The Inside of an Irish Traveler’s Caravan
“96 Pigeon House Road” shows Rosie Maughan, her family and the space they occupy on the fringes of Dublin, Ireland. A 38-photograph sideshow by Don McNeall Healy, the series not only shows the personal moments of this family, but the nuances of Irish Traveler culture.
The project focuses on Rosie, is a mother, grandmother, matriarch, divorcee, devout Roman Catholic and the force that keeps The Maughan family together. She lives with her extended family in a trailer – or caravan as they’re called in Ireland – parked at 96 Pigeon House Road in Ringsend, a gritty industrial neighborhood in Dublin near the docks on the River Liffey. “It’s not the nicest of places to live, but it’s quiet. It’s society’s unwritten rules to but travelers on the margins,” Healy said.
The Maughans are Irish Travelers, a group of nomadic people and Ireland’s underclass. They’re like untouchables without the pity. Traditionally, Travelers migrate in tight-knit groups from town to town in trailers, hold odd jobs (often as tinsmiths) and, more recently, scavenge for scrap metal. They have their own distinct culture, are usually devoutly Catholic, have their own dialect and their own values. As the name implies, Irish Travelers are from Ireland but there are similar groups of people in the United States – particularly in the South – that come from the same ancestry. Despite their location in the states, they’re still called Irish Travelers.
Travelers also face prejudices and negative stereotypes. They’re often perceived as scofflaws, scammers and outsiders who are prone to violence. They stereotypically are obsessed with material wealth, gaudy status symbols and value things that many people would see as gaudy or tacky as valuable. While their culture and heritage is unique, Healy said that they aren’t officially considered a distinct ethnic group, a distinction that doesn’t give them a protected legal status.
Healy said his goal with “96 Pigeon House Road” was to show the entire Maughan family story, both the unpleasant and the touching details, in an intimate way. It was a way to break down Traveler stereotypes and showing the parts of their lives that particularly go unnoticed, like their devotion to their faith, each other and children. Through the project Healy shows the religious imagery in their Maughan household, the family fraternity and how children are nearly worshiped. But it’s not a saccharine depiction either. He shows how Rosie drinks excessively, how living conditions are cluttered and cramped, how sanitation isn’t a priority and how women have children when they’re still young themselves. Sometimes the themes are in the same image or appear sequentially.
For example, one photograph shows a young woman in a pink low-cut tank top with “Million dollar BABE” scrawled across her breasts. She’s holding her child over a baptismal font as a priest pours water over the baby’s head. Another youngster looks on. The next picture is a buffet table with cake, candy, and soda. There’s a large trashcan, a caravan, clothes on a line and shipping containers in the background. But between the buffet table and the caravan is the recently baptized baby, held up, almost like a priest holds a communion wafer during transubstantiation. Through Healy’s depiction, it’s clear that this family sees this child as a miracle, despite the setting or their upbringing. In other instances, the Maughan family values appear in just one picture. Toward the end of the series is a picture of the young mother from the baptism washing the face of an obviously upset, at least half-naked toddler (the image was cropped at the waist). But on the edge of the photo is a framed “Madonna with Child” picture.
Not all the pictures are as sweet. There’s one, of Rosie, glass in her hand and five large bottles of booze on the table in front of her. Next to the bottles is a toddler who is resting his forehead and wiping his eyes. There’s more religious imagery in the background too. Another picture, near the beginning of the series, while Healy was still establishing the story’s setting, is a pile of rubbish, including what appears to be plastic bags and the casing from wiring. Healy said that some travelers disagree with public policies that charge households for refuse collection. In response, they’ll dump their trash into piles near their homes, bringing public distain in the process. Healy includes another picture that appears troubling, but it leaves some uncertainty about the exact nature of the problem. Toward the end of the series, after Rosie is twice shown drinking alcohol, Rosie is shown in a living room, with her arms in the air, dancing, as family members look on from the couch. One toddler, a boy, is standing on a coffee table, smiling with both arms extended toward Rosie. But another toddler, a girl, is walking away from Rosie, her shirt pulled up exposing her belly, one eye closed and a bug red mark on her cheek. It’s tough to tell if Rosie was playing with the children, or drunk beyond her own control and clumsily hurt the young girl.
The story focuses on Rosie but it doesn’t end with her. The last image is from a wedding reception. A groom in a tuxedo sits at a table along with his new wife. He’s zoning out, slouched down and looking toward his shoes. His bride, dressed in a voluminous dress and wearing a gold crown, has the same expression and has a baby in her arms. It’s a new generation of Irish Travelers. “I didn’t plan the wedding as the ending, it just happened,” Healy said.
Beyond the action there’s the setting around the Maughan family. Through the pictures there are slivers of life on the fringes of Dublin, things like a backdrop of shipping containers or a fence topped with concertina wire.
