When Fr. Michael Collins was a young curate in County Derry, snapping pictures of Travellers visiting Park village, he never imagined one day those precious images would become a snapshot of an almost forgotten era.
The former Limavady Parish Priest has been a keen photographer since his youth, but it was only when he retired a few years ago he had time to sit down and look at the images he had accumulated more than 40 years ago.
Among them were dozens of shots of Travellers who came each August to Park, where he was curate from 1967-1974.
In ‘Travellers in Time & Eternity’, Fr. Collins has shared dozens of those black and white photos - many posed, but some candid. They show happy faces of men, women, and children, all seemingly eager to be captured on camera in the year 1969. A number of photos of the graves of loved ones from the Travelling community are also featured in colour, showing the ornate detail on headstones.
Speaking from his Feeny home Father Collins told the ‘Journal’ “Back then there wasn’t much photography, and they were very happy to be photographed”
The link between the travelling community and Park goes back to the 1940s, when a young man drowned in the local river. He was buried locally, and each year afterwards his family would return to the village to see and tend to his grave. As the years progressed a number of Travellers were buried in the area. Each year, after graves were taken care of, Travellers would retire to the village to socialise.
“Tragedy started the whole thing, so they combined a day out with respect for the dead,” said the straight talking longtime Derry cleric. “Their binge was centred around Lynch’s pub, but it was small so the men would be inside and the women and children would sit outside. The men would bring them out crates of beer and bottles of stout to ensure they all had a good time.”
Also pictured in the book are several local people, including Gloria Lynch who continues to run Lynch’s pub in Park. Also included are Nuala Lynch, Bridie Lynch and Willie Cooke.
Fr. Collins recalls the Travellers who visited the village as respectful of the local community.
“There was no tension, that I saw and, even back then, they were conscious the terms ‘tinker’ or ‘gypsy’ were not complimentary. They preferred to be called Travellers,” said Fr. Collins.
The one image that stands out is that of the woman gracing the front cover.
She stares straight at the camera, cradling an infant in each arm. Each baby is swaddled in knitted babygros; their heads covered in frilly bonnets. One is sound asleep, while the other cries.
The woman’s weathered face is lined with wrinkles. Her hair is tied back, her attire mis-matched, but tidy. Her lips are pursed, and clung to them is a lit cigarette.
“She was Granny Mary Stokes and those were her grandchildren,” explained Fr. Collins, who also revealed it’s his favourite picture and his subject was more than happy to pose.
“You could spend your life trying to get a picture like that; it just happened,” he said.
Fr. Collins says the pictures are an important piece of Irish history he is proud and keen to help preserve.
“They show an era; a culture whose style and dress has gone,” he said.
The book has proved popular locally, and word of it has spread to the Travelling community in parts of Ireland and England who have ordered a number of copies.
“It’s a snapshot of the travellers in Park. It’s a one-off and I’m pleased I put them all together,” said Fr. Collins
* Printed by Limavady Printing Company, the book is available in a variety of bookstores including Easons, Shipquay Books, and Foyle Books in Derry. It is also available in shops in Limavady and Dungiven, and throughout the Roe Valley.