After the unexpected success of ‘Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way’ it was only a matter of time before the O’Brien Press and myself started thinking about following up with ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’. While the Wild Atlantic Way is a very straightforward touring route, the concept of the Ancient East is a bit more complex and, as it turned out, was in constant flux while I was working on the project. When I started working on the book the Ancient East was stretching from Co. Louth down to Co. Waterford and westward into the midlands and focused on the long history of the area from the first societies that built Newgrange, the times of the early kings at the Hill of Tara, the arrival and rise of Christianity that can still be witnessed in places like Clonmacnoise, to the invasions by the Vikings and Normans and the long struggle that followed after.
Initially I was given roughly six month to complete the project. This straight away caused a bit of distress. With ‘Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way’ I had a rather extensive collection of images to fall back on. For ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ I pretty much had to start from scratch but I always liked to think a good photographer should be able to produce decent work and finish an assignment even under pressure. The first outline for the book was rather straightforward and based on geographical areas, each with one or two main historic sites and a few smaller satellite sites.
It was about four weeks before deadline when I got a call from the O’Brien Press. At that time I had put together an ok collection but nothing I was particularly proud of. It would have made a nice little book but wouldn’t have come close to even scratching the surface of the history and heritage of the Ancient East. I was shooting at the JFK Arboretum in Co. Wexford when the call came in: Failte Ireland had refined the whole concept of the Ancient East and also added a number of new locations which extended the Ancient East as far as Co. Limerick. The good news for me was that because of those changes a whole year had been added to my shooting time. So I went back to the drawing board. The Ancient East was no longer just about dry, factual history, it was now about people, places and stories and the vision of the book became a tapestry of images, tales and facts. This was now much more complicated and challenging than the initial outline which hasn’t been much more than list of historic sites. But this new approach would also make for a much more interesting and comprehensive book if I could pull it off. Diving into the history and folklore books was time consuming but also very enjoyable. Putting all that newly acquired knowledge into my own words was a bit of a struggle in the beginning but over time I started to enjoy the writing process and slowly but surely the book began to take shape. Another problem that had bothered me from the very beginning was how to photograph castle after castle, church after church, ringfort after ringfort and not make the book look repetitive and boring? To be honest I still don’t know but the fact that I was working towards a deadline and didn’t have the luxury of returning to locations when conditions were right actually helped. I photographed some locations under blue skies and fluffy clouds, others in the pouring rain and this alone added some variety. Add some landscape images, interior scenes and close-ups and most importantly the written word to the mix and out comes – hopefully – an interesting and entertaining book.
The added time also made it possible to arrange more time consuming photo shoots and look behind the facade of some of the historic places. Among the most memorable are Kilkenny Castle where the staff let me loose after the doors had closed to the public. It was spooky and wonderful wandering the long corridors and stairways alone, one evening I’ll never forget. Charleville Castle offered me a similar experience and deserves a special mention: The Charleville Castle Heritage Trust is run by volunteers and the attention to detail that goes into the continuous restoration and upkeep of the building can be seen and felt.
The list could go on: Being caught in a hailstorm at the Hill of Uisneach, a colourful dawn at Clonmacnoise, a wet winter morning in the narrow streets of Carlingford or a misty dawn on top of the Hill of Tara have all become treasured memories. Visiting and researching all those places very much changed my perception of what is now known as the Ancient East: History and mythology melt into one and every laneway, every field and every town and village has stories to tell. And in the small hours when I had those ancient places to myself it was easy to let the mind wander and imagine the way of life hundreds and thousands of years ago.
During the time of the project I also went through a rather chaotic change of equipment. For over 10 years I had been using Canon digital cameras but for a number of reasons wasn’t all that happy anymore. As a result the images in this book have been made with a number of cameras: There are still a few Canon 5D III images, some Fuji XT-1 and X-Pro 2 images and a lot of Nikon D810 files. In the end however I settled with Sony’s 7R II and some of the images made with this camera also appear in the book.
Towards the end of summer in 2016 the project came to an end but I had one more surprise to come: Everything was finished and the first pages had been laid out when Failte Ireland again made some major changes to the concept of the Ancient East. The following weeks were some of the most frantic I ever had. I had to rebuilt the structure of the book from scratch and turn a geographical approach to a thematic one. In the end it worked out and the changes added another dimension to the book but there were more than just a few moments when I had to resist the strong urge to bang my head against the wall.
‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ was the most challenging, interesting, frustrating and wonderful project I have done so far. The book still doesn’t manage to capture the whole story but then again no single book could.
‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ will be in the shops from 10th July 2017.