Portraits of the Irish Leaving Home - documenting the departure of Irish emigrants


Even a cursory glance at the series shows that Monahan has stuck to his initial aim of making the photographs “monumental;” of showing “those depicted in a true heroic spirit.” The compassion in Monahan’s artistic vision is palpable. Though the images are dark and shadowy, they cannot be described as meek or melancholy. The subjects sit proudly and contemplatively in their chosen locations, usually perched on a suitcase Monahan uses as a recurring prop in every frame.
The exact age of the suitcase is something of a mystery, but Monahan does know that it was last stamped at the Tilbury Docks in England in 1961. Much more than a mere prop, the suitcase is a tangible artifact and a visual cue connecting Ireland's previous periods of emigration with its current one.

Indeed, for Monahan, the suitcase cuts to the emotional core of this project, since it was last used by one of his many family members who have moved to England. He is quick to add that he's “not trying to be sentimental by using it;”  rather, that its purpose is to “make a little statement that it is part of the past and [that] this cycle has happened over and over and over again. The unfortunate thing, the sadness for me, is that I believed that particular cycle had finished, as did a lot of people. But very, very quickly it [began again] and people have been leaving at a heavy pace ever since. It's quite saddening that that phenomenon has re-occurred, but it's also nice to know and acknowledge, by the inclusion of the suitcase, that this has occurred before. And I suppose what we're striving for is to create a situation where it doesn't happen again.”

Though he readily admits it was not his initial intention, within the larger scheme of the project the places in the photographs have become almost as prominent and important as the people. The locations vary greatly. They've been to “the hills on the outskirts of Dublin, looking back on the lights of the city; the sea ports; in the city center, right in the middle; and in suburbia.”

In this sense, the photos are not just portraits of the young emigrants, but also of contemporary Ireland. This is an element of the project that evolved over time. “Once you start talking to people and they make the choice of a place to sit, you start getting the impression that you're moving from place to place, that you're covering the entire city from pillar to post, really.

“Initially, no, it wouldn't have been a predominant thought of mine. I really just wanted to put people somewhere that was relevant to them and looked somewhat striking. But as time progresses it's definitely becoming a portrait of the city, a portrait of a city and those it has chosen to do without.” They are pictures of a city and those who no longer inhabit it.

The subjects of Monahan’s photographs are in other cities now. Some have made permanent moves, others are away on year-long visas, still others have actually returned home from Ireland – reversing the influx of immigration Ireland experienced during the good years of the Celtic Tiger. As people continue to leave and word of Monahan’s project spreads, he plans to continue his work of capturing people in a quiet moment before their departure. In tandem with the expanding range of people leaving the country, the demographic of his subjects is widening, too, and he hopes to further that by working with more families and more people in their 40s and 50s. Though it will be difficult, Monahan plans on stopping the shoots when he reaches 70 images, at which point he will look for a gallery space to exhibit the series – not in Ireland, but abroad, where the people the photographs depict have traveled. When asked why, Monahan replies,“I think it needs to be in those locations first and foremost, to bare witness to those who have left.” 

Four of the people Monahan has photographed discuss their experiences of and reasons for emigrating. The e-mail interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Ryan Cronin-Neilan
Originally from: Cabinteely, Dublin

Why did you leave Ireland? I’m a recent college graduate and as such I qualified for a 12 month internship visa. With things the way they are in Ireland right now, really, I would have been stupid to stay.

Where are you now? Right now I’m living in Philadelphia, which I love, I must say.

What are you doing? I’m currently looking for an internship, hopefully with a newspaper as I’d love to work for a newspaper when I return home.

Did having to leave come as a shock or was emigration always a possibility for you? I think emigration is always a possibility for the Irish. It’s what we do. We’re a tiny country and no strangers to recession. Of, say, a core group of 20 friends or so I have at home, I think about 7 or 8 are still in Ireland. The rest are in Australia, Chile, Vietnam etc. Anywhere to get work.