A Short Fiction by Noel King
What she did in her time off was none of our business, really, but every time she had even an hour free Nanny Hanley would take off with this cumbersome brown leather bag, not on her shoulder, but around her neck and dangling by her tummy.
Once I went into her room to fetch her ’cause my brother was after throwing up and I thought it might be a serious sickness. She had a camera out on the bed and countless rolls of film and prints and paraphernalia strewn around on the bedspread. I suppose she could have had worse hobbies, like going with men or drinking in pubs.
As nannies go, she was ok, not as strict as the nutcase we had before her, not as lenient as the English woman who came immediately after. We knew, as children of a government TD that we were never ever going to have a long-term nanny, that they would be gone with some excuse or other after the next General Election. One Nanny was even recalled by her father down in Sligo when he discovered she was working for a Fianna Fáil man and they a Fine Gael family.
I suppose Nanny Hanley sticks out in our memories more because of her photography. No other Nanny had any habits or hobbies that we remember really. One was a stamp collector all right and she would go to the Post Office to buy first-day covers. She got me into it too, said I was the only little girl she knew that collected stamps; it was, and still is I suppose, mostly a boy-hobby thing, stamp collecting, nobody knows why.
* * *
Anyway, back to now and my brother and I are visiting an exhibition of Nanny Hanley’s work in the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar. They’ve called the exhibition The Dublin Shots. She’s dead now, but her nephew tracked down as many families that she’d worked for, and as many people that knew her, as he could find and invited us along. In one room of the exhibition is a television documentary someone on her life. It is on one continuous loop. We pick it up when we go in and watch to the end and then from the start again to the point when we arrived.
‘Gosh, it’s really her,’ I whisper to my brother, ‘just as she is in my memory.’
He nods in agreement.
In the exhibition she is Ruth of course, Miss Ruth Hanley, but we can’t see her as anything but Nanny Hanley.
No one knows when her interest in photography started. She began with a Kodak Box Brownie. Some time after leaving us in the mid-’70s she inherited some money apparently and went on a trip around the world on her own, upgrading to a Rolleiflex and having one of the first Super 8 cameras too for little three-minute moving pictures.
Nanny Hanley was with us at the time I made my First Holy Communion. That’s another reason she sticks out among our nannies. It was 1974, and my mother took me and Nanny into Clerys on O’Connell Street to buy one of their amazing dresses. We got the best one in the shop, I was told. I looked like – and felt like – a princess. Nanny brought her camera of course. As well as the usual type of posed shots, she took some of me trying on the dresses. She presented me with a great photo album afterwards with all those shots in it. I still have it.
The Dublin bombings happened in 1974 also: somehow she managed to escape from the house and document a lot of it just after it happened. e peer at these pictures now in the exhibition. Only the day before the bombings she had taken me and my brother through Talbot Street, shopping for bargains with our pocket money, the very street where the bomb hit next day. After that, Father, who was Nanny’s boss, of course, put a ban on her taking us alone anywhere and instructed her to ‘be careful’ whenever she went out alone.
Around the same time, Daddy got promoted and we were given a male minder. I can’t for the life of me remember who he was or what he looked like. My brother remembers him better because he was interested in football. I do remember the two of us used to giggle and fantasize that our ‘bodyguard’ and our ‘nanny’ would strike up a romance. My brother said, though, that he thought she wasn’t interested in men at all.
* * *
Daddy became a Minister in Cosgrave’s government and we thought he was so important. A big black Mercedes came to collect him in the mornings. I think even more security was stepped up around us also, like a plainclothes policeman sitting in an unmarked car across the road from our house. At the time, though, this was all fairly normal for us. Our house was on Merrion Square. Well, it still is, except other people live in it now. Father and Mother sold it in 1982, Father was getting tired of politics, and he thought Dublin wasn’t a safe place for us to be growing up in anymore. We moved to Meath, and he decided he would raise racehorses, but had no success whatsoever, not a single winner. It might have been bad trainers or something, I don’t know, but it was something Father never mentioned again after the late ’80s.
There are no photographs of our horses taken by Nanny Hanley because she had long left by then. God, let me see, sure she must have left after the hot summer of 1976, said she couldn’t stick the heat of a city, was going to be Nanny to a nice country family with no political connections, no security or photographers outside the door every morning.
* * *
We had names for most of our nannies too: Nanny Hanley was ‘secret’ nanny, others were ‘bossy’ nanny and ‘smelly’ nanny after one who always had a whiff of sweat off of her, and ‘alcho’ nanny who liked to have a nip of gin, or was it vodka? My brother insists it was Bacardi but I think he says that to annoy me, he’s always saying things to annoy me.
Back in the gallery, one of the little information cards about The Dublin Shots says that Miss Ruth Hanley suffered from xenophobia, which is a fear of strangers and foreigners. It’s a strange way of describing someone who so accurately captured people in stunning photographs, but in a way the comment was right, because she was aloof; there was a sense that the subjects didn’t know they were subjects; as if they were caught on a long-lens except of course there were few long-lenses in those days.
Then there was that mystery night, my brother brought it up again on the way to the gallery tonight. I’d forgotten all about it. The night Nanny Hanley went missing. She never returned after her evening stroll and wasn’t in the nursery to give us breakfast in the morning. Mother rang An Garda Síochána and all. Eventually, Nanny got back around mid-morning, very apologetic. Usually, cases like this would mean that she had fallen in with a man and would be dismissed. But whatever excuse she gave Mother worked, because nothing more was said and everything went back to normal. I wish now I had asked my mother what it was but Mother has taken that secret to her grave just as Nanny Hanley has.
