From post-punk musician to archivist, over the years Brian McMahon has amassed an incredible collection of Irish vintage adverts and pop culture memorabilia, which in our increasingly digital and disposable age seem all the more important to salvage. Here he explains how the ‘learn by doing’ ethos he cultivated as an aspiring musician and his background as one of the early Irish fanzine creators inspired him to consolidate his collection. The result, brandnewretro.ie is a 3,000+ item strong digital vault of images, advertising and articles. It’s both a valuable historical resource and a unique insight into Ireland’s social, cultural, economic and political development from the 1950’s through to the 1990’s.
Collecting evidently runs in the McMahon family. While growing up in 1970’s Dundalk and with a common interest in music, the various fanzines that were becoming prevalent at the time caught the attention of Brian and his brother Eamonn. Fanzines were hand-made, painstakingly-put-together, independent publications that usually developed around a particular scene, in this case punk music;
‘As kids we wanted to make a comic book series, and then we came across fanzines like Sniffing Glue from England and Heat up in Dublin and thought maybe we could do it too. Music and football were my main interests then. I suppose they were the two ways you could escape ordinary life as a teenager. I quickly lost interest in football when I got into music. I remember when Punk first landed. It was like a breath of fresh air when it happened, but what I really identified with was the post-punk scene that came later on, The Banshees, Joy Division etc. And Disco!
So, when I was 17 we both spent a summer working in a pea factory in Norfolk. While I spent the money I earned on a bass guitar and an amp, Eamonn spent his on financing and producing our fanzine ‘Too Late’, which ran for 5 issues in the late 1970s. Putting it together was a lot of fun, but expensive and labour intensive. Any cutting and pasting back then was with glue and scissors! But we learned a lot and appreciated the effort involved in publishing which led to us valuing and retaining so many other fanzines and magazines produced from that period.’
Starting the Archive
What began as a fanzine collection soon started to incorporate other magazines, adverts, flyers and articles that appealed to Brian’s curiosity. The initial idea to digitise the various items that he had collected over the years came to him under sad circumstances;
‘My father-in-law died and then within 3 months my own father passed away. As we sifted through their collections and belongings, I realised that I needed to sort out my own stuff – all the press clippings from magazines and newspapers that I’d been keeping. I thought some of it might be rare and of interest. That was when I discovered that none of it was on the web, so I started to digitise my own personal collection. I found the actual digitisation process easier than expected. In some cases it even made the thing more beautiful. It was like it brought new life to it, and made it jump out at you.’
The Swinging Sixties
Of all the eras that Brian’s vast collection documents, it’s the 1960’s that really fascinates him;
‘My favourite era is definitely the 1960’s. I think that’s when things started to change in Ireland. The 1950’s were a terrible time for emigration. While the rest of Europe was enjoying economic growth, we were lagging behind. In the 1960’s things started picking up. There were more jobs available, and more disposable income as a result. The introduction of television of course had a huge role to play. RTÉ started in January 1962, but in Dundalk and up around the border we got all the English channels and magazines as well. It was an exciting and promising time, and you can see that in the magazines and adverts that were being produced around then.‘
‘1950’s stuff and earlier is less interesting to me. Ireland had magazines like ‘Social and Personal’ and ‘Irish Tatler’ but they’re less visual and geared more towards the elite. What’s great about the 60’s is that ordinary people had access to the new magazines. You didn’t have to be posh or educated to have them. The 60’s was also a time when illustrations started to come to the fore, and they were just gorgeous. Photography was starting to come in too. Of course we know that the 60’s in England was when things just exploded. It was an era that came to define fashion and pop culture, so you start to see that influence creeping into Irish publications too’.
The Finding Process
The rafters of the McMahon attic may be under considerable strain these days, but Brian is always on the hunt for more treasures to add to his trove. He describes the appeal of unearthing something really special with considerable enthusiasm;
‘Space is a hassle of course. Most of the originals are in my attic but I think I need a big cabin out the back for them or something! I figure if its worth digitising them then its its worth keeping them, and I enjoy looking at it all. Although my wife’s afraid the attic will cave in!’
‘As for where I go to find things, the closure of the Dublin Flea Market is a real loss to the city. I’d often head down there early on a Sunday morning. I got to know the traders and they knew what I was into so would keep an eye out for things for me, but there is no better feeling than finding something by yourself. Like rummaging in a box at a car boot sale and finding something amazing that someone emptied out of their attic. I’m lucky because a lot of what I love other people have no interest in!
