By Lisa Marie Griffith
In the collected essays Love of the World John McGahern tells a story about how the phone box was such a powerful local communication tool that the site of the phone box in his local village, Fenagh, was indicative of the political party in power. The site of the phone box would change variously from outside a pub on one side of the road (to where the Fianna Gael supporters drank) and to the other (where Fianna Fail drank) depending on exactly who was in power. The story is a nice reminder of the importance of the phone box in twentieth century Ireland as a major communication point, a significance that it is all too easy to remember when everyone has a mobile phone in their pocket.
Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker, the makers of an Irish short Bye Bye Now, set out in 2009 to capture and record the significance of the phone box in Irish life, a timely idea as phone boxes are de-commissioned and disappearing from our streets quickly! Phone boxes are a bit of a mystery to our younger generation and I have caught my niece looking at them in wonder (apparently it was the question from one of their daughters ‘why would people use a phone box?’ that prompted them to make the short). If only the writers of Dr. Who could have anticipated that the phone box would become an alien image on our streets and the Tardis was not a good cover!
Bye Bye Now features a number of Irish people re-counting their experience of the phone box and how it touched or shaped their lives. One couple talk about trying to forge a relationship over a long distance before they got married and how the phone box in the village was pivotal to it. The wife speaks of hanging around outside the phone box waiting for her future husband to ring. After getting fed up with phone conversations he proposed over the phone. Another man discusses having to help rescue two women who got stuck in the phone box as they sheltered from a storm. There are even a group of activists who helped to save their 1960s phone box from destruction ten years ago.
The end of an era? After each interviewee tells their ‘phone box’ story they are asked when the last time they actually used the phone box. Not surprisingly the answers vary between three years and ten years. Indeed the most used phone box is by a school girl who uses it to shelter from the rain while she waits for the school bus. The era of the phone box has been gone for a while and these people are looking back and reminiscing simply because Eircom have reminded them of the phone box’s existence by taking them down.
Bye Bye Now is a much needed tribute to the phone box and a mode of communication which should not be forgotten. While focusing on the importance of the phone box to rural communities in particular, it features beautiful footage of the Irish countryside. As a short the scope is obviously limited but perhaps it would have been nice to hear about some phone boxes in housing estates or more urban areas. The Tom Dunne Show discussed public telephones and phones in general and listeners shared their stories of growing up with limited access to the phone as a medium which personally I found really interesting and complimented the stories which emerged from this short.
Bye Bye Now has won a number of awards including an audience award at the Silverdocs festival (in Maryland) and at the Cork Film Festival and is a nice reminder of how the digital age has changed even our streetscape!