Since 2008, over 400,000 Irish people have emigrated; testing the waters and starting new lives in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and far beyond.
Each journey – be it for a year-long J-1 visa or the next 50 years – will change the person who takes it, and the collective fact – whether we talk about it in terms of 1,000 people a week, ten people an hour, or just a significant piece of an entire generation – will change Ireland itself.
Dublin photographer David Monahan has made it his mission to document and commemorate as much of this change and as many of these journeys as he can.
It started in 2010 with the “Leaving Dublin” series. Emigration was rapidly increasing, and having seen his own family members and friends move abroad, Monahan understood the difficulty of the decision, the bravery involved.
He decided to shoot portraits that zeroed in on that liminal moment between deciding to leave and actually leaving. Posting a call for participants online, he wrote that he wanted to create images that were "monumental," and to "show those depicted in a true heroic spirit."
The responses resulted in a photographic series both visually stunning and emotionally resonant.
Between March 2010 and July 2013, Monahan created 84 individual portraits and met with over 120 individuals, couples and families who were on the brink of emigrating. The locations around Dublin – some quickly recognizable, others less so – were selected by the sitters, based on their personal significance. All of the photos were shot at night, and all included a tattered suitcase that had traveled between Ireland and the UK with Monahan’s relatives.
“Leaving Dublin” gained national and international acclaim, covered by CBS News, the New York Times, all the Irish news outlets, and more. Monahan was invited to stage a solo exhibition at the Museum of Immigration in Melbourne, Australia, which ran for 10 months and drew 109,000 visitors. It was a resounding success.
But just as life often begins rather than ends when you leave home, Monahan knew he was just getting started.
In the summer of 2012 he was in London and decided to pay a visit to Conor McMahon, one of the people he had photographed for “Leaving Dublin.” As they were riding the train to McMahon’s neighborhood, Monahan snapped a few spontaneous photos of him, and suddenly everything clicked together.
On and off over the past year he’s been traveling the world on a shoe-string budget, checking in with the people he photographed for “Leaving Dublin” and taking snapshots of how their lives are continuing abroad. For Monahan, this series of photos, “Visitation,” is not a new project so much as it is a continuation of the work he started in 2010.
The most recent leg of Monahan’s journey took him to New York for a few days, where we talked about “Visitation” and about his ultimate goal, which is to collect all of his immigration photos in one volume, titled “On Leaving.”
The collection (which is wrapping up its crowd-funding campaign in seven days) stands to be one of the most – if not the most – comprehensive and intimate explorations of contemporary Irish immigration.
It will include all 84 images from Leaving Dublin, a selection of photographs Monahan took of the locations in daylight and empty of any people, and the portraits he's been taking throughout his visits. An exhibition featuring work from each of these three strands ran for a month last fall at Siamsa Tire in Co. Kerry, and a collaboration with Solas Nua in Washington D.C. is on the horizon.
Thus far, Monahan has reconnected with immigrants who settled in the UK, France, Australia and New Zealand and Brazil. Prior to New York, he stopped in Washington and from there he journeyed to Vancouver, San Francisco, Berkley, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. After New York, he pressed on to Chicago; Akron, Ohio; Reading, PA and back again to D.C. before returning home.
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