‘Charity and second hand shops weren’t as common in the 1970’s as today. Oxfam Shops only came to Ireland in the late 70’s, but now almost every town has one. I find it hard to walk past one now. There is a knack to it and often it’s hard work. You could go into 100 of them and not find anything.You just have to persist and go really regularly. Everytime we go on holidays, I come off the motorway into the small towns. I’ll always stop into a charity shop or two hoping I’ll find something’.
‘I can’t actually describe the excitement of finding something new or something that I’ve been looking for. Even when they are in bad condition, you can still digitise them and save them. You can get rid of tears or marks. I’m quite precious about photoshopping though. I like to leave things as they are, as an appreciation of the original.’
If the aforementioned attic did give way, Brian has his personal favourites that he would be determined to save from the rubble;
‘I have a box of Man Alive, which was an Irish magazine aimed at sophisticated Irish gentleman in their 20’s and 30’s. It was sort of Ireland’s answer to Playboy – a mix of deep articles, photographic essays and semi-naked pictures of women. I have no idea how they got away with it, even though it was incredibly tame. It reflects that change coming about in Ireland then, around 1973/74. The Sunday papers were on sale outside the church and people were buying the new naughty Sunday World after mass!’
‘I also love the Irish booklets and fashion catalogues that I’ve found from the 1960’s. They are really beautiful. The pictures were often taken in upmarket areas around Dublin or outside prominent buildings like City Hall, which really shows how much or sometimes how little the streets and buildings have changed over time. A strange difference to the present day is that the photographer and models were not typically credited in the photo. Some of them have since been in touch through the website to identify themselves though. Similarly with the old advertising, the agency responsible was usually the only credit to appear on the advert.’
‘There was also a phenomenal pop magazine called New Spotlight from the 1960’s that chronicles the Irish showband era that I can’t get enough of. It originated in Cork and then moved up to Dublin, and had some great writers in it’s time – the likes of Donal Corvin and Pat Egan. It started out as a monthly and eventually became a weekly as it was in such high demand. I’d know straight away if I found an issue that I don’t have.’
‘There’s very little that I would keep from the present day. A few years back I would have said ticket stubs but they don’t have the same appeal now. They’re just not as visual. Most things now are in a digital format. Totally Dublin is one thing I do keep. Its free, its topical and visually it’s great.‘
The Next Phase
The archive has really grown legs in recent years, spawning a hardback book, ‘Brand New Retro: Vintage Irish Pop Culture and Lifestyle’, published by Liberties Press. The book showcases 700 of the many items featured on the website, all hand-picked and explained in detail. A second book is planned;
‘What was great about the book was that it reached a new audience that didn’t necessarily know about the website. New people have engaged with the site since, asking questions and enjoying the nostalgia of it. I find lots of people who have emigrated occasionally jump on and talk about those times.’
‘We had a wonderful situation when a photographer got in touch about a mens fashion advert on the site that he took. It featured a Sean Connery look-a-like in a smart suit. The guy who took the photo, Vernon Dewhurst from London, moved to Dublin in the mid 1960’s, and had a photography studio here. He brought the model over from England. The agency were aghast because he looked so like Sean Connery! Then his studio, which was just off Drury Street, burned down. He went back to London, shared a flat with David Bowie, and ended up taking the cover photo for the Space Oddity album. Uncovering stories like that is the whole reason I love to do this. Sometimes when you look at a photo you can’t help but wonder how it came about, and you can really let your mind wander’
Understanding the cultural significance of Brian’s collection, The Little Museum of Dublin held a Brand New Retro exhibition in 2015;
‘With the exhibition I wanted people to be able to see, hear and feel what it was like to live in those times. I left a selection of magazines out from the cases so that people could browse through them. I was also going to leave some records out for people to play on an old record player but realised this might not be practical. So I decided what I needed was a vinyl jukebox. I found someone selling exactly what I was looking for close to Dundalk, an incredible vinyl jukebox from 1974. The guy I bought it off, Sean, that’s his thing. He buys them, repairs them and sells them on, not necessarily for the money, but because he gets a kick out of making them work again. As a collector that’s something I really relate to.’
As well as tending to the ever-expanding archive, Brian is considered an authority on Irish pop culture. He is a regular on panel discussions and is often invited to lecture on Brand New Retro. He also contributes a monthly column on the subject to Totally Dublin;
‘The great thing about Brand New Retro is that it’s like a magazine of sorts. We have a lifestyle, music, sport and a fashion section, so it has broad appeal. It’s not at all nerdy or niche.’
‘It was a great thing, to learn to archive by doing, and it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone. It sort of reminded me of my DIY punk roots. That’s always been my message to people who want to start their own project – do something you really like. It can start somewhere personal and then grow into something much bigger’.