Small Town Portraits, Dennis Dinneen

Dennis Dinneen

Dennis Dinneen was a full-time publican, occasional taxi-man and photographer. A true Macrompian*, Main Streets Dennis Dinneen was hired for particular occasions such as communions, confirmations, weddings and so on, working from his studio in the back of the bar. He was driven by a humble and simplistic love for taking photographs, and a lot of his best work comes from the experimenting and playing around he did in his own free time. When he died in 1985, he left behind an incredible archive of over 20,000 negatives that were never fully, extensively explored, until now. Dennis Dinneen’s incredible archive of negatives commenced a much-awaited emergence into public recognition and discovery when in 2015 David Moore began work with Lawrence Dinneen, son of Dennis Dinneen, leading to an exhibition in UCC which received worldwide recognition. This prompted further exhibitions in Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, USA, Landskrona Museum, Sweden and The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin – which was voted in the top three best art exhibitions of 2017 by Irish Times readers, behind only Vermeer and Caravaggio.

*someone from or living in the town of Macroom, County Cork, Ireland.

He was driven by a humble and simplistic love for taking photographs, and a lot of his best work comes from the experimenting and playing around he did in his own free time.

In the last few years, these photographs are slowly but surely being brought to the light and recognition that their significance deserves. Dinneen’s Bar was and still is known for its walls being covered in black and white photographs which comprise several decades of local, rural history of the Lee Valley area and its inhabitants. The majority of people in Dennis’ photographs were unaware of how to pose; they remain true to the reality of the time and situation, are genuine and come straight across just as-they-were. These were the people, this was the way.

In 2019 the National Gallery purchased prints for their permanent collection, which were included in the gallery’s first-ever photography exhibition ‘Views of Ireland’ in 2019. This is an incredibly significant feat for the legacy of Dennis Dinneen; to go from being a modest, locally known publican and photographer in the Macroom area to having a collection displayed and kept in the National Gallery Collection – a permanent and historic collection that will outlive us all. Did Dennis Dinneen know exactly what he was doing when he was taking these photos? Did he purposely and carefully set them up in their own unique way like they are? Did he know that they would become so important, famous, even so far as iconic? Imagine him so unassuming and humble, with no idea of the historically as well as artistically significant legacy he would be leaving behind. Perhaps he knew exactly what it was he was doing. Or perhaps he was wonderfully unassuming, just like the people in the many portraits he took; many are set up and look as though they were meant to be used as ID headshots for passports, and so the faces of the people are solemn and unsmiling, yet so striking. Cleverly, Dennis didn’t limit these ‘mug-shot’ style photographs to just the face before an all-white screen or patterned curtain as a background; he used a wide range, including the room and its contents beyond the backdrop. 

Imagine him so unassuming and humble, with no idea of the historically as well as artistically significant legacy he would be leaving behind.

Recently released, a new book ‘Small Town Portraits’, comprises 75 of Dennis’ best portraits, many unseen before. It aims to build on his growing reputation in the photography world and introduce him to a wider audience abroad. While most of the portraits in the book were taken in his small studio in Dinneen’s Bar – images from local theatre productions that he photographed are inter-spliced between. The curtains in particular link the two scenes, but so does the element of ‘performance’. Whether they are in front of Dennis’ camera in the pub or on stage in front of the local community, perhaps the subjects all take on a character when eyes are focussed on them.

The growing legacy that Dennis Dinneen has left behind captures a little bit of local, rural Irish history yet also stands as a body of incredible artwork. It has brought me to come to know the grandfather I never met as somewhat of an unsung legend. This is not just incredible photographic artwork; this is a history, a legacy, a record of a heritage. He captured people, but he also captured a time in history, a way of life, a culturally rich heritage that I believe we, as treasurers of Dennis Dinneen’s archive, and as his family, have the responsibility to protect, preserve, and, at the same time, share with the Irish in Ireland and with everyone anywhere in the world.

One of my favourite photographs in the Dennis Dinneen Archive.
It is a portrait of my aunt and Dennis’ sister-in-law, Olive.
A portrait of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy can be spotted in the background.

This is not just incredible photographic artwork; this is a history, a legacy, a record of a heritage.

This piece was originally published in the Lee Valley Outlook magazine, Vol. 17 Edition 23, on Thursday 19th November 2020.