Sepia-toned glimpse into a picture-postcard world
A beautiful new anthology by Perry O'Donovan depicts the Cork of bygone years through the prism of postcards and reveals the changing attitudes to what was deemed worthwhile subject material, finds Donal Lynch
There is something about the romance of a postcard that seems heightened by the very fact that they are now almost relics of a bygone era.
Etiquette and nosy postmen may have generally necessitated a self-conscious coyness in the handwritten messages -- the American critic Frank O'Hara scornfully described them as "the death of literature as we know it" -- but postcards were often much more than anodyne "wish you were here" missives; small fragments of a life lived, condensed love letters, gossip between the lines, bulletins from the seaside towns that they forgot to bomb.
Louis Daguerre, the inventor of photography, was so enthralled by postcards that he called them an art form in themselves. In the century after he made that statement the art spanned the range from John Hindes' wonderfully doctored landscapes to tittering cartoons -- but postcards remained important social and historical documents.
All of this is to be seen in Perry O'Donovan's Love From Cork, Postcards of the City & County, a gorgeously sepia-coloured anthology in which O'Donovan presents a sort of "motoring tour of the county" as seen through the prism of postcards, taken mostly from the private collections of Adrian Healy, of Leap, and John James, of Kinsale. Several hundred cards, spanning the 20th Century, are featured. The provenance of each, including the stamp and postal mark is explained fully by the author, who also gives insightful descriptions of the background significance to the image used.
O'Donovan is a writer and blogger from Skibbereen whose work has appeared in the Sunday Independent, the Irish Examiner, and the Irish Times. His impetus to write the book came in the summer of 2010, when he bumped into Healy on Main Street in Skibbereen. He told Healy he was on the lookout for unusual images of Cork for a series of features he was writing and Healy told him about a picture he had of Raheen Castle in Myross -- a 1930s postcard -- with a vintage car parked in front of it. "As a composition, he said there was something very interesting about it," O'Donovan remembers. "It sounded like just the kind of thing I was after -- local but also a bit quirky and different." Shortly after that, John James got in touch to let O'Donovan know about his own collection, and the book was born.
O'Donovan found interesting "that in the old postcards they hardly ever featured human beings. There were houses and castles and things they thought, in those years, were postcard-worthy. If you compare a postcard in Cork now it very probably will be a farmer with a Guinness sign over his head. Typical modern postcards are quite knowing and ironic".
The text of postcards is necessarily anodyne in most cases but O'Donovan uncovers a few notable exceptions. In a postcard of the Old Head of Kinsale from January 1909 the sender apologises for not sending out Christmas cards and complains about his long and difficult work week: "Overwhelmed with Old Age Pension work all winter. Working usually till 3am and often to 4am and I cannot see the end yet . . . Our Pension Officer here in the south has gone to Lunatic Asylum." O'Donovan explains that the background to this message was the introduction of the old age pension for the first time in January 1909.
Another postcard shows an image of a memorial at Charleville which was unveiled by Eamon De Valera in 1930. De Valera's speech -- the gist of which was that mothers should be prepared to give up their sons to die for Ireland -- appalled O'Donovan who called it "an almost jihadist message" and he found the sheep, which are pictured in the background to be particularly apt. They symbolise "the plain people of Ireland in need of leadership and the awful import of what de Valera was saying".
The book contains a few dozen well chosen literary extracts which accompany the images. Some writers, such as Elizabeth Bowen, Sean O'Faolain Frank O'Connor and James Joyce -- who set a portion of Portait Of The Artist As A Young Man in Cork -- picked themselves. But others, like hurler Donal Og Cusack, seemed less obvious. An extract from his autobiography accompanies a grainy black and white image of the Christian Brothers School in Middleton. Hurling is the best part of us, Cusack writes, and if we could live again we'd do more of it "because life is shorter than the second half of a tournament game that began at dusk".
It is the images that take centre stage throughout however. For O'Donovan the book was a labour of love. "Postcards can have the magical quality of seeming like a memory when you look at them even if if they are not," he says. "I think that, as much as anything, is what makes them fascinating."
Love From Cork: Postcards of the City & County by Perry O'Donovan, published by The Collins Press, is available at €20 in all good bookshops and online from http://www.collinspress.ie.