Eighty years ago today, an intrepid photographer created the iconic image of eleven ironworkers, casually dangling their feet hundreds of feet above 5th Avenue while breaking for lunch on an exposed steel beam they had likely riveted into the framework of the rising 30 Rockefeller Center. Many, if not most, of these rugged individuals were almost certainly Irish Americans.
And despite the fact that the builders anticipated one laborer's death for every ten floors constructed, the men on the beam were happy to be high in the sky when about a third of their fellow citizens down below were out of work in Depression-era New York.
Irish Filmmaker Seán Ó Cualáin is among the many who have fallen under this picture's spell, investing much of his past five years exploring it in a nearly finished documentary. Last night at the Irish Consulate in New York, he screened a 75-minute version of "Men at Lunch," a beautifully crafted, meticulously researched, highly evocative work imbued with atmosphere and mystery.
The film seems destined for broadcast in the US by a network such as PBS.
Fionnula Flanagan's narration is supplemented by an impressive collection of talking heads, including documentary filmmaker Ric Burns; writer Peter Quinn, who used the same photo as the cover of his book on Irish America, Looking for Jimmy (for Quinn, Jimmy was the archetypal Irish American, embodied in the gent giving us the fisheye at the right end of the beam); New York Times Writer Dan Barry, who found he may have a direct connection to the men at opposite ends of the beam; our own Niall O'Dowd, with his Irish immigrant's perspective; several photographers and a couple of Irish speakers.
The film shows that for ironworkers the photo is a talisman, that both New Yorkers and tourists identify with the image, that the Irish see it as an extended family portrait, and that immigrants from around the world can read their own story in these eleven hard-working men. The fact that there's only eleven of them presents a problem, because so many people are convinced that their father, grandfather or great uncle is on that beam, it would need to seat another thousand laborers.
Ó Cualáin does pursue one identity claim that takes him from suburban Massachusetts to a tiny village in County Galway, and he may have uncovered the photo's original glass negative under a mountain in Pennsylvania.
Recommend you follow the Men at Lunch story on Facebook and Twitter for news about this moving picture about a single image of such iconic power.
MEDIA PINGS For more proof that Ireland is punching above its weight in the NYC cultural scene, check into some of the great productions the 1st Irish Festival has brought to town, all by Irish playwrights...I saw an entertaining, interactive, comic and still touching one actor play called Auditions, Zoe's Auditions Part 2, in its final weekend for 1st Irish at the Drilling Company Theatre, written and performed by the winsome Suzanna Geraghty....Also caught the 1st Irish & Irish Business Organization co-sponsored panel discussion on the intersection of Irish arts and NY business at the Lincoln Center Performing Art Library on Tuesday and look forward to seeing Fly Me to the Moon at 59E59 Theatres this weekend (its logo shows includes a racehorse, so I'm interested)...Speaking of iconic, few performers fit that description as well as Judy Collins, who will be given the Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award by the Irish American Writers & Artists at an evening of "literary libations" on Mon. Oct. 15. Tickets are available at www.i-am-wa.org.