Lifestyle

Sunday 21 September 2014

Mystery of the Irishmen who built America

Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

They are the hands that built America, temporarily at rest. In September 1932, an unknown photographer shot an image that became an icon of the American century.

'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper' depicts 11 Depression-era steelworkers perched upon a narrow steel girder, dangling precariously over the Manhattan skyline.

It is an image that has been reproduced, ripped off and parodied so many times that is has become almost a cliché. ' The Simpsons' have paid homage to it, as did the cast of 'Friends'.

The picture hasn't always gotten a good press. Over the years, some have claimed that it was staged. (It probably was.) Others still have alleged that it was faked. (It wasn't.)

But what no one has ever been able to determine are the identities of those fearless men, casually breaking bread 850ft above Central Park. Until now.

In 2007, Irish filmmakers and brothers Sean and Eamonn O Cualáin happened to find themselves in a pub in the village of Shanaglish, near Gort in Co Galway. They noticed a copy of the famous photograph hanging in the bar, along with a note claiming to identify two of the 11 men.

The note was left by the American son of a local immigrant. It claimed that the two men at either end of the beam were the writer's father and uncle, both natives of the parish.

Intrigued, the filmmakers em-barked upon what became a five-year quest to test the veracity of the note-writer's claim and finally lay an 80-year-old riddle to rest.

The resulting documentary, 'Lon sa Speir – Men at Lunch', goes on limited release on February 1.

The image

Eamonn, producer: "The photo was conceived as a publicity stunt to sell office space in the Rockefeller Centre, which was then under construction. The work was dangerous, but well paid.

"The 11 guys you see would have considered themselves very lucky because there were 100 men below waiting for them to fall off so they could take the job."

Sean, director: "The steelworkers would have worked about eight to 10 floors above the electricians, the carpenters and the block layers. That's a drop of about 850ft.

"The fact that the picture is staged doesn't detract from that, I think. Those men were really up there working without harnesses."

Eamonn: "The image is owned by the Corbis agency, but no individual photographer was ever credited with the shot. Some have attributed it to Charles Ebbets. But we have established that there were three staff photographers on the 69th floor that day. Any one of them might have taken this picture. "Work records don't survive, either, so no one knows for sure who the construction workers are. In 2003, the ' New York Post' ran an article asking for help identifying them. Multiple people came forward, but the whole thing only threw up more questions than answers."

The reaction

Sean: 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper' was an instant sensation. It appeared on the cover of the 'New York Herald Tribune', which was the biggest-selling newspaper of the day. People identify with it, I think, because it's an immigrant story. The construction workers up there would have been Irish and Italian, Scandinavians and Newfoundlanders. But the people who identify with it today are Chinese, South Asians and Latinos.

"They don't see a bunch of white guys on that beam. They see immigrants. They see their own struggles reflected in that image."

Eamonn: "An Italian immigrant we met, named Sergio, made a life-size sculpture of the image in 2000.

After 9/11, he parked it near Ground Zero and it became a focal point for the rescue workers. It became almost a shrine to a lot of people, a symbol that the city would rise again.

"While making the film, we visited construction workers on the new Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. Sure enough, of course, half of them were Irish. The very first guy we met was named Reilly, from Galway. Shooting is supposed to cost $10,000 a day, but we were allowed to shoot up there for free.

Patrick (Sonny) Glynn (far right)

Sean: "Sonny Glynn was born at the turn of the century in Shanaglish, Co Galway.

"During the War of Independence, his aunt was shot dead at her front door with a baby in her arms. It was a Black and Tan reprisal for something that had happened in the area.

"So leaving Ireland in 1923, that's the baggage he would have had. But that was common to a lot of immigrants of that era. Europe had just torn itself apart in the First World War. America was the promised land and they landed in the middle of the biggest building boom of all time.

"We know very little about Sonny, because he died in 1953. It was his son, Pat Glynn, who came across the picture in Boston a number of years ago.

"He recognised his father straight away. Sonny is probably the most striking figure in the picture because he's staring directly at the camera.

"Pat had no doubt it was his father. When you recognise your dad, you know it's him. It was only when he looked at the image more closely that he realised that a second figure also looked familiar."

Matty O'Shaughnessy (far left)

Eamonn: "Matty O'Shaughnessy was Sonny Glynn's brother-in-law. Sonny was married to Matty's sister. Once they had settled in New York, they invited Matty to join them. That was 1924.

"He stayed in the US until the mid-1930s, at which point he went back to Ireland to raise a family.

"As a child, his son Patrick recalls his father telling the family bedtime stories about his time working on the skyscrapers in New York. Matty told the children that one day a photographer came and told them to sit out in a row on a beam. It wasn't something they normally did. It was a nice story, but it wasn't a big deal.

"A few years ago, Pat Glynn visited his cousin. He brought a copy of the picture.

"Patrick O'Shaughnessy recognised his father immediately. He realised this must have been the photograph his father had often told him about.

"We can't prove with 100pc certainty that Sonny Glynn and Matty O'Shaughnessy are the people in the picture. But I'm satisfied that they are."

In conversation with Eoin Butler

Weekend Magazine

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