Wicklow People

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Colman and his camera work

Reporter David Medcalf met with veteran press photographer Colman Doyle, who now lives in County Wicklow, to share some memories of Bloody Sunday and Ian Paisley

The contrast could scarcely be more extreme. Colman Doyle sits the living room of his lake-side bungalow with its serene views of the waters below and the surrounding County Wicklow countryside. The scenery is superb and restful, yet the veteran photographer is speaking of an Ireland which was at war during his time as a staffer with the old 'Irish Press'.

His images of the Troubles in the North, most of them in gritty black and white, have become an indelible part of how that traumatic era is remembered by everyone on this island.

Of course, Colman also toted his camera to less stressful places, capturing Dublin urchins and Kerry country folk with his keen-eyed lens. His initial training was as a taker of portraits, his technique later honed by decades of shooting statesmen, politicians and personalities as well as ordinary folk. Yet it is probably as chronicler of Ulster strife that this Dublin born snapper is best remembered, now that he has stepped down from professional photography.

The 87-year-old continues to take an interest in current affairs and the media but he is largely content to cultivate his flowers and vegetables in the garden at his residence in Ballyknockan. He chuckles at the notion that he lived here near Blessington for many years before most of his neighbours realised what distinguished company they were in. His low profile cover was finally blown recently with an exhibition staged for three days only in nearby Valleymount.

The organisers had plenty of material to choose when they set about selecting the 100 prints for the show from material now held by the National Archive. Colman shot thousands of rolls of film during his stint with the 'Press', developing and printing most of the shots in the dark room at the paper's legendary HQ in Burgh Quay. While some of his colleagues preferred to adjourn to nearby Mulligan's pub and let others do the processing, he chose to maintain hands-on control of his material where possible.

'I'm a blow in, twenty-five years a blow-in,' he ways of his status in west Wicklow. 'We decided to move from Foxrock when the children were gone and we ended up in Blessington.'

He admits that Ballyknockan was not a question of love at first sight for him and his wife as they trawled around looking at property in 1994. They drove straight on past the 'For Sale' sign without lingering, but their daughter took down the phone number of the estate agent and they later made a successful offer for the property. Colman confesses that he now avoids his native city, lamenting the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams and unfamiliar one-way systems which make sorties into Dublin a nightmare.

He grew up in Dalkey, which he remembers as a village at the time, attending the local national school before moving on to Presentation Glasthule in Dun Laoghaire. He started 'messing around with photography' as a boy, his interest stimulated by a science teacher at the Pres who gave a lecture on how to develop film. He was inspired to load up the family Box Brownie camera and aim it at scenes in the Vico Road near his home before taking the film home. The pantry was blacked out with a friend to make an improvised darkroom in which to make negatives and, though the initial efforts were dodgy, his technique gradually improved.

An advertisement in the 'Evening Mail' seeking a trainee photographer caught his eye, prompting him to take a fresh set of pictures on the Brownie. His efforts came to the attention of neighbour and pharmacist George Chambers who offered to re-print in smarter and larger format, turning down all offers of payment. The professionally presented portfolio assisted young Doyle to secure at place in Baggot Street in the studio of Norman Ashe at ten shillings (64 cents) per week.

The new recruit was put to the menial job of washing prints and it was only when he threatened to leave that his boss decided to take a more enlightened interest. He agreed to train Colman on Saturday mornings and a bond formed between the two men.

Seven decades later, the younger of the pair recalls his British born employer with fondness and awe. He had served in North Africa during World War Two as an army reconnaissance pilot who risked his life taking pictures of German deployments. The danger was not so much the likelihood that he would be shot down by Rommel's men as that he would run out of fuel on the way home and crash into the pitiless Sahara. Two of his colleagues had perished in this manner but Ashe, an accomplished flyer of gliders, returned safely to base by cutting out his engine and freewheeling for much of the perilous journey.

Having set up in business in Dublin, the Englishman was not content to make his money exclusively by shooting portraits in the studio or compiling wedding albums. He had a plane at Weston Aerodrome, and offered an aerial photography service, with his apprentice in the cockpit. The studio closed in the mid-1950s when its owner was smitten by a German model ('a very tall and striking woman,' recalls Colman) and left Ireland for the Rhine.

His assistant found himself at a loose end. His first significant newspaper assignment for the 'Press' was at Lansdowne Road covering an Ireland versus France international game. The inexperienced freelancer was chosen on the basis that, as a past pupil of Pres Glasthule, he had at least played rugby in school. He had his foot in the door and was made a permanent member of staff within a couple of years, a man who had found his niche.

His first proper scoop came in 1956 when he and a reporter were dispatched north in a taxi in the wake of an IRA raid on the gun store at a British Army barracks in Armagh. The red-faced military did not roll out the red carpet to the media party, who were met with a firmly closed barracks door. But Colman noticed an observation slit in the door, presumably intended to allow those inside to check the credentials of anyone waiting outside. He reversed the procedure by putting his lens up to the slit and taking a shot of head scratching soldiers within.

Such impudence prompted a roar and the door finally opened as a portly sergeant emerged roaring: 'Come back here at once.' He was too late. The intruder was legging it as fast as he could back to the other side of the border. The Armagh expedition was to prove the start of a long standing association with Northern Ireland. During the Troubles from 1969 to 1979, he was regularly rostered to work in the Six Counties while others were reluctant to put themselves in danger.

'I went because I was interested as history was unfolding,' he muses. So it was that he was present in Derry in 1972 when gun happy paratroopers turned a civil rights demo into the carnage of Bloody Sunday. He remembers seeing four soldiers firing towards a barricade and naively assuming that they were shooting over the heads of the protestors. He learned different after he walked along the line of fire and saw three bodies lying in the street. The shooting resumed and this time he lay down and took cover.

'I wasn't scared - I was ignorant,' he concludes. 'When you are taking photographs, you are so focused on what you are doing that you are not aware of the dangers.'

Another riot in Derry produced another close shave and more memorable prints, this time on patrol with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Colman was following officers along a street where an armoured car had been petrol bombed to a burning standstill.

Looking up, the sky above him was filled with bottles, stones and petrol, which remain in his memory as being like a flock of starlings. He dodged into a burnt out building where a police sergeant was also gathering his wits before the two men made good their retreat.

Along the way, he enjoyed the thrill of steeplechasing, the excitement of three Olympic Games, fashion shoots and a rich vein of portraiture. His work has made four books of amazing imagery. If he has one remaining professional ambition, it is to train his lens on current President Michael D Higgins, to add to the long list of Uachtaráin and Taoisigh who have come his way.

Mention of such matters somehow brings the conversation back to Belfast and his pally relationship with the late Reverend Ian Paisley. The DUP firebrand was happy to have his likeness taken by the man from the 'Irish Press' and the photographer from Dublin evidently made a good impression.

Some time later, Colman was covering the return of the old loyalist gun-running ship 'Clyde Valley' to Belfast Harbour amidst much staunch Unionist hoop-lah. He found the perfect spot high up on a gantry but a BBC crew attempted to dislodge the southern interloper.

Then a voice boomed out from down below: 'Leave that man alone!' directed the Reverend Ian who made sure that his wee friend from Dalkey retained his perch.

The memory still makes Colman Doyle laugh.

Wicklow People