The remarkable photographer John Rafferty - capturing life in Donegal

The remarkable photographer John Rafferty - capturing life in Donegal
JOHN Rafferty, who was born and raised in Burtonport, is known far and wide for his stunning photography as well as his work as editor of both The Skipper and Take-Off magazines. He’s one of six children born to the late Philomena and Patrick Rafferty. Like most families in Burtonport, a strong fishing tradition runs down through the generations. “My grandather was a fisherman and my father also spent time fishing. I worked in the Burtonport Co-Op and spent a lot of summers at sea too,” he says The genial 47-year-old is married to Stella (née Edwards, from Dungloe) and the couple have two children - Aidan, who is 21 and Emma who is 17.

JOHN Rafferty, who was born and raised in Burtonport, is known far and wide for his stunning photography as well as his work as editor of both The Skipper and Take-Off magazines. He’s one of six children born to the late Philomena and Patrick Rafferty. Like most families in Burtonport, a strong fishing tradition runs down through the generations. “My grandather was a fisherman and my father also spent time fishing. I worked in the Burtonport Co-Op and spent a lot of summers at sea too,” he says The genial 47-year-old is married to Stella (née Edwards, from Dungloe) and the couple have two children - Aidan, who is 21 and Emma who is 17.

John’s passion for photography started early on in life. “My parents bought me a camera when I was seven and I’ve been taking photographs ever since. It was quite different back then. You’d take the pictures and it might be 3-4 days before you’d get them developed. You’d send them off to the chemist and be waiting for them to come back, hoping they’d turn out okay.”

John was educated in the locality, at Keadue NS and Rosses Community School. “I wasn’t much interested in education, I was more interested in what I learned outside of school than in the classroom. What I was really mad about was football, and I still am. I’ve been a Liverpool fan all my life and, of course, like every other Donegal man, a Celtic fan.

“My school days were a bit too early for the digital age, which is a pity, because I would have loved to have had access to technology the way students do now. There was one computer at the Community School towards the end of my time there, with the big old floppy disks. It was so slow that they’d start it up at the beginning of class but by the time it was ready to go, the bell would ring for the end of class. Now I seem to spend all my time at computers, between The Skipper and my photography.

“As time went on, I got more and more into photography, especially taking pictures of wildlife. That takes a lot of patience but it’s so rewarding. Last year, I put in maybe 50-60 hours over a number of days to get some great pictures of otters. Another one I’m especially proud of is a picture I took a few days ago of a robin feeding its chick. I’m very happy with that.”

John says he’s delighted to have so many great places for capturing wildlife literally on his doorstep.

“My house is in Tullyillion and there’s a lake here, Lough Garry. Swans come in every so often. When the swans are mating, they have a ritual. If they know you’re there, they won’t do it. You have to be extremely quiet and it took me several mornings to be able to catch it. Swans are so elegant and the ritual is absolutely class to watch. They mate for life and the images, when their necks make a heart shape, is very romantic. That’s always a very, very popular image.

“I’ve also got some wonderful pictures of dolphins over the years when I’ve been out fishing. They have such a personality. We have had tourists come to the area because they’ve seen photographs of dolphins here. I’ve met a number of them. Now, if we could just get a Fungi of our own, we’d be sorted!”

After finishing school, John worked for six or seven years at the Fishermen’s Co-op in Burtonport. “I was gutting salmon, which was very big at the time, and mackerel and herring. And sometimes in the summer I would be out fishing. But that’s all gone now.

“It’s been really hard to see the decline in fishing over the years and the way Burtonport is now. It’s even more difficult as editor of The Skipper to see how other ports are still managing but, because of the restrictions in area 6A, Burtonport has really suffered. It used to be the largest salmon landing port in Europe and one of the biggest white fish ports in Ireland. I remember when there would be 40 big white fish boats in port, along with crab fishers. It’s all changed now.

“As editor, I get to see how it’s going across Ireland and other parts of Europe but we’re snookered here. We’ve lost all our young men who have had to emigrate. All the families around here are affected by it. Even what fishing is allowed is so strictly limited that you couldn’t make a living out of it.

“The new CFP agreement is a very good thing, though. They wanted a total ban on discards and no way was that going to work. What they’re doing now makes much more sense and helps fishermen avoid catching discards in the first place.

Having Pat the Cope in Europe has been absolutely brilliant. He’s been fighting our corner and instrumental in what we’ve got. We’re also very fortunate to have Kilcar man, Francis O’Donnell of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and Sean O’Donoghue of Killybegs Fishermens Organisation fighting on our behalf.”

John’s equally proud of what local people are doing in their own communities to improve life in Donegal.

“People here have the mindset that if we don’t promote ourselves, no one else will. Burtonport Action Group have done a great job tidying the area up and putting some of the old buildings to good use. That’s all voluntary work and it’s absolutely brilliant what they’ve done. There’s a really local pride and a drive here in Donegal. People are very determined and won’t let themselves get worn down. All we need is for the restrictions to lift just a bit on fishing in Area 6A and it would make a huge difference. We’re ready for it and rearing to go.

“I’m always trying to promote Donegal, and Burtonport in particular as a must see destination.

“Over the last 4-5 years, we are getting a lot more outdoor activities type visitors - hill-walkers, kayakers etc. So community initiatives like the Burtonport Railway Walk are a real plus. Visitors love it. There’s nowhere as nice to walk when it’s any way bright or warm. But it’s also beautiful no matter what the weather. People who like outdoor activities tend know how to wrap up and not mind a bit of wind or rain so much.

“We’re also getting a lot of people here who love photography and that’s fantastic. We have some wonderful wilderness areas here, so if you’re into photographing wildlife or scenery, it’s an ideal place to come to.

“The airport is another big plus for us. A lot of walkers and anglers come in through Carrickfinn.”

Two current exhibitions that John is involved in showcase the wonderful local scenery. “Pat Boner of Burtonport Heritage Group asked me to get involved in their latest exhibition. They selected a number of Robert French’s photographs, taken at the turn of the century, and asked me to go back and re-photograph the same scenes now. It’s not the type of subject matter I would normally do but I thought it was a very interesting and worthwhile project. The Welcome Centre in Burtonport (at the old Cope supermarket) is also hosting a photo exhibition as well as arts and crafts.”

John says he’s “still as passionate as ever” about photography. “I’m lucky because the work that I do for The Skipper dovetails very nicely with that, all the seascapes and marine photography that I love to do.

“And the job leaves me enough time to do what I want to in terms of photography. I know I’m very lucky to be kept so busy doing what I love.”