Healy, who is 30, from Cork, Ireland, but usually lives in Berlin, started photographing the Maughan family in 2005, while he was a student. It was his first serious project. He said he was in Ringsend, photographing travels, when he came across their caravan. He approached the family but his intrusion was met with hostility; one of the family members went after him with a knife. “He felt like I was trying to get him. He was having some difficulty and thought I was an undercover cop,” Healy said.
Healy left. But eventually, he returned and was able to get the family to pay attention to him. He explained his own living conditions – they weren’t much different from the Maughan’ – and they warmed up to him. “That’s how I developed the intimacy. It took time, many months,” he said. Since photographing the family, he said it has become increasingly apparent that people who are in difficult situations often don’t want to be photographed; they’re concerned about appearing ugly. And for the Maughan family, he had to assure them that they weren’t just going to be depicted as another Irish Traveler stereotype but as people with their own cherished values, beliefs, worries and joys.
Some weeks he would spend several days with the family. Other times he wouldn’t appear for two weeks. Some visits lasted a half our, others were much more brief, just 30 minutes. He photographed the family during meals, during fights, during baptisms, during celebrations, and, as the last image in the series shows, during a wedding. There’s posed pictures and candid ones. Sometimes the Maughans are smiling, other times they’re drunk, sometimes they’re in tears. Healy said it was his involvement during their troubles that actually made them more accepting and comfortable with his presence. And sometimes he would just be there, talking, with his camera, but not shooting. This made him less conspicuous, Healy said.
In all, the project took 18 months to complete, long enough for Healy to know the Maughans well but also feel frustrated at times and think that his work wasn’t progressing. He had also taken thousands of photographs, obviously more than he could ever get published. He said it was a manageable workload though because he didn’t start, or organizing them when he was finished, it was a continuous process that let him follow his own progress and manage his time. Once he knew he was done photographing the Maughan family, he spent two years trying to find a publisher, a process that involved sending his photographs to any outlet he could find. Eventually, Zone Zero told him that they were interested. From that point on, his work with “96 Pigeon House Road” was over, except for a single e-mail to Zone Zero with the files for the project.
The project includes two soundtracks. The first, used during the title screen, includes two tracks, music and natural sound. The music is lead by a repetitive guitar melody, what sounds to be an upright bass that is barely used. There is also a track exclusively of the sounds of moving trains and passing cars on a highway – the sounds a traveler would hear while on the go. The second soundtrack, which appears after the title screen, is just music, no sound. It includes the same instruments as the music from the title page, plus a howling synthesizer. This track is more dynamic in rhythm and volume, a variety that also makes the pictures seem more dynamic. Besides the title and credits, there are no words throughout the project, written or spoken. While there’s no script, there is still a story.
Once Healy submitted his pictures to the producers, it was entirely out of his creative control – he was just a photographer in this project and just provided the images and determined their sequence. Producers at Zone Zero did the rest, the graphics, the music mentioned earlier, the sound and the animation. He studied graphic design but didn’t provide any guidance from his own experience. He didn’t talk to people at Zone Zero and learn about their vision, nor did he see important focal points, like the 96 highway sign graphic, an icon in the project, until it was published. Even while he was excluded from the last stage of production, Healy said he is very satisfied with the end product.
While “96 Pigeon House Road” is purely a documentary, it is alongside several different types of stories at Zone Zero. Some, like Healy’s, are documentaries with just candid images. Others are also documentaries, but posed, like Ananke Asseff’s “Potential,” which is a series of portraits of upper and middle class people standing in their homes with a blank expression carrying a handgun they own. Others, like Maleonn’s “Book of Taboo/Postman” are surreal with manipulated images of flower petals that fall out of books and turn into guppies. While odd, it shows the artist’s imagination. Healy said he doesn’t mind that his work, a piece of organic non-fiction, appears alongside more creative works, as long as they don’t detract from each other.
Healy said that Zone Zero and similar websites give photographers like himself more opportunities to be published and to tell more complete stories. Appearing in print is still the most prestigious way to be published but there is no way anyone could get 38 images like he did with “96 Pigeon House Road” to appear in any magazine or newspaper. If he were to manage to get his work onto dead trees it’s extremely unlikely that all 38 images would be published, creating omissions that leave out crucial aspects of the story he wants to tell. But at the same time, the Web allows for lesser quality work to receive attention, sometimes to a fault, Healy said. “For the internet, they really put up so much bullshit,” he said.
He plans to leave Cork soon and return to Berlin to photograph Turkish, Eastern European and North African immigrant workers. He said he’s not particularly interested in documenting society’s castaways as much as he is in photographing them because they are the people who live in his neighborhood.