Faces of Ireland
Though I’d never been there before, many faces I saw in Ireland were familiar. I was told that would happen and it did. All my ancestors come from that island, but they left more than a hundred years ago. Still, the country felt very familiar.
On our first day there, my wife and I checked out Dublin on the “Hop on, Hop off” tour bus, and it was just that. About fifteen double-decker busses made a continuous loop, each with a driver/tourguide, each stopping at about twenty-five different locations around the city. If a place seemed interesting, we’d hop off and investigate. Another bus would come along every ten minutes or so, and we could hop back on anytime and resume the tour. With a telephoto lens on my new Nikon, I could zoom in on faces without making my subjects nervous, because most were unaware of what I was doing. There was no shutter delay with the new camera and I could shoot hundreds of pictures on one memory card. I sat in the front on the bus’s upper level and when
an interesting face appeared, I’d shoot it.
To my eye, there are about 20-30 stereotypical varieties of Celtic countenance for men, and the same for women. Growing up in Greater Boston, I saw the same faces on the streets, at wakes and weddings, in school, in the bleachers at Fenway Park - almost everywhere I went. We Americans of Irish extraction continued our clannish ways for generations in the United States, tending to marry others like ourselves and preserving our characteristic countenances for another century. Hair can be red, black, blonde, or brown. Eyes can be blue, green, or brown. Skin can be clear or freckled. There are certain configurations of ears, eyes, noses and mouths. There are characteristic expressions on all those faces, however, which convey a personality and a mood. It was as if I knew some of what each was thinking and feeling. I wondered if we were all programmed to react to our environment with characteristic thoughts and emotions because of our shared DNA. Did we have a common wave length with which to communicate what was on our minds or in our hearts? That Ireland is an island country and, as such, was isolated and insular for millennia, perhaps contributed to this commonality of awareness in its human population.
We were there on a cool, drizzly Thursday in August and most of my subjects were going to work or going home, alone with their thoughts as they walked down sidewalks, waited at street corners, or lingered in doorways. I was able to focus in on most without their knowledge, but some seemed to sense my scrutiny and looked into my lens at the split second my shutter snapped. Those images were particularly interesting. They were people alone in the crowd until they saw my camera aimed at them. It was more than catching me staring. I was taking their image away with me without their permission. They could do little about it since they were on a sidewalk I was atop a moving bus. I felt a little guilty each time, but not enough to stop.
Some faces had a lot of miles on them - broken noses with whiskey blossoms flanked by wary eyes. There was a hardness to them that contrasted with other faces on the same sidewalk - those that looked like poets or academics. Many had cigarettes dangling from their lips as they walked along. There were more smokers in Dublin, but not many fat people compared to, say, Portland or Boston. They were in better shape than Americans and seemed less hostile. More made eye contact on the sidewalk and smiled than would do so here. They seemed more comfortable with each other on busses and trains too, more likely to look at one another and exchange words than just stare straight ahead.
When touring Ireland’s countryside later in the trip, I experienced the warmth, friendliness and and hospitality for which the Irish are well-known, especially toward others in the clan. While getting to know some of its people, I was learning more about myself. Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrat is the heritage I was born into, like it or not. It shaped me in many ways. There have been times when I liked that and other times when I didn’t. As with any other legacy in the human family, there are desirable traits and dysfunctional ones among the Irish. It’s the hand I was dealt at birth. How I play it is up to me.