‘Maestro’ photographer Henry Wills who recorded life in west of Ireland dies aged 71

Henry Wills, whose work featured mainly in Western People, captured some famous moments including Garret FitzGerald wearing odd shoes on the campaign trail

Mayo press photographer Henry Wills – acclaimed recently by former president Mary Robinson as a “maestro” in his profession – has died aged 71.

Mr Wills, from Ballina, whose images featured in the Western People for more than 40 years, died at the Bon Secours Hospital, Galway, after a brief illness.

Before Christmas, Ms Robinson – a long-time friend – launched his book In All Kinds of Weather, which documented Mayo and Irish life over the decades

Jokingly describing photographers as “the last dictators”, Ms Robinson described Mr Wills as “the bossiest”.

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Former taoiseach Enda Kenny was among many other attendees. “People are here because you had the skill, you had the heart, you had the generosity, you had the spirit, you had the sense of fun, you made people feel somehow something about themselves that you were doing by acknowledging them through your work,” Ms Robinson told Mr Wills at the event.

His first ever bylined image was when he shot the Knock Basilica, then under construction, under an old stone arch in a nearby graveyard. Other memorable images included a 1976 black and white image of hunger striker Frank Stagg’s empty grave, dug up in the dead of night and moved to a republican plot. Mr Wills also captured Garret FitzGerald wearing odd shoes as he campaigned in Enniscrone in the early 1980s.

“It was only when he was finishing the speech, I spotted it,” Mr Wills later recalled. “And lo and behold, didn’t Ray MacSharry get a copy of the Western People and brought it in to some debate in the Dáil and he waved it across the chamber at Garret and said: ‘a man that doesn’t know one shoe from the other’. And all hell broke loose. The Irish Times picture editor wanted it and the Press were roaring for it. And you couldn’t just send it. You had to put it on the bloody train fast-track.”

Mr Wills was born in Garden Street, Ballina, the son of restaurant owners Harry and Bea Wills. His career spanned the era of darkrooms to the digital age. “I must say I missed the magic of looking at a negative,” he told The Irish Times last November. “Seeing that image. And you just couldn’t wait to print it. And then you would see it come up in front of your eyes. And you’d say: Awh, Good Jesus. That to me was absolute magic.”

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