MARTIN Duggan has been fixing people’s shoes on Shandon Street, like his father Seán before him, for his entire adult life.
A keen photographer, Martin, proprietor of Duggan’s cobblers, has also taken the time to take pictures of life on the historic northside street, and Cork City Libraries have launched an archive of his work as well as an exhibition, a unique snapshot of life on Shandon Street that he says represents a “frozen slice of time” on a street in the midst of change.
“I’m very thrilled and flattered that this was interesting enough to archive, and I’m delighted to have done some little bit of good for the street in having recorded life in the area,” says Martin.
In a series taken in the last 11 years, Martin has photographed what he calls the “faces of Shandon in four aspects,” the workers, the characters on the street, the architecture and the events.
Popping into neighbouring businesses, he captured people like upholsterer Christy Forde at work in their shops: a sight Martin believes is set to become increasingly rare as our city-scapes are changed by online retail and large shopping centres.
“It’s become rarer for someone to be able to inherit a second or third generation business and to work away and do that for the rest of their lives,” Martin says. “That kind of thing is going and so is the skill in people using their hands to make bread, repair shoes, fix TVs; these kinds of streets won’t be around for much longer and I think that’s a pity. It’s worth recording, I suppose.”
In the time since Martin has been documenting life on the street, he says, at least six of his elderly subjects have passed on, and several more businesses have closed.
“I chronicled the change,” he says. “There have been losses on the street, and I also have the first ever African shop and Indian shop on the street.
“The whole world is changing, and of course there’s good change and bad change, but I just feel that with internet shopping and shopping malls, it’s a pity for the sole trader and the customer too. It’s therapeutic for customers to drop in, instead of the conveyor belt type of shopping we have now.”
Martin was born on Gerald Griffin Street and moved with his parents to his dad’s cobbler shop on Shandon Street when he was just seven. Now 61, he first became interested in photography in his twenties, when he bought his first film camera and joined a camera club, but it was the purchase of his first digital camera in 2007 that led to an explosion in his creative output.
“I always had an interest in photography and I’d be snapping away,” Martin says, “but particularly with the digital cameras, I got a bit more serious about chronicling the area.”
As well as staff and business owners, Martin has captured some amazing images of some of the area’s characters.
“I don’t know what it is about the north side of cities, but they seem to attract eccentrics,” he laughs. “That’s what I really love doing, photographing the characters like that.
“There’s a saying: ‘At fifty, we all get the face we deserve’. I love that saying and I love to photograph lived-in faces that tell their own story. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel here, because you have so many eccentric characters around.”
A runner-up in last year’s Irish Examiner readers’ photography awards, Martin, who lives on Iona Road with his wife and is a dad to two adult children, also runs the Shandon Image News Facebook page, which has more than 6,400 likes and has a finger on the pulse of life on the northside. It’s his position as a local business owner at the heart of the community that has helped him to win the trust of his many photographic subjects, he believes.
“There’s trust there and they know what I’m doing,” he says. “I can just go in to a shop and snap away quite quickly: I don’t like being too intrusive or technical with things like setting up lights so if I can use available light at all, I will. I don’t want to make things too complex.”
Was he ever tempted to give up the shoe repairs in favour of pursuing his passion for photography as a career?
“Every Monday morning,” he jokes. “No, not really: I think when you work for yourself it’s freedom to photograph whatever I want. If I was professional I’d have to do things I didn’t want to or that I wasn’t interested in. I just do what I enjoy and what I love, and I think that’s why I’ve done it for so long.
“I’m delighted with the archive and the exhibition. In one way, you could worry you’re giving away your images but then again, after I’m dead they could all end up in the skip. In that way, it’s great to think of them having their own life and being part of the history of the area.”
The Faces of Shandon runs at Cork City Library on Grand Parade until November 14. The Shandon Archives will be available to view via Cork City Library’s website.