many striking and historic photographs on display in the beautiful surrounds of Crossmolina’s new civic centre, which is located behind the library and has its own separate access.
Anthony Leonard has hosted versions of this exhibition in Ballina, Castlebar, and Newport, but the opportunity to display his grandfather’s images in Crossmolina, where Jack Leonard had his studio throughout his career, piqued his interest and he delved back into the vast archive to uncover many new images that have never been shown before.
In many ways, Anthony is bringing it all back home and the exhibition captures so much of life in north Mayo in the early 1900s — whether it is Crossmolina, Ballina, Foxford, Erris, or Ballycastle. Indeed, some of the shots from Erris are particularly fascinating, including a very rare one of the workhouse in Belmullet.
Leonard began his career as a photographer with the Illustrated London News, having emigrated from his native Bofeenaun in 1900, aged just 18. He was clearly trained by some of the best photographers in London and the earliest image in the exhibition is from Crossmolina in 1903. It was published in the Illustrated London News and was taken while the photographer was home on holiday.
Jack Leonard moved back to Ireland in 1906 and was soon capturing images of some of the most historic events in his county’s history, whether it was the commemoration at Davitt’s homestead in 1907 or Olympian Martin Sheridan’s exhibition in Ballina in 1908.
Interestingly, for a photographer who would become so indelibly linked to Ireland’s independence struggle, Leonard took many images of the big houses around north Mayo, as well as various portraits of landlords and their families.
However, from the early 1910s onwards, Jack Leonard became the faithful chronicler of Ireland’s journey towards political independence, starting with events hosted by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, prior to the launch of the National Volunteers in 1914. There are images in this exhibition from a Volunteers’ training camp in Crossmolina and a parade in Swinford in the summer of 1914 when the movement was really taking off in Mayo.
Leonard may have been possessed of staunch republican leanings, but he never let it instruct his work as a photographer.
Standing alongside images of the aristocracy he and his IRA colleagues set out to overthrow is a photograph of RIC officers outside Bangor Erris station, just one example of Leonard’s ability to capture all facets of life in Mayo during the early decades of the 20th century.
Unsurprisingly, a full section of the exhibition is devoted to the work for which Leonard became famous, but even there the viewer is in for a few surprises, with this writer encountering several images I had never seen before.
One, in particular, of the burnt-out shell of Michael Kilroy’s forge in Newport after a Black and Tan raid is especially striking, as is a photograph of an IRA reburial during the truce in late 1921. There is also a rare photograph of an IRA training camp from that same period.
No words can properly do justice to an exhibition that brilliantly captures so much of our county’s and country’s history. Anthony Leonard has done the Irish public a great service in preserving his grandfather’s legacy for future generations.
Using Jack Leonard’s journals and notebooks — and marrying them with newspaper reports of the era — Anthony has retraced the footsteps of a photographer who lived a truly remarkable life.
The fact that the photographs exist at all is fortunate because Leonard’s house in Bofeenaun was raided on several occasions by the Black and Tans, who would have destroyed all of the glass-plate negatives had they found them.
Leonard, however, buried his priceless collection under cocks of hay, among other locations. Sadly, his first wife passed away during that period and Anthony says his grandfather always put her death down to the stress she endured during those raids.
‘In My Grandfather’s Time’ is currently showing in Crossmolina, and will run until mid-August.
The team at the civic centre have done a fantastic job in ensuring social distancing can be maintained while people enjoy the exhibition.
Indeed, they asked the Western People to especially thank Crossmolina Community Council, Crossmolina Festival, Mayo Co Council, Michael Loftus, and TSL Design, for all their assistance in preparing for the exhibition.
The public can view the exhibition from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, and from 2pm to 5pm at weekends. Admission is free.
There are many people who have spent much of the past four months cocooning and are still a little wary about venturing outdoors.
This exhibition offers a fantastic opportunity to spend a few hours out of the house, in a safe and relaxed environment — and anyone who views it certainly won’t be disappointed.
Indeed, one can only be amazed that so much history was captured by just one man and his trusty camera.

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