Matt Nolan.

Camera as Confirmation present had profound effect on Matt’s life

Ciara O'Hara continues her series based on chats with local people.

Matt Nolan was born on a small farm in Ballygar in north Galway. “A lovely spot; I wouldn’t ever want to have been born anywhere else. I did all the things you do in a place like that. We had cows and pigs, and we cut turf and saved hay. My summers seemed to be eternally taken up saving hay, in bad weather – turning hay and shaking hay, making cocks of hay and bringing in hay.”

This was the 1950s and on the 18th day of every month, there was a cattle fair in Ballygar. “It was a huge social event. The schools closed down and all the kids went to the fair with their fathers. We had ‘chape jacks’ and three-card-trick men, people selling tea and coffee on the street… People came from all over the country. I learned the trade, selling cattle, but I never really followed up. If you sold cattle at a fair in Ballygar, you learned a lot about life!”

Although he had a happy childhood, Matt says the ’50s were a “desperate time to be brought up”. There wasn’t much money and, “every Sunday at Mass they were talking about who had gone to England. Fifty thousand people left every year, a thousand young people every week, for hotels and hospitals and building sites. Most of them had little education. Most of them didn’t know how to make a phone call. And they were suddenly catapulted out of their own small areas into central London, into one of the biggest cities in the world… And it didn’t work out too well. It didn’t work out for the majority of them.”

Matt went to school with “a great crowd of guys”. “They’re all over the country now and I meet them from time to time. We have a great connection still. It’s funny, the people that you meet in national school, you never ever forget them.”

After the Leaving Cert, he applied for a job with the Department of Forestry and was a forestry trainee for nine months. “The Civil Service nearly killed me. It was total accountability. Like, if you had a pen or a spade, and if you lost the spade, genuinely left it somewhere, there would be a team of people looking for it for a week or a fortnight. “When all the tools were worn out, in the forestry back then, there would be an inspector brought down and he would destroy them. And a big hole would be dug by a machine and each tool that had reached the end of its life would be buried there, in case anybody might bring them home with them. In forestry, it was tough work because you were planting trees on the side of mountains in the middle of winter, and all sorts of stuff – but I saw the Inland Fisheries Trust were looking for new people. So I applied for that and I ended up in Cavan.”

He came to Mullingar in 1972 after being “sent here as a punishment”. That was the year of the Bloody Sunday massacre. “I was very upset by it. A lot of people were upset by it. The following Sunday, there was a march in Derry to finish the march, because the Bloody Sunday march wasn’t finished. So we decided, along with a few thousand other people from all over the country, that we would finish the march.”

Matt drove to Derry in a “clapped-out banger of a Mini” with his friend, “a fella called Dermot Healy who turned out to be a great writer, a poet. It was a fierce experience altogether. It was a downpour of a day. We were never in Derry before; we knew nothing about the north of Ireland. There were army fellas all over the place stopping us and checking us going into Derry; they thought we were going to bomb Derry out of it.

“We had to go through these barricades, they were made up of prams and bits of timber, and we were going down into the Bogside, and there were young lads of 10, 12 or 15 there, checking us to see if we were ok. They’d take up a piece of the barricade and they’d let you through. We ended up in the Creggan housing estate, and there were bands, and it was a downpour, and we marched down through the Creggan and down through the Bogside. It was very emotional.

“There were thousands of local people and they were standing in the rain cheering us on and singing ‘Faith of our Fathers’. So we got down to Free Derry Corner and we heard Bernadette Devlin in full flight, making a speech, and sure we went home after that, meself and Healy, in the rain, and we were soaking. And I said goodbye to Healy that evening, never saw him since, and he’s dead now.

“A few months afterwards, I was transferred to Mullingar, and it was only later on that I found out that the superintendent in Cavan wasn’t happy about me going to Derry and he complained to the Inland Fisheries Trust… and he wanted me moved. That’s the reason I ended up in Mullingar. And it caused me fierce upset and distress at the time. I had been in Cavan for two or three years and I was very happy there. But anyway, lookit, ‘C’est la vie,’ as they say.”

Ten years earlier, in 1962, when he was 12, Matt received a gift that would have a profound effect on the rest of his life. “I had a great friend, my aunt Maggie, and she gave me money to buy a camera for my Confirmation, a Kodak Brownie. They were great cameras and millions of photos were taken all over the world with them; everyone had a little Box Brownie. It was 120 film that was inside of them and they took reasonably good photographs. And when I got the Box Brownie, I thought all my birthdays had come together, because I started taking photographs of people and places. I started to learn the whole knack of taking photographs and what constituted a good one or a bad one, in my own rough and tumble way.

“I lived from one roll of film to the next. I used to leave them into the local chemist shop and wait for a week or more. It was magic waiting to pull these photos out of an envelope and see what they were. And I didn’t have very much money because we hadn’t huge amounts of money when I was growing up. And trying to get rolls of film and get them developed was always a struggle for me.

“But the one thing it did teach me was I had only a limited amount of photos that I could take. I could only take 12 photos in every roll, and I couldn’t buy that number of rolls because I had no money. So I had to think hard before I took a photograph. And I had to try and make sure that if I took a photograph, it was going to be in the right place and it was going to be a good photograph. So I had to plan each photograph; that’s a great training. People nowadays just take strings of photographs and there’s very little planning in them. I was self-taught and I had to think out every photo that I took.”

In 2021, Matt won the Irish Independent calendar competition, competing with a significant number of photographers, most of them professional, although he isn’t fond of that term. “I don’t like to use that word, ‘professional’. I think there are only two types of photographers: good ones and bad ones. I don’t know where I fit in.”

He has published three books of photographs, Mullingar – Time Goes By; Ballygar: Just for the Record; and Ráth Chairn: An Talamh Bán / The Promised Land.

More than 4,000 copies of Mullingar – Time Goes By have been sold, and some €11,000 of the proceeds went to the local hospice. All three books document the vast changes that have taken place over several decades. Continues...