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Clare Local Studies Project

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Bluett Photos and Films: A Rich Heritage of Capital Town
Clare Champion, Friday, December 14, 2001

An especially valued segment of the rich heritage of Ennis in particular, and Clare in general, preserved for us and future generations by Clare County Library is the Bluett collection of slides and film depicting the Banner County of the 1940's, 50's and 60's. In August of 1994 Liam Bluett made the donation of 200 colour slides and seven reels of film taken by his late father, Bill, to the Local Studies Centre, Clare County Library. The slides record daily life in the county and range in subject from family trips to the seaside to ceremonial occasions. Photographs made from the slides, in spite of the 'modern' impression suggested by these colour prints, are an amazing record of changes that have occurred in the county.

The full Bluett Collection can be viewed at the Local Studies Centre at Harmony Row. The reels of film have been transposed to video and may also be viewed by appointment. At the time of transfer to their new location, Clare County Library authorities expressed their indebtedness to Liam Bluett for his thoughtfulness and generosity in making available such wonderful memorabilia for the population as a whole.

Bill Bluett's photographs created quite a stir when something like half the collection was put on public exhibition by Clare Local Studies Project in the de Valera Library in Ennis during 1996, recalling for a new generation and era about which many of whom knew precious little to any intimate degree. It was a particularly precious occasion for the present writer to relive moments of the period he spent in Ennis as a Clare Champion journalist-in-training and later staff newsman. Here before for him to nostalgically contemplate were people and places that were part and parcel of one's most impressionable years, recounting the sad and the happy, the triumphal and the not so memorable events of the times.

The exhibition also brought back memories of reporting for the Champion one of one's earliest outdoor assignments, the inauguration of the first Chamber of Commerce in Ennis, a process in which the same Bill Bluett played a significant role. So did, for that matter, a fellow Corkman and close friend of Bill's who also worked with the county newspaper, William D. (Bill) Britton, then Print Foreman in the Barrack St. plant and later to become Managing Director of another newspaper and printing works, the Leinster Leader Ltd. in Naas, Co. Kildare, from which he retired to Bray after 25 years in the post.

Clare Local Studies Project (CLASP) was set up by four staff members of Clare County Library to develop awareness of and increase access to sources for local studies in Clare. Conscious of scarce resources, CLASP decided on a link-up with FÁS, the training authority, so that its aims could be realised by co-operating with the training function of FÁS in mounting the 1996 exhibition. This partnership has been working excellently since mid-1995, the exhibition being but one of a number of projects carried out.

The exhibition frames on which the photographs were displayed were constructed by trainees on the FÁS project, while research to identify persons and places was also done by trainees. The exhibition was formally launched by Mr. Donal Griffin of FÁS who also has a special interest in all aspects of Ennis through his involvement with the Tidy Towns Committee, a body he was chairing at that period.

Bill Bluett was born in 1909 in Brickfield between Kilmallock and Charleville on the Limerick/Cork border. After his schooling, he served his time as a draper's assistant in Murray's Store in Charleville. He came to Ennis in 1931 and worked for two years in O'Dea's Drapery Shop in O'Connell Street. He then went into partnership with the late Ned Hickey to set up 'The Irish House,' a clothes and household goods shop in O'Connell Street close to the Monument. The shop was in business until 1963. He also managed a linen manufacturing company, Richard Nelson & Co., based in Thomson's Lane off O'Connell Street. This firm supplied linen handkerchiefs and glass cloths to shops and stores all over Ireland. Its main customers were the Duty Free Shops and Mail Order Stores in Shannon Airport.

Bill was involved with local community work, especially the St. Vincent de Paul Society of which he was a member from 1942 until his death. He was also a member of Ennis Golf Club for many years. His interest in photography began at an early age and he won his first camera, a box-brownie, in a competition run by a Sunday newspaper in 1923 when he was 14. The camera, however, was damaged in the post and never worked. He did not become actively involved in the hobby until the early 1930's. Most of his early photographs are in black and white, many of which he himself developed.

In 1945 he got a secondhand Leica from post-war Germany. He had become over the years acquainted with many flight crews calling to Shannon and staying in the Old Ground Hotel. The camera was acquired for him by Johnny Hoffmire, a steward with TWA, in exchange for cartons of cigarettes. Johnny was subsequently killed in the TWA airline crash in the Shannon Estuary and is buried in the mass grave in Drumcliffe Cemetery. With the newly-acquired Leica, Bill Bluett's interest changed to slide photography. Over the next 25 to 30 years, he shot hundreds of rolls in colour. His main areas of interest were the developing Shannon Airport, Ennis Golf and Lawn Tennis Clubs, as well as West Clare locations such as Kilkee, Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin and Lisdoonvarna. Needless to say, he concentrated also on Ennis itself and events in the town. Bill also shot film while in the U.S. in 1955 and on trips to Lourdes, Spain, Jersey and Switzerland.

By the late 1940's he was also shooting with an 8mm movie camera and for a number of years filmed events of local interest. Included were 'An Tostal' which featured the arrival of the first American coach tour to the Old Ground Hotel, the All-Ireland Fleadh in Ennis in 1956, the 50th Episcopal anniversary celebrations of Archbishop Michael Fogarty, the inauguration of Bishop Joseph Rodgers as Coadjutor Bishop of Killaloe, local Corpus Christi processions, sporting events and the obsequies of Bishop Rodgers.

He was not interested in competitive photography as such an indulged in the pursuit purely as a hobby, taking him into the late 1970's. His love of photography was shared by his late son, Brian, who won prizes in several local competitions. In 1942, Bill married Eileen Baggot of Dublin. They had four children, Liam, Desmond, Maria and Brian (who died in 1991). Bill Bluett died in December 1993, and Eileen passed away six weeks later.

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See also: Bluett Exhibition