The story of Arthur Fields, aka Abraham Feldman (1901-1994), a Jewish immigrant to Ireland from Kiev in the Ukraine, has been the subject of a fascinating recent documentary on RTE. Fields was a familiar sight for decades in the O’Connell Bridge/O’Connell Street area. He photographed countless Dubliners and visitors to the capital from the 30s to the early 80s.These photos are being assembled on this website
The Fields family have been enthusiastic about the project. The public are invited to submit any pictures they may have of themselves, their relatives and friends. The collection is growing daily. One may watch this happening on the project twitter account @ManOnBridgeDoc. There is an accompanying book Man on the Bridge, The Pictures of Arthur Fields.
What is most interesting about this collection is the light it throws on Irish social history in the twentieth century. It will, in time, prove an invaluable resource to those studying, amongst other things, the history of fashion. We were supposed to have been poor for most of this period. And yet, how well dressed most people seem to have been. Whether in town shopping, out for the evening or on the way to work people took pride in being well turned out.
It might be argued that Fields picked the more photogenic but this does not hold up when we study random people in the background. Practically everybody was making some effort to look smart. Have we lost this pride in how we look when out in public? There is not a tattoo in sight of course or a pair of torn jeans. Everyone had a good warm coat. Hats and gloves were everywhere. Whatever happened to gloves? Ladies wore what looks like well tailored suits and good dresses. One gets the sense that garments were more likely to have been well made nearer home from natural fabrics such as tweed, cotton or linen. Tailors and dressmakers were still to be found in most towns and villages down to the early sixties. Big business had not yet conned us into wearing garments made from shoddy synthetic materials, badly finished in the sweatshops of the third world. A machine edged hem was unthinkable in those days.
People also seemed more capable of dressing for Irish weather. It is true we now have climate change but it is still a bit dicey to go to town without some protection from the elements. Young people nowadays increasingly ignore this fact. I have seen leather jackets and warm scarves in Spain in May while young Irish persons in the same month bare all on the street in the name of fashion. How they can stand the cold is one of the great mysteries of our time.
Body language is also revealing in the photos of Arthur Fields. There are oodles of couples on the way to the pictures or to what were known as ‘dress dances’ in the Gresham.Some are emerging from McDowells, The Happy Ring House, having just made a crucial purchase. Almost invariably she is linking him in a most proprietorial fashion. A signal is being given to the world. He is ring fenced. Any other female should approach at her peril. Hard work and perhaps not inconsiderable cunning has gone into this achievement. It seems to me that we do not see all that much linking on the street these days. Might that have something to do with greater female independence? I have no answer. I merely ask.
This blogger (centre) and friends 1971.
There are delightful family groups and groups of friends in the photos. The trip to town as a Communion or Confirmation treat figures strongly. This gives the lie to the theory cherished by younger people that Ireland was a place of unrelenting gloom in the mid twentieth century. It is often forgotten that there was a great deal of hilarity about. And there are nuns, lots of nuns, in full canonicals. Remember them?
On the downside it can be disconcerting to see so many smoking on the street. We are so repulsed by the practice now we have forgotten how normal it was. Those who disliked it then knew better than to object and kept silent even when being near asphyxiated in cinemas and pubs. It is also remarkable that no man is pushing a pram or buggy. There are several men with children but no prams thank you. Men have smartened up in this area and we are all the better for it.
I strongly recommend a browse through this great site. The photos are divided by decade. One may even find some of one’s own relatives. Better still, you can submit that photo of grandad and his pal on the way to Croker.
Here are some folks I know. Still going strong together.