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The 'oldest street photographer in Dublin' on why it's never too late to change careers

Jim O’Callaghan, now 78, went to college in his late 50s and ended up with his dream job.

P1950874 Jim O'Callaghan (left). Source: Jim O'Callaghan

JIM O’CALLAGHAN HAS a daily ritual – a swim in his local pool in Rathmines before hopping on a bus into Dublin city centre to photograph the capital’s streets and passersby.

Two months shy of his 79th birthday, he describes himself as “probably the oldest street photographer taking photos daily on the city centre streets”.

In the past five years, bar a few stays in hospital, not many days have passed without Jim pounding the pavement with his camera in hand. He’ll typically spend an hour or two in the Grafton Street area and its surrounds, catching candid shots of city life.

“I’m totally addicted, I hate a day to go by when I can’t get out. My normal day is – I’m out in Rathmines, I jump on the bus to South Great George’s Street, I go down Fade Street, Drury Street, Wicklow Street, and over to Grafton Street,” Jim told TheJournal.ie.

“My favourite topic is taking photos of people in front of interesting backgrounds, usually shops. So very often I pick out the shop first and then sort of wait for the people to come by and hopefully get a good shot.

“You can have a great day sometimes, you get a few really good pictures. Another day, somehow or other, you don’t get even one good picture, that’s the luck of the draw.

“It’s interesting – on a rainy day it’s very hard to get a good photo, but if you do get a good one that can often be better than all the sunny ones.”

Jim couldn’t practice his hobby for a few weeks earlier this year because he was in hospital. “It’s rather maddening if you want to go and take photographs but you’re locked up in your ward, but we got through it.”

Thankfully, he’s doing much better now and is back on the beat.

Went to college in his 50s

Jim has always been artistic and painted for many years. He was a stay-at-home father in the 1970s, while his wife Pauline worked as a teacher.

“When the children were born first I was painting, and I was doing it from home. When I was at home minding the kids, my wife was a school teacher so she was out all day so I was minding the kids and trying to paint pictures in between.

“I think I was one of the first stay-at-home dads, that was back in the mid-1970s. During the morning, all the houses along the road were all full with mammies with babies, I was the only dad around.”

Jim was in his late 50s and the manager in a newsagents shop in Dublin city when he decided to go to college. He studied art history four nights a week in UCD while also working full-time.

“I didn’t go to college until I was in my 50s, 60s. I did a degree at night, that was pretty tough – four nights a week for four years.”

Despite it being a “big jump” to go to college, Jim said he loved his time there and didn’t consider his age an issue.

“I enjoyed it. I probably would have been too immature at 18 to go to college. I think it’s good advice to go when you’ve matured a bit,” he laughed, adding: “You get more value out of it.

I was dying to do it, it was great. I’d recommend that anyone in their middle age who didn’t go to college, they should think about it, it’s a great experience.

Juggling work and college was “really tough”, but Pauline and their children all supported his decision.

Jim went on to study Drawing and Visual Investigation at the National College of Art and Design. He said this was a “terrific” experience as he’d always wanted to study at NCAD.

While in college, he heard about a job in the National Gallery of Ireland. He applied and got it.

“I probably should have been in the gallery all my life, but at least I made it there, it all worked out well.”

Jim started working in the gallery’s bookshop, then moved into the education department and oversaw lectures, as well giving tours.

He worked in the gallery for over a decade, from the late 1990s until he retired in 2010. He said if anyone is considering a career change, it’s never too late to go for your dream job, regardless of your age.

While working at the National Gallery, Jim got an M.Litt from UCD. He wrote his thesis about Flora Mitchell, an artist best known for her mid-20th-century paintings of old Dublin architecture.

“My thesis was on Flora Mitchell, who wrote and illustrated the book Vanishing Dublin. I’m, in a way, following in her footsteps – recording the Dublin of today. My next project could be turning my thesis into a book,” Jim noted.

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Covid-19

Jim has had some health issues in recent years and he and Pauline went to Achill in Co Mayo to cocoon for three months at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We had amazing weather. Achill is famous for its rain but for literally three months, we had about 10 days rain. It was wonderful.”

He swapped shop-fronts for sheep during this period and enjoyed the change of scene but was delighted to return to Dublin during the summer.

Much had changed in those few months and the city streets were a lot quieter than usual.

“It’s interesting now, when I’d stand up on Grafton Street before the Covid came, 200 or 300 people every few minutes would walk by. And it’s very hard to focus on one person because there are people coming in between everything.

“But now it’s much simpler, there is only about a tenth of the people there, so you can look down the street and see somebody coming, and then just wait ’til they come by, it’s much more relaxed. It’s very frenetic, when the big crowds are there.

“I like to just take people when they’re when they don’t know they’re being photographed. An odd time I’d have a chat with them and I’d enjoy that. But mostly I’d meet other photographers and I’d have a good chat with them because they’re very easy to spot.”

Jim joined Instagram about three years ago after his daughter Emily suggested it.

“The great thing about Instagram is getting the feedback every day, it improves my work. Instagram is amazingly positive – I don’t think I’ve come across in all the years anybody’s saying anything negative, I don’t know why and all the other platforms are full of people being negative.”

You can view more of Jim’s work here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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