Gentleman Jim’s photos tell story of long gone era

THE JOURNAL MAN... Ex-Journal photographer Jim McGilloway, with his trusty camera in hand, pictured on assignment in the 1960s.
THE JOURNAL MAN... Ex-Journal photographer Jim McGilloway, with his trusty camera in hand, pictured on assignment in the 1960s.

Jim McGilloway, ex-Journal photographer, who passed away recently, had the knack of being in the middle of wherever the biggest news was occurring.

In his role as the Journal’s senior lensman in the 1950s and 1960s, Jim was the chief chronicler of daily life in and around the North West.

His photographs are a fantastic and unique snapshot of Derry before the outbreak of the Troubles.

Life for a press photographer in the 1950s and 1960s was a busy one.

For example, it was all in a day’s work for Jim to be in Malin first thing on a Monday morning to cover an agricultural show before rushing across the peninsula to Moville to photograph children who’d just made their First Communion and, then, back to Derry to shoot rehearsals for a new theatrical production and, finally, to the Brandywell for an evening football match before heading home to put his feet up - or, in Jim’s case, straight into the darkroom to develop his work.

Indeed, the importance of Jim McGilloway’s photographs for the Derry Journal lie in their comprehensive and candid portrait of life right across the North West in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Even when you look at Jim’s photos today, you come face-to-face with people from the past and wonder where they came from and what their story is; they bring Derry’s past to life in a way that written records alone never could.

But it wasn’t all garden fetes and Feiseanna for Jim. As the 1950s bled into the 1960s, he frequently found himself in the middle of the angry street confrontations which preceded the nascent civil rights movement.

Indeed, one of his most iconic images from the early 1950s is still talked about today.

In 1952, despite a ban on parading, a St Patrick’s Day march, organised by local nationalists, was held in the city centre and was attacked by the RUC.

Jim was there to capture an image which would define the day, and the era, of a policeman with his baton raised over the head of a young girl - Helen Kelly, from Sackville Street - as if he was about to strike her.

The photo was used on the front page of the ‘Journal’ and was also carried in a popular English newspaper. In an unusual step, the same photograph was reprinted in the following edition of the ‘Journal’ - also on the front page. The photo was also the basis for a stormy debate in the old Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont.

Among those who still recall this photograph is retired Bishop of Derry, Dr. Edward Daly. “That picture was more powerful and expressive than a thousand words,” he said. “It was taken at a time when cameras were large and unwieldy and a photograph of that quality, in that particular fractious situation, required special skills.”

It’s a photograph Derry-born writer Seamus Deane also clearly recalls: “That was the first time that I felt there was no chance of having the injustice of the Protestant sectarian state or its militant and paramilitary apparatus exposed.”

When Jim - known to all and sundry as the ‘Journal man’ - set out on his journalistic career in the late 1940s, modern digital photographry was but a distant dream. Not for Jim a compact camera slung over the shoulder, a quick click of a button and off to the next job.

In Jim’s day, a press photographer’s job was light years away from what it is now. It meant lugging around a heavy bag packed with bulky equipment (in all weathers), carefully setting up your shot - which, sometimes, involved organising 40 lively schoolkids - and meticulously writing down the details to accompany the photograph; then, it was a case of praying that everything had gone according to plan and you’d succeeded in capturing that all-important image on the primitive glass plate that, sixty years ago, was de rigueur in the world of photography.

And, that’s all before you even got around to developing your photographs in the darkroom - another long distant memory in the modern world of photography.

Jim, originally from Gortfoyle Place in the Waterside, was born in 1929. He had four brothers - Olly (of TV fame), Ken (who for many years owned an art gallery in the city centre), Lawrence and Tony, and two sisters, Dolores and Majella. He was educated at Waterside Boys PS and the Christian Brothers before joining the staff of the ‘Derry Journal’ in 1946 as a trainee photographer to Baxter Robinson. It was a time in which journalistic photography was in its infancy and there was much to learn.

He soon became a well-known fixture in and around Derry and Donegal - known simply at the ‘Journal man’ - photographing a string of events the length and breadth of the North West. Whether it was a school fete in Buncrana, an agricultural show in Dungiven or a political protest in the Bogside - Jim McGilloway was there, camera in hand.

Funnily enough, it was while photographing a wedding that Jim met his future wife, Bernadette (nee Walsh), herself a well-known member of the local teaching profession - first at Long Tower Boys and then at Pennyburn Girls where she ended up principal.

After 23 years with the Journal, Jim decided to change career in 1969, opting to go back to the books and train as a teacher.

After qualifying top of his year from St Joseph’s Training College in Belfast, his first job was at Pennyburn Boys’ PS. He stayed here for three years before taking up a post at the High School in Carnhill where he stayed until his retirement in the early 1990s.

Speaking at Jim’s funeral Mass, Rev. John Cargan spoke of his photographic work as “iconic” and hailed him as a “model of Christian living.”

On his years as a school teacher, he added: “He brought to it the patience and creativity that had served him well as a photographer. Jim is remembered as an exemplary member of the teaching profession. In all his dealings with pupils he was mild mannered and respectful.”

Bishop Edward Daly probably sums Jim up best when he says: “He always set high standards for himself; he was a gentle person and always courteous.”

Jim McGilloway passed away in hospital on October 14 after a long illness. He was aged 81. He is survived by his wife, Bernadette, and children, Jim and Emer.

May he rest in peace.