The set-up is surprisingly formal, said photographer Ste Murray, sat at a table behind his laptop and a pair of microphones. “It feels like I’m about to announce a missing dog.”
As a few latecomers straggled into the meeting room at the back of the Printworks building at Dublin Castle last Thursday, Murray began his talk.
His debut photobook, Have Pass, Will Travel, documents the Tallaght-based active retirement group of the title.
Shot over five years, between 2018 and 2023, Murray trailed the group on their monthly trips across the country armed with their free-travel passes.
Less fascinated by the destinations, Murray instead directed his lens towards the journey itself, he told the room.
“I’m always on the lookout for patterns, and I’d notice the rituals of getting tea on board or sharing treats and baked goods,” he said.
“I was after the feeling or the atmosphere, not a catalogue of this group’s history,” said Murray.
Murray’s talk was part of the launch of the Tsundoku Art Book Fair last Thursday afternoon.
Organised by PhotoIreland, the four-day fair claimed the Printworks building’s reception. The long echoing space was filled with tables of limited-edition books, pamphlets, fashion magazines, cultural journals and prints.
On Saturday afternoon, Murray sat by the windows onto the courtyard. He was wearing a woollen shirt.
In front of him was a small stack of copies of his book, with its minimalist yellow cover and exposed spine revealing the glue and string that bound the paper together.
He slipped each bought copy into a pale pink envelope cushioned inside with bubble wrap. The yellow cover folds out to show a similarly desaturated pink page.
There is a scent of nostalgia to the colour scheme, he says, like the vivid colour of sweets. “With the pinks and yellows, I’m not trying to dial up the drama.”
Beside the books are a bundle of postcards. Each shows a different scene. In one, four men drink tea from take-away cups as rays of sunlight beam into their train carriage from the blue but cloudy sky.
In another, four women stand under a bus stop, out of the rain. They wear bright raincoats, with the hoods up and their faces concealed.
They are fly-on-the-wall shots. Murray prefers the moments when a subject is not looking at the lens, he says. “I’m drawn to the backs of heads more than portraits. It feels less confrontational.”
Boarding a moving train
The story of the Have Pass, Will Travel group was well underway by the time Murray came into its orbit, he says. “They were going already for eight years by the time I started.”
In their first eight years, they grew from a total of 12 to 70 participants, he says.
And there was a nice narrative to it, he says. “Of these people using their travel passes to go somewhere different each month. There was an openness to them.”
Vincent McNally, one of the founding 12, says the group was formed in 2010. “It was just an idea of doing something for older people in the Tallaght area because there were groups and events. But there was nothing to do with travel.”
Vincent had worked in public transport all his life, he says. “I was with Bus Éireann and knew the country well, and how to organise things. So, I felt let’s do something now that I’m retired.”
With his wife Eilish and some friends, they used the free-travel scheme to create a new community.
In June 2010, they made their first outing to Greystones, he says. “We didn’t want to go too far just yet.”
More than 13 years later, the email list has reached 150, Eilish McNally says. And, “a lot aren’t on email, and they just spread it by word from one person to the other.”
Building companionship is the major success, Vincent says. “People turned up and never realised they were living next to someone they knew from the shop or Mass.”
“They would be strangers living in the community,” he says. “But now they’re neighbours, friends.”
Murray was born and raised in Tallaght. But beyond that, there wasn’t any obvious reason why he wanted to tag along for five years, he says.
“I think it was just the human element. There was no big manifesto,” says Murray, who as a professional photographer specialises in performance and architecture, and is also an actor.
A childhood friend alerted him around 2017 to the group’s monthly trips. Her father was friends with Vincent McNally, he says. “And she suggested I go on one of the trips.”
At first, anytime he joined, he would pay for his own ticket, says Eilish McNally. “And a couple of the women adopted him as a grandson. We said, ‘Look, we’ve these companion passes’, and he would go along on those.”
Some of them assumed he was a photographer from a newspaper, until he kept coming back, Murray says. “People asked, ‘how is your college project going?’ and I’d explain that it wasn’t really one.”
Gradually, he kind of became their unofficial photographer, he says. “And it became this sustained trust. Getting to know them.”
After a few months, he totally blended in, Eilish McNally says. “He’s unobtrusive and you wouldn’t know he was there.”
Eilish McNally counted how many of the group were at Murray’s launch last Thursday. At least 23 people, she said.
“So, it was half from the group, and half from the outside, like industry people and Ste’s friends,” she said.
At the talk, Murray narrated a slideshow that ran on the back wall. Each new image raised murmurs.
Voices speculated on which trip it was, where they were going. Others commented on how lovely somebody looked.
It was part lecture on his method, part reminiscence.
Murray talked about how he would pick up on themes and patterns on each trip, drawing laughter from the audience. “‘Denise made the best scones’ was a mantra I became familiar with,” he said.
His book can be processed through many lenses, Murray says. “A few things are in there. It’s about Tallaght. There is the question of mortality, which is in there for me, personally.”
“I always ask them all why they do this,” he says. “But the answers are always, because it’s free and organised, and because of that, it would almost be rude not to go.”