Column The untold story of two Irish workers… and this iconic picture

A chance discovery in a tiny Galway village set Seán Ó Cualáin on a voyage that led to the Rockefeller Center – and a new film.

AT THE HEIGHT of the Great Depression, eleven workers with their boots dangling sit side by side on a steel beam eating lunch – Central Park and the misty Manhattan skyline stretching out behind them.

In the 80 years since it was taken, this counterpoint of the epic and the mundane has become one of the world’s most famous images – a cultural icon and an indomitable symbol of the working man. And yet, in all that time, the identity of the eleven men has remained a mystery: their names – like that of the photographer that took the picture – lost in time, subsumed by the fame of the image itself.

But then, at the start of the 21st century, the photograph finally began to give up some of its secrets. One of which surfaced in the south Galway village of Shanaglish outside Gort. The locals here are convinced that two of the elusive men photographed on the beam in 1932 hailed from their village.

Part homage, part investigation, our new film Lón sa Spéir/Men at Lunch is the revealing tale of an American icon, an unprecedented race to the sky and the immigrant workers that built New York.

My brother and I were in South Galway a few years ago researching a documentary on the blind poet Raftery and we called into Michael Whelan’s pub in the village of Shanaglish. While there we noticed the famous Lunch Atop A Skyscraper image, but we took real interest in a note beside the picture. The note was from Pat Glynn from Boston, Massachusetts – the son of a Shanaglish emigrant.

On the note he stated that the man on the far right holding the bottle was his father Sonny Glynn, and the man on the far left was Matty O’Shaughnessy his uncle-in-law. We realised very quickly that there was a great untold story here. We spoke to Michael Whelan the owner of the pub who gave us Pat’s contact. From there we built up a good relationship with the two families and both the Glynns and O’Shaughnessys are featured in the documentary.

Parallel stories

Very early in the process of making this documentary I became aware that this film called for storytelling on many levels. Firstly, in order to set and maintain the theme, there’s the wider context – the glory of the skyscraper age and the building of the iconic Manhattan skyline.

Secondly there’s the parallel story of the Irish and other European immigrants who arrived in New York during the roaring twenties and were living there during the Great Depression, which had just begun to bite when the two Irishmen Sonny Glynn and Mattie O’Shaughnessy landed jobs at the Rockefeller Centre.

Finally the mystery surrounding the photograph also had to be investigated and told. Was it a fake? Who took the photograph? And who might the men be?

The main challenge for me as director was to interweave these parallel stories to portray a time just as steeped in sweat and misery as it was in glory and grandeur. The Irish families claim to the men on the beam were key to this. They represented the missing link between the famous image and the reality of life for the men it features.

The director of photography, Reamonn Mac Donncha and I were very conscious of the fact that we were filming a documentary in the most photographed location on Earth. It was very important to us that we did not film film it like a tourist would, we were extremely conscious of the framing and composition of each shot

We have been working on this project since 2007, it will be a strange experience next Monday when the film has been shown and the storytelling process is no longer part of our daily schedule. We are however hopeful that the film like the image itself will take on a life of its own and be seen worldwide.

Lón sa Spéir – Men At Lunch premieres at the Galway Film Fleadh tomorrow at 1pm. Seán Ó Cualáin is the director of the film and will attend the screening. You can follow updates on the film on Twitter.

Column: The untold story of two Irish workers… and this iconic picture
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  • The Irishmen on the beam?

  • The Irishmen on the beam?

  • The Irishmen on the beam?

  • The Irishmen on the beam?

  • The Irishmen on the beam?

All photos courtesy of Sónta Films.

Seán Ó Cualáin
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