Friday 28 November 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."

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.

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