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Mairtin O Muilleoir: A year with Belfast's ex-Lord Mayor in pictures

A behind-the-scenes look at Belfast Lord Mayor's eventful 12 months in office - 'He never asked me to put the camera down once'

Mairtin O Muilleoir looks out over Belfast on his last day as Lord Mayor
Mairtin O Muilleoir looks out over Belfast on his last day as Lord Mayor
Belfast's former Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir chairs one of his many meetings
Mairtin O Muilleoir chatting on the doorstep
Belfast's former Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir in the official car
Mairtin O Muilleoir with Dame Mary Peters
In focus: Mairtin O Muilleoir and the photographer Donal McCann
Mairtin O Muilleoir upstaging Van Morrison
Mairtin O Muilleoir taking a selfie with a group of visitors inside City Hall
Mairtin O Muilleoir on a city centre bus
Mairtin O Muilleoir in pensive mood
Mairtin O Muilleoir has a rare moment at home

Words by Ivan Little, Pictures by Donal McCann

Architectural photographer Donal McCann, who's made his name taking pictures of building works in progress, had no idea what he was letting himself in for as he took up the challenge of chronicling a year in the life of the whirling dervish that is Mairtin O Muilleoir.

For, unlike immovable objects such as Titanic Belfast and The Mac and the colourful human characters that award-winning cameraman Donal has photographed for his portrait pictures, the former Lord Mayor never sat or stood still for long.

And the Sinn Fein councillor left Donal breathless as he followed him all over Belfast – and to the USA – in his oft-heralded quest to put his hometown – and reconciliation – on the map.

"I ended up taking over 10,000 pictures of him," says Donal. "And not one of them was posed or staged. They were all off-the-cuff and they were all shot with natural light.

"His stamina is quite incredible and I discovered from the time I shared a room with him in America that he talks right up to the very second that he falls asleep. Then he's up again bright and early the next morning."

Donal, who six years ago beat 14,000 entrants to become a British magazine's UK Photographer of the Year, first met the Lord Mayor in August 2013 to discuss a fly on the wall picture project about his term in office at Belfast City Hall.

"He said yes immediately," adds Donal. "And only hours later I was taking pictures of him in the pouring rain at the Snow Patrol concert at Tennent's Vital."

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It was several weeks, however, before O Muilleoir remembered to sort out the not insignificant problem of getting permission for the extended photoshoot from the powers-that-be in the City Hall.

Donal started taking his pictures 10 days after the Lord Mayor had been attacked by loyalists during a controversial visit to Woodvale Park. From a photographic point of view it was the one that got away for Donal, but virtually nothing else eluded his roving lens as he combined his professional assignments with his unpaid work with O Muilleoir.

And there was nothing negative, so to speak, in O Muilleoir's approach to the venture.

"He never once asked me to put the camera down. He gave me full creative control," says Donal.

"But, Mairtin being Mairtin, it wasn't long before he was talking about an exhibition and then a book. And that's precisely what has happened – the exhibition opens in the Golden Thread gallery in Belfast tonight and the book will be launched at the same venue as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's next month."

Both are called We, Too, Sing Belfast, a nod to a poem I, Too, Sing America by Missouri-born writer Langston Hughes, about the aspirations for freedom of black people in the States.

Whittling down the photographs for the exhibition and book has been nearly as big a task as taking them for Donal, who started up his own business as an architectural and construction photographer in 2008.

The 37-year-old west Belfast man is currently capturing on camera the various stages of the multi-million pound refurbishment of Windsor Park and he's already done similar work at Titanic Belfast, the Lyric Theatre, the Giant's Causeway centre and The Mac, plus he hopes to do the same at the new Casement Park.

But Donal has a real passion for portrait photography, which features heavily on his website.

And it's there that he has published about a tenth of his O Muilleoir photographs – just over 1,000 of them.

"But then came the job of picking just 67 pictures for the book and 28 for the exhibition," says Donal, who admitted that the project – and the Lord Mayor – almost took over his life.

Which wasn't easy for a father-of-one who only last week became a father-of-two. "My pregnant wife was very understanding, especially as I wasn't being funded, but I was determined to finish off the job because I really believed in it. I've never known anyone quite like Mairtin. He's a great character." And a very persuasive one. He had me out running with him at 6am, with my camera, of course. It nearly killed me but then he wanted me in the City Hall an hour later. He would sometimes ring me up with just 10 minutes' notice of something he wanted me to photograph," says Donal, who even got an unexpected call on Christmas morning.

"He was at a homeless centre and I tried to remind him I was enjoying Christmas with my wife and son, but he still talked me into going down to take photographs of him in a Santa outfit handing out gifts."

Donal also went with the Lord Mayor on promotional trips to London and San Francisco, which is where he really got to know his subject.

"Everyone else was jet-lagged after we arrived in America. But he was hanging out the hotel window trying to get a signal to tweet his updates. He's never off Twitter," adds Donal, who also photographed the Lord Mayor in America giving telephone interviews to the BBC back home after a row blew up over his presence at a Belfast funeral which had IRA trappings.

In London, the Lord Mayor met his ebullient opposite number, Boris Johnston, and the Sinn Fein man almost out-talked and upstaged the Tory, presenting him with a Belfast Giants ice hockey shirt and coaxing him into wearing it.

The bitter protests and violence which surrounded the council's decision in December 2012 to restrict the flying of the Union flag at the City Hall, together with the ban on the Ardoyne Orange parade, made life more difficult for O Muilleoir, whom loyalists called by his English name – Marty Miller.

But Donal says that, apart from the Woodvale attack, the First Citizen rarely got stick on the streets, or on his dawn runs.

"He had a lot of shaking hands to do even when he was out for his morning exercise. And I don't think I have ever seen anyone who could work a room like him."

Donal was with O Muilleoir as he bowed out of office to make way for the new SDLP Mayor of Belfast, Nichola Mallon.

He'd earlier photographed him surveying Belfast from the Quaker Cottage high up on Black Mountain. But the cameraman laughed off any suggestion that the stunning location for the farewell shot was his idea.

"I never had any control of where he would be. He would tell me where he was heading and I would say 'Let's go'. He was just having a moment up there looking across Belfast and I caught it."

And who's to say that as he stood up there on Black Mountain the outgoing mayor wasn't thinking of new political heights to scale in the future – possibly at Stormont.

We, Too, Sing Belfast, is the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, until October 21. For details visit www.goldenthreadgallery.co.uk

Republican who broke the mould

He was a sort of Chuckie-light, a committed republican who'd never been in the IRA, but who'd earned his Sinn Fein stripes in other ways as an insightful, intelligent and articulate advocate of a fresh vision on how to advance the cause of Irish unity.

The thinking of Mairtin O Muilleoir and the new breed of activists was that the at-peace republican movement should inch towards the goal of an all-Ireland by trying to convert unionists away from from their traditional not-an-inch opposition.

That's not to say that in his first session as a Sinn Fein councillor he was prepared to roll over to unionists.

He challenged them at every turn, sometimes in the courts, sometimes in the council chamber.

He quit the council for a time to concentrate on building up the Belfast Media Group, which publishes the Andersonstown News, but on his return to the council and from the moment the Lord Mayor's chain was hung around his neck, O Muilleoir vowed to break the mould of Belfast's tired sectarian stereotypes for good.

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