Books of photography and text – whether conflations of picture postcards and tourist brochure writing or imaginative marriages of language and photographic image – have formed a genre of their own. There have been the collaborations of Jean Mohr and John Berger, or David Hamilton and Alain Robbe-Grillet. One of the most interesting had no photographs at all, a story by Robbe-Grillet in which he asserts the primacy of words by describing David Hamilton’s house and the young women in it in precise images of photographic clarity and objectivity. Ireland, painfully photogenic, has had the whole range of treatment – Jill and Leon Uris, Fergus Burke and Edna O’Brien and, in an inversion of the present collection, Ireland: A Week in the Life of a Nation, the work of fifty photographers and one writer, Anthony Cronin.
Such books are often publishers’ contrivances, speculations on what the market will take. 32 Counties, beautifully produced as these books generally are, distinguishes itself by being a genuine journey of discovery – a physical one for the photographer, who hitch-hiked his way around the country at the age of seventeen taking pictures, and of the mind, for most, if not all of the writers, a different one for each county. The idea is simple but potent, and the highly varied portrait of Ireland that emerges is celebratory, clear-eyed, angry, hilarious and full of pathos.
‘I left school at sixteen with two O-levels: Art and Photography,’ writes Donovan Wylie. ‘A year later I left home in Belfast and walked into Ireland. I had many conceptions about the island before I left, all of which were shattered