In front of the Shelbourne Hotel was her favourite spot it seems from the photos; she snapped quite a few famous people there. She got Fred Astaire too and Ginger Rogers and Omar Sharif. She went to the National Stadium: had shots of Thin Lizzy and Horslips on stage. That surprised me. I would never have thought she was into rock music, would have imagined she was more a classical person but there you go… then again it might not have been the music that attracted her to those gigs at all, but just the glamour and the clothes and the lights. The stage lights must have been a big challenge for a photographer in those days.
‘Pity she didn’t get Bob Dylan,’ my brother says. ‘Do you remember that day… the summer of… 1984?’ He smiles into my eyes.
‘How could I forget, my first concert and you minding me, losing all your street cred having your kid sister with you.’
We laugh and my brother gives me a little hug. I am so happy we are here together, we ‘fell out’ for a few years, but have made it up in the last few months. He was married to this monster of a woman and she and I didn’t get on, long story but they’ve broken up now, thank God.
We get very excited – well at least I do – when we get to see ourselves in the exhibition. It’s the St Patrick’s Day shots we are in. Nanny would have taken us to this of course because Father was an important man and would have been on the reviewing stand. I don’t know where Mother was, at home perhaps, dolling herself up for the St Patrick’s Night Ball in the Mansion House maybe. Anyway, we must have been a ‘handful’ for Nanny and our security man with all the crowds and everything. I recognize my maxi dress in the photo. I loved that maxi dress which went down to my ankles. It had a gaudy tartan-like pattern that wasn’t quite inspired by the Bay City Rollers, or maybe it was. This was 1975 after all. My brother was wearing a crombie coat with a wide collar and short pants. It seemed to be a warm day, but how he got away with a short pants as early as March 17, I don’t know. His fifty-something self is peering at himself now, and I fancy I catch a tear in his eye. He doesn’t let it fall, though, my brother is very reserved in that way. His nine-year-old self is waving a little flag and clasping a railing in The Dublin Shots.
Then there are shots of Wood Quay. Wood Quay was where the Vikings landed on the Liffey and it’s now the civic offices of Dublin City Council. For years and years there were protests there – that it should be preserved and not built on, but sure you know Ireland for planning and politicians getting what they want! Nanny Hanley photographed the protests and one we recognize of a young Mary Robinson, with platforms and flares on as was the fashion at the time.
Then Nanny captured some old remnants of tram lines, God knows where in Dublin she found those. If she was only alive now to see the LUAS and by golly, even the DART. We can’t figure out if she ever was on the DART, she could have been, as Dublin’s has had it since 1984 and she lived until 1995, but we don’t know anything much about her after she left us.
There is a mysterious man in some of the shots. The gallery notes claim he might have been a suitor/lover but my brother and I dispute this with the woman who is curating the show.
‘She wasn’t… she just wasn’t the… romantic kind,’ my brother suggests.
The curator’s face falls.
‘We had many nannies who would meet a chap while out with us in the park,’ says I, ‘and without as much as a how’s-your-father they would be making a date to go to the pictures or meet in some pub or other for a drink or whatever. But Nanny Hanley wasn’t like that, she never seemed to look at a fellow, or another lady for that matter.’
The curator nods disappointedly.
* * *
We read her own words from the catalogue of The Dublin Shots and we can hear her voice in them. Her voice was sooo distinctive, not English, not Irish, not Welsh, but somewhere in between…
…while the children are asleep now I will slip outside. On Moore Street I take some shots of the street sellers. I wish I could capture their accents, their accents are sharp and piercing, unique even for the north side of Dublin.
She also appeared fearless. This exhibition is just her Dublin shots. But there is an equal amount for other places, other cities, war-torn countries and that. I feel a bit proud of her actually, that she had helped shape me and my brother – in our 50s now, going slightly grey at the temples and full of great memories. It was her anonymity that allowed her do her best work.
I run into an old colleague from my days in Bank of Ireland. We air kiss and she asks if we’d like to go for a drink after.
‘Maybe Nesbitt’s?’ she asks.
Doheny and Nesbitt’s – hadn’t thought about there in years.
‘Bit far away though, how about The Palace?’
‘Aaah,’ my brother smiles his agreement, ‘let’s treat ourselves and go to Nesbitt’s, we’ll get a taxi.’
‘Oh yes, let’s,’ I say, ‘that’s where all the journos went to get the gossip, Daddy loved it.’
The picture with Daddy and Mammy and me and my brother at Christmas 1975 is the best one ever, much nicer than any of the posed studio shots we did over all the years. That’s the one I’d like to purchase a print of, something that really captures my family; really!
A photographer from the Evening Herald wants to take our picture now at the exhibition. Not since Daddy was in politics have we been asked to pose for the press. But we do it, with ease; we were well trained for that.
Nanny Hanley had no children of her own obviously, hence no grandchildren, but two nephews attend the opening and they greet us warmly. The younger one, as I told you, had tracked us down and invited us. The older nephew’s eye twinkles into mine and there’s a vague recollection of a day she was minding him as well as minding us and we all played in the park together, small world this is, a small world.
Noel King lives in Tralee, Ireland. His poetry collections are published by Salmon: Prophesying the Past, (2010), The Stern Wave (2013) and Sons (2015). He has edited more than fifty books of work by others (Doghouse Books, 2003-2013) and was poetry editor of Revival Literary Journal (Limerick Writers’ Centre) in 2012/13. A short story collection, The Key Signature & Other Stories was published by Liberties Press in 2017. www.noelking.ie