By Harry Keaney
Dubliner James Higgins has certainly gotten around. He has worked in Ireland, Canada and the United States, and his array of jobs have included lumberyard worker, truck driver’s helper, barman, construction worker, bicycle messenger, valet car parker, and seller of music posters. He has worked as an usher in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre as well as having put in stints in an architect’s office and in a camera shop. But for most of the past decade, he has been a busy photographer, his work having been published not only in newspapers in the U.S. and Ireland, but also in a few prestigious magazines and other publications.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Higgins is now a publisher, his New York City Irish Pub and Restaurant Guide having just become available, free, in about 150 hotels and tourist attractions, as well as in Irish pubs, throughout Manhattan.
“It’s a pocket-size color brochure filled with information and listings on Irish pubs and restaurants as well as information on Irish music, shopping, theater and so on,” Higgins said.
The guide, which has a useful street map and contains tips on sightseeing and getting around the city, is primarily aimed at tourists, specifically those interested in things Irish in Manhattan.
The guide is, in a sense, the combined fruits of Higgins’s observations and talents since his arrival in the U.S. 10 years ago. Just as a love of photography has been a constant in Higgins life, photographs he himself took run throughout the guide. “I was always more visual than academic,” Higgins, who is 37, said. “My basic interest was in the visual arts.”
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While studying art in the College of Marketing, in Dublin’s Parnell Square, Higgins discovered he liked photography, so he moved to Kevin Street of College of Technology to concentrate on the subject. “You’re not going to make a living in sculpture,” he said, joking.
Returning in 1986 after a short spell in Canada, Higgins found Ireland in the throes of recession. “There wasn’t a lot of work and unemployment was high,” he recalled. “So I applied for visas for Canada and the U.S., and I got both.”
In 1988, he came to America. “I felt I was partaking in a natural progression,” he said. “People were leaving Ireland, it was matter of course, it was the logical thing to do. I went to Boston first because I had friends there from arts college. I did . . . a lot of different jobs before I got going in photography. Ten years before, I had been on a holiday in the U.S., and America had always held a big fascination for me.”
Like many Irish immigrants in Boston before, Higgins found himself in Dorchester, his initial accommodation often having been just a couch in someone’s apartment. Eventually, he and four friends found more spacious quarters — in a former funeral home, into which they moved on a Friday the 13th. They had to pay no rent; the purchaser of the building just required them to take care of it for insurance purposes until he renovated it.
Six months later, Higgins came to New York to work as a freelance photographer. On occasions since, he has found himself scrambling amid the rabid paparazzi, shooting stars and celebrities, as well as having done fashion model and runway photography. But with the paparazzi, in particular, he has become “a bit disillusioned.”
“There’s no real journalism or integrity to it,” he said.
Instead, he now prefers wedding photography, particularly if he can do it in a non-traditional style that he described as “photo reportage.”
“I like to do natural, spontaneous shots as opposed to set-up shots. There is more honesty in wedding photography, a wedding is a real event, it’s not hyped up, and, as the photographer, you are trying to capture the essence of what’s the most important day in the lives of the people involved,” he said.
Higgins is now working on expanding into cyberspace; he hopes to have his pub and restaurant guide on the worldwide web within a few months. Eventually, he may expand the guide to cover boroughs other than Manhattan, perhaps even cities other than New York.
For information on the guide, call Higgins at (212) 727-3643.James Higgins’s pub and restaurant guide puts irish establishments on the main line.