Brian Palm slips past a couple of guys in their early 30s who are perched on a pair of kegs outside Grogan’s pub on Castle Market to ring the bell next door.

The inside of the Dublin Picture Framing shop in a late 18th-century terrace was lit by a stained-glass oculus over the entrance. 

Paint peeled from the ceiling, and as Palm made his way up three storeys of steps, he said with delight: “I love this building and the guys’ ethos.”

In the upstairs workshop, the owner thrusts three of his works in frames toward him.

Palm lays two out on the large wooden countertop. They each show the same six children laughing, as two of the boys jokingly raise their fists.

In one, they stand on a snowy halting site, under a blue and pink sky. In another, they are in front of the gable of a house, its bricks painted yellow, orange and brown, like an autumnal tree in the background.

Palm took the photograph of the boys in the late 1970s, he said. “The kids are actually standing on a water tank.”

Earlsfort Terrace children, by Brian Palm. Credit: Michael Lanigan

The boys lived in a squat up in Earlsfort Terrace run by women escaping domestic abuse, he says. “The kids intermingled with the local Travellers, and the Traveller women would be baking bread on the skillet, giving it to the kids.”

Through the 1970s and ’80s, Palm spent his spare time photographing locals all around Dublin’s inner-city, snapping portraits of neighbours and familiar faces.

In “Fragments from Life” – an exhibition that opened on Monday, 11 September, in the Sean O’Casey Community Centre – his archive of black and white photographs is reimagined in vivid colours, and featuring subtle collages often easy to miss.

Frank in its depiction of working-class life in the city, he says, there is also an element of nostalgia in how it frames a bygone era, capturing fleeting moments of playfulness and innocence. “And over time, I suppose it has also gained an archival significance.”

Busking and Boland’s

In his childhood, Palm was an ice hockey player and a linebacker in American football, he says, as he goes down the stairs. “I was the captain of both teams.”

He was born in West Hartford in Connecticut in 1957. But he opted to come to Ireland, to the National College of Art and Design on a scholarship in 1977, because he couldn’t see a future in sports, he says.

Palm took a job in Boland’s Mills, he says. “I was doing the midnight shift, going to college during the day.”

A harmonica player, he also busked on the side and quit the mill after a successful Christmas Eve session on Grafton Street with a friend, he says. “We made 184 quid.”

While winding through the crowds marching up and down South William Street, he says the money he made from busking on Grafton Street made him decide to become a professional musician.

“It was so I could also figure out a way of being in the pub and not just be doing …” he says, miming knocking back a drink.

Between 1977 and 1979, he was living along the Grand Canal in Percy Place, he says, as he stepped into a shop, picking out two small strawberry cakes.

His photography happened simply because he had brought a camera with him from the United States, he says. He would whip it out to snap characters he might spot at the fruit and vegetable market in Smithfield, or in the neighbouring area.

“We used to call him the rich Yank”

Wendy Kelly said he would be around their neighbourhood in Power’s Court off Mount Street when she and her friends were kids. 

“We used to call him the rich Yank. He’d blonde curly hair with a camera around his neck.” He stuck out, she says, “with his Jerusalem sandals”.

Palm was friendly with some of the young men who lived in Power’s Court, says Karen Ennis. “He would walk through a lot. I don’t really remember him. I remember the camera.”

There were 18 houses and a home for the elderly, Ennis says.

And Palm would get shots of herself, Kelly and their neighbours, and drop the results down to them afterwards, Kelly says. “We didn’t have cameras in those days. There were very few pictures of us.”

A final stop

Palm arrives at the Duke Gallery on Duke Street and presents the two women behind the front desk with the two strawberry cakes.

An old friend of his had called in, one says – a fellow harmonica player. “He played us a tune, and we had a little chat.”

Palm whipped out his own mouth organ, letting rip a brief bluesy melody.

His older works were already up on the walls. One showed a young girl running up a street with a bag of crisps. The original photograph had been painted over in acrylic, distorting the finer lines.

Another shows three young girls playing with a small red ball on a quiet street of seemingly abandoned houses. Boarded up windows and doors. A missing roof.

Two of the girls, he says, are Wendy Kelly and Karen Ennis.

He roots around, searching for another showing Kelly. The gallery’s manager appears around a corner, holding one up for him. 

Palm has titled it“Wendy’s City”. Kelly hides behind a concrete pillar on Power’s Court. Her face is mostly concealed. Her expression, as she peeks out, is ambiguous.

Behind her, in the background are the pub Scruffy Murphy’s and a small boy, who is a blur, but who later became her husband, Palm says. “She’s looking with such confidence, really addressing you and yet hiding.”

He kept the image in black and white, he says. “I was very proud of the technique I was using.” Hardly perceptible initially is the collage, which is concealed within the footpath that runs alongside Wendy.

It is composed of Georgian doors, the front facades of buildings on Merrion Square and derelict ones on Pearse Street. “And to me that reinforces Wendy’s City.”

He looks at it and sighs. “She’s my Mona Lisa for sure,” he says. “I’ve used her image repeatedly and never been bored.”


Thirty years would pass between when Palm took many of these photos of Kelly, and when they met again, Kelly says.

She was only six or seven at the time of the photos, she says, and she remembers little about life then. But the works themselves bring her back.

Palm likes using wooden boards when he creates his art, she says. “He did one for me on a breadboard years ago.”

He didn’t have many materials to hand, she says. “He’d take old for-sale signs and stuff off houses and paint on them.”

Having an original work of his on a breadboard sums up her feelings for the work though, she says. 

“It was nostalgia for me,” says Kelly. “My uncles worked in Boland’s Mills. There were 14 of them, and they all died one-by-one. There are a couple of them left. But it brings me back to a time where there was a community there.”

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, and the Business Post. You can reach him at

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