History books are too often filled with details, believes the historian Turtle Bunbury. "In a hundred years time, it will probably be all about the Lisbon treaty, but really that doesn't affect what we do on a day-to-day basis – it's more interesting how we all get about, what we're at and what we're thinking."
It's his fascination with ordinary people that has culminated in the book Vanishing Ireland: Further chronicles of a disappearing world, where he has captured the tales of Irish elders, photographed by James Fennell. This is the second time they've tackled such a project.
"I love sitting down and chatting to people of senior vintage," Bunbury explains about returning to this subject matter. In the book, we meet 106-year-old Statia, whose mother was born in 1862 while Abraham Lincoln was president of America and the pedal bike hadn't been yet invented. There's 92-year-old Cathy, who met her husband at an illicit house dance (the Catholic Church considered them immoral) and bachelor brothers Timmy and Stevie Kelleher (84 and 79) who are grateful never to have married and say in unison: "And thanks be to Christ for that."
"I don't know how our parents fed us but they did," says Stevie. "It's great the way it is today but – and I've said it in pubs – the youth of today wouldn't do what we did. They'd die with the hunger."
The cover of the book features Baby Rudden, an 86-year-old farmer from Cavan who left school at 12 to help her parents, never married and spent her life on the farm. One of the most engaging interviewees is 69-year-old Willie Davey, a labourer who might wear a rock n' roll tee-shirt and a necklace but who doesn't feel at home in modern society, with its telephones and DVDs. Of the younger generation he says: "They won't listen and they'd nearly be asking you 'What is a bog?'"
From publicans to farmers, gravediggers and water diviners, Bunbury and Fennell have assorted a memorable collection of people, who are products of their time. "What I'm always trying to find are people whose stories have never been told," Bunbury says. "When people tell me about some ordinary farmer who's 84 and never goes out, I immediately want to go and find him. You'd be hard-pushed to get to your 80s and not have some stories to tell."
These are people whose lives were shaped by wars and emigration but also of storytelling, music and crafts. The interviewees' thoughts on modern Ireland varied wildly and Bunbury says he was surprised by the number of people who are enthusiastic about the health service and the way people are looked after. "But they're from an age when people were grateful for anything that came their way and that's what we've all forgotten," he says. "There was a lot of hardship but some of them seemed quite confused by how much cash we all have these days. They're amazed: we have heating, electricity, running water, all of theses things and yet we seem to be complaining as much as ever."
To find participants for their first book, Bunbury and Fennell went around the country, arriving into villages and asked local historians to point them in the right direction. This time around, a lot of people contacted them on the back of the first book, but it was still remained very much a word-of-mouth thing. "You get to an area and people tell you, 'Do you know who you should meet…'. We had various people – scouts – who were tracking down interesting characters for us."
As a book, it has a certain poignancy, especially as Bunbury says, because they're constantly raising a glass to the memories of some participants. If they achieve anything with the book, he hopes it is that it provides an impetus for people to visit an elderly person nearby and say hello ever now and then. "I myself live in the countryside and sometimes you can feel completely abandoned," he says. "Certainly in the past, some of these people would have relied on the church – and the pub – but these are uncertain things now. The post office – gone. All these things are gone and it can be really hard for them."
Another insight into Ireland's past is available this month with the launch of the Kennelly Archive, a collection if 150,000 photos from 1953 to 1973 – which launches online this Thursday – and an accompanying book, Eye Witness. "It was a time of really great poverty. I don't think anyone who talks about hardship today knows the poverty of the '50s," says Padraig Kennelly, the photographer whose work (alongside his late wife Joan's) makes up the archive. "It was tough times but there was no grumble because we knew nothing else."
Kennelly, who came from a family of pharmacists and trained as one himself, broke with tradition and started his photographic career in the 1950s in Tralee. He was Ireland's first freelance 'stringer' cameraman and he and Joan photographed breaking news stories, made postcards and documented vignettes from everyday life – from first Holy Communions to revellers at Puck Fair. The family established the newspaper Kerry's Eye in 1974 and although Kennelly is now in his 80s, he remains a passionate photographer and writes opinion pieces in the paper.
The archive came about because he wanted to give life to his vast collection of negatives, stored in boxes. "To me it's a joy, the best thing I can do is to leave a good set of pictures after me."
The 250 or so photographs in Eye Witness document elements of Ireland that will soon become footnotes in history books – Corpus Christi processions, turf cutters, novices praying in a convent. But in many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same and many of the black and white photos resonate in 21st century Ireland – a publicity shot of a handsome young man surrounded by a group of girls to promote a dance in Tralee would not be out of place in the social pages of a celebrity magazine today, and if the women of Ballybrit think they're the epitome of style at race meetings, they should see how it was done in Ballybeggan Park in 1959.
Some of Kennelly's own favourites include the little raggle-taggle schoolboy grinning on the jacket cover and President Nixon greeting the crowd in Shannon Airport on his visit to Ireland in 1970. While the rest of the media were on Airforce 2, the Kennellys had ? landed in a 172 four-seater plane and followed the action, getting remarkably close to the president. "We made a lot of money from those photos," he laughs.
Charles Haughey eating freshly caught lobster on a trawler off Dingle; John B Keane sitting on the bonnet of a car in Listowel; Kerry footballer Mick O'Dwyer outside his garage in Waterville; '60s singer Sandie Shaw performing barefoot in the Mount Brandon Ballroom and Hollywood star Jane Mansfield at a press conference following the cancellation of her concert performance (the Bishop of Kerry intervened and suggested people shouldn't attend) are some of the famous faces gracing the pages.
But just as compelling are the ordinary people, going about their business. In his 50 years of documenting Irish life, retrospectively he's now struck by how people's appearances have changed. "In those days the number of children with cleft palates was very high, as was the number of children with lumps on their back. There were a lot of people damaged by polio."
Kennelly is also galled by the standard of public housing provided by the government in the 1950s. "The people who lived in those houses were the poorest and they were forced, to go to the pub for warmth. The standard in Kerry for pigs was higher at the time than the standard for humans. You must remember almost no village had running water but people didn't know anything different."
But of course Eye Witness doesn't just capture the hard times; there are wonderful pictures of sporting triumphs and excited young couples at dances. Kennelly believes that the socials pictures will be of particular interest to fashion historians. "There's a big selection of dress dances [in the archive] and the frocks the ladies wore were very varied. Some would have come from relations in New York, Washington, Chicago and Boston; others from England and others from the shops down town," he says.
He loved taking photos of the dancehall scene. This was the social event, held in every Sunday night in every parish. The halls were small, unventilated and he likens them to sweat boxes. These were the ballrooms of romance. "I can't see where else you'd meet someone, except coming down from the altar in church," he says.
Both Vanishing Ireland and Eye Witness capture a disappearing Ireland for posterity but the Kennelly archive is an ongoing project. The second phase, from 1973 onwards should be completed next year, with the collection growing to a quarter of a million images. It will also grow in other ways, as visitors to the site can comment and add captions, if, for example, they recognise an unnamed relative in the picture, thus allowing a rich and mesmerising social history to be preserved for future generations.
The Kennelly Archive goes live next Thursday www.kennellyarchive.com
'Eye Witness: Padraig and Joan Kennelly's Images of Ireland: 1953-1973' is out now
'Vanishing Ireland: Further Chronicles of a Disappearing World' by James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury is out now