Dublin Before the Tiger: old photographs of Ireland show a time lost for ever

As the Emerald Isle celebrates St Patrick's Day on Wednesday, a series of images from the 1980s champions its heritage

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Ireland in the 1980s was a place many people wanted to escape. The country was one of the poorest in Europe and huge numbers were emigrating every year. But for David Jazay, it was the other way around. The German photographer arrived in the Irish capital on a Sunday in 1982, as a teenage exchange student.

The inner city of Dublin at this time was home to the faded grandeur of British-era Georgian buildings that were under immediate threat of demolition. The area – where working-class communities had toiled for generations – was about to change for ever.

Left: Noreen Stacey (nee Downing), Tom Downing's daughter
Right: Maureen Farrelly

Few could anticipate Ireland’s boom years ahead – where the dizzying growth mirrored the UAE’s, with cranes filling Dublin’s skies – but Jazay grasped instinctively that this chapter in Dublin’s history needed to be documented before it was erased.

I was fascinated not so much by the dereliction but by the working-class culture and the small shop owners

"I was fascinated not so much by the dereliction, but by the working-class culture and the small shopowners," says Jazay, 54, who is from Munster. "People would chat to you, people had time, and there were children playing in the streets. It was all very different from the Germany I grew up in. I thought it was very beautiful."

The photographs he took show the last of the old antique houses, furniture sellers and corner shops that dotted the quays alongside the beautiful yet dilapidated "Georgian architectural ensembles", as Jazay calls them. The faces of shopowners, children and salesmen stare out from a departed era. And forget grey monochrome shots of poverty and decay: many of the images are immediate and colourful. It is clear Jazay was no misery tourist, but someone genuinely interested in what was happening.

Patrick Gallagher of Martin+Joyce's butcher shop, Benburb Street, Dublin

“It boggles my mind that people see bleakness because what I saw was working-class people being able to make a living in the city,” he says. “It was my intention to photograph it in good light because I didn’t want to fall into that narrative of the bleak, depressing post-war thing.”

A panorama of Ellis Quay, Dublin, 1991. David Jazay 

Jazay used a 1950s-era Rolleiflex T camera to document the era's twilight. It was a twin lens, analogue camera that he found relaxed people when he shot their portraits. "Because you look down and talk to them and make eye contact while you take photos, so it is a very good street camera."

Photographer David Jazay with the Rolleiflex T camera in 1984, two years after he first came to Ireland. David Jazay  

One striking images is of a Sikh trader at an inner city bazaar. "I didn't consider it unusual to see signs of an Asian community, even if Ireland was quite mono-ethnic in those years."

Jazay returned to Ireland every two years, and in 1985 shot a continuous panorama of Dublin’s north quays that line the River Liffey. He would walk 20 metres, take a shot and then do it again. The beauty of the architecture remained despite the poor condition of the buildings and “ghost signs” – previous shop names – were still visible. “It was like a layer cake of history,” he says. “You could actually see the different uses people had put these buildings through in the course of time. All that is gone now, and doesn’t seem to be missed much. But I saw the life in it.”

Dublin Bazaar, Liberties, Dublin, and a salesman, with period advertising

Jazay snapped about 4,000 images in total and, a few years ago, he scanned some and put them together in digital panoramas. The result is a striking record of Dublin in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1988, Jazay also completed a documentary with Judith Klinger, called Bargaintown, which chronicles some the people he met.

Clothes shops on Dublin's Sarsfield Quay in 1985. David Jazay 

By 1992, the work had finished and Dublin had moved on. Ireland was about to experience a huge economic boom called the Celtic Tiger. The years from 1995 to 2007 were an unprecedented time in Ireland's history, when the country went from being one of the poorest to one of Europe's wealthiest.

Jazay did not visit between 1996 and 2013 as new construction and infrastructure projects transformed the city he chronicled – many buildings were demolished or rebuilt with mock facades – and the places Jazay photographed are now largely redeveloped. The boom was followed in 2008 by one of the sharpest downturns in history.

Jazay named his collection "Dublin Before the Tiger" and it represents a warm and intriguing snapshot of a time and place in the capital's history that has been lost for ever. Jazay is now hoping to stage an exhibition of the photographs in Ireland.

"I've been going back for the past 10 years, and what really shocks me now is the empty brownfield sites. They should have done projects for the community such as rehearsal spaces, parks, sports grounds and things like that," he says.

The Post Office is the last house standing in this block of Upper Ormond Quay. Photograph taken in August 1988, digitally combined from medium format negative scans in 2014.

"I have no wish to judge or indict, but would hope that people saw not just the poverty and dereliction of Dublin before the Tiger, but also the dignity of its people in the face of adversity, their crafts and traditions, and their sense of community."

More information about Dublin Before the Tiger is available at www.davidjazay.com