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John Whelan: Celebrating the great Jim Yorke, a photographer who excelled in a different era

Paddy Connolly (centre) with the Sinnott brothers in th printing press in the Leinster Express in the 1970s. This is one of many fine black and white images from the great Jim Yorke that feature in John Whelan's new book, Growing Pains and Growing Up

This is an extract from Growing Pains and Growing Up, John Whelan’s book celebrating 40 years in Journalism. It originally appeared on LaoisToday in October 2018. 


Kodachrome

They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day

I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single

And brought them all together for one night
I know they’d never match
My sweet imagination
Everything looks worse in black and white

I was fortunate on the first day I joined the Leinster Express back on June 26th, 1978, straight out of school after the Leaving Cert in St Paul’s Monasterevin, that one of the first people I bumped into was Jim Yorke, the paper’s staff photographer.

As a 17-year-old, Jim took me under his wing. By then Jim had covered more dinner dances, fork suppers, GAA matches, golf presentations, fashions shows, agricultural shows, graduations, conventions, rallies, protests, festivals, selections and elections than, well, any of us have had hot dinners.

To do all this with patience, panache and professionalism you have to be a people’s person and Jim Yorke was a man of the people, who liked people and who loved helping them. He was a Christian man who practised what he preached. He would literally give you the shirt off his back and was as generous with his time, experience and advice as he was with his belongings.

Jim was a great photographer and the value of his body of work, which pre-dated the digital era, has yet to be fully appreciated.

Self-taught, Jim shared his photographic interest and knowledge as generously as he did everything else. He had a keen eye, a sharp wit; he was a good story teller with a great turn of phrase.

He was a photo-journalist who had to get the shot first time, by getting up close, in the right place at the right time. In the era before mobile phones, emails and digital cameras you only got one chance to get the photo and you never knew what you had on film until you got back to the darkroom to develop and print your negatives.

Sometimes it seemed to take forever for those black and white images to form in the red light district of the darkroom.

Jim was great to work with, in the Leinster Express and his endeavours and popularity were central to rebuilding the paper’s fortunes throughout the 70s and 80s. He was one of a team which helped take the Leinster from the verge of closure in 1972 to being one of the best and most successful provincials in the country by the mid-80s – when he emigrated to Canada for a number of years.

While we covered everything from a specimen head of cabbage in Vicarstown to 100th birthday celebrations in Coolrain, the rotting hay in the fields of desperate farmers during desperate summers to the snow drifts in the Slieve Blooms in harsher winters.

No job was too big or too small for Jim who was immensely well liked, highly regarded and trusted no matter what door we knocked on.

He loved politics and current affairs. Our annual excursions to cover the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis and the Fine Gael annual conferences in the RDS were great days out at the height of the Thatcher era, the industrial unrest and strikes and the Haughey-Fitzgerald rivalry.

Some of his best work was during the intense and often bitter elections of those days, at the selection conventions, rallies and the long drawn out Laois-Offaly constituency counts in St Mary’s Hall.

On one famous occasion during the three elections in 18 months scenario in the early 80s, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael held competing eve-of-poll rallies at opposite ends of the Town.

Albert Reynolds was delivering a rousing speech to the Soldiers of
Destiny in the Market Square while simultaneously the former law Professor and Attorney General John Kelly, then the Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism urged on the FG supporters. It was civil war politics on Main Street, in stereo.

In response to heckling from some Fianna Fáilers heading home past the Lower Square from the pub, Kelly retorted: “There you are now, that’s what you’re dealing with, the closing time Napper Tandys.”

Charlie Haughey and his nemesis Garrett Fitzgerald were at each other’s throats; Oliver J Flanagan the colourful conservative poll topper and longest serving member of the Dáil; Tom Keenan lorded over Laois County Council and yet Fianna Fáil held sway and carried the day with three out of the five seats every time from 1977 right up to 2011, when Brian Stanley and Sinn Féin finally made their breakthrough.

I once asked Jim on how to get the best photograph. Without hesitation: “You have to get up close and don’t shoot until you see the white in their eyes.” It remains good advice still no matter what tele-photo lenses there are.

Jim was an avid reader of the Daily Mirror back then in its glory days and the halcyon days of the tabloid. He was a great union man too, the FOC (Father of the Chapel) of our local NUJ branch and he kept the Mid- Leinster region of the National Union of Journalists in good shape for years.

He always took a fair-minded and common sense approach into all negotiations on pay and conditions for his colleagues.

If Jim indulged himself in any way it was in his love affair with cars and music. He couldn’t sing to save his life but loved the life-borne ballads of Willie Nelson and Woody Guthrie to which he would strum along. He was keen too on the guitar riffs of the Fender and Stratocaster maestros Chet Atkins, Bert Weedon, Buddy Holly, Mark Knopfler, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher.

Jim too had a soft spot for cars. He had Car magazine, along with assorted music mags and Reader’s Digest, on permanent order with Pat Dowling’s newsagents on the Mountmellick Road. It was from Jim that I first learned the meaning of break horse power as he eulogised the purr from the engine of a Maserati, Ferrari or Lamborghini – while as a working man Jim was happy to make-do with an Opel Mantra from Cecil Lewis or his penchant for one of the smaller Alpha Romeos.

Jim was originally from Mullingar before he came to live and work in Laois. Little known was that he had as a young man served in the Defence Forces and appropriately served two tours as a UN peace keeper in Cyprus.

For a man who spent so much of his working life in a darkroom, Jim Yorke only ever brought light into the lives of others. He was a man of great courage and mcharismatic inspirational faith.

If there is an after-life and Jim was certain of that, then he is gone straight to heaven. I used joke him that in any event he had done his penance and purgatory here on earth working with me … and others in the The Leinster.

He was a great colleague, mentor and friend and we all still miss him and his kind uplifting words of encouragement and advice.

But none will miss him more so than his beloved wife Muriel. They were inseparable and she was the only real love in his life.

This is an extract from Growing Pains and Growing Up, John Whelan’s new book celebrating 40 years in Journalism. It is available to buy in All Books, Nook and Cranny and the Parish Centre in Portlaoise

SEE ALSO – Wired with Whelan: There are three sides to every story

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John Whelan has been a journalist, commentator, columnist, political analyst, campaigner, politician and publisher ever since he was 17. Having been Editor of the Leinster Express, Offaly Express and the Leinster Leader he has also contributed extensively on a number of issues to all of the country's flagship titles and programmes including the Irish Press, The Irish Independent, the Star, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday Business Post, The Sunday Times and Prime Time. He is founder of Communicate Ireland a PR, public affairs, event management and media services company. He is the author of the popular camping blog, Vanhalla - Camper Heaven.