14 years on Dublin’s streets, the bird man of Westland Row

Martin lives in his own time zone.”

And it is there Hart plans to stay, under Westland Row bridge, feeding the birds, he the fourth swan in a world where he is not lost but very much at home. “I could have, but I don’t,” Hart said. A Handful of Ashes by Rob McCarthy

The Last Horseman by David Gilman

Local History: From Lough Derg to Omey, books inspired by the Irish landscape

“I couldn’t describe unhappiness to you”
But Hart doesn’t seem unhappy. Life on the streets: Martin Hart under Westland Row bridge, where he has lived for four years, of his 14 years living on the streets of Dublin. Photograph: Donal Moloney

Very slowly, as he gained trust in Moloney, Hart opened a window into his world, while Moloney opened the door into his, inviting Hart to Christmas dinner in his studio that year. For years Hart spoke of his desire to go to Lough Derravaragh, in Co Westmeath, given his fascination with the legend of the Children of Lir, about the four children turned into swans. Photograph: Donal Moloney

When they visited the National Botanic Gardens, in Glasnevin, Moloney stood back and watched Hart’s expressions as he investigated his surroundings. He’ll rise at 10.30am, have a “bit of a wash” in a local church, pack his bags and go to Rathmines library, where he spends up to four hours a day. The predominant bleakness meant the project was beginning to lose its appeal. Photograph: Donal Moloney

Hart has been on the streets for longer than most, but Moloney doubts that you could meet a more content man. Hart, viewers will find, is endlessly appreciative of the small things – which to him are not so small at all. The voiceover for the trailer begins, “I think we all have a very private room inside of us that nobody ever sees.” The voice, both strong and tinged with fragility, is Martin Hart’s. The streets of Dublin have been his home for 14 years. From Dallas, Texas, Hart moved to Ireland when he was eight. Snow makes me happy. Moloney has condensed the story of their friendship into a short documentary, entitled Martin, that will be in competition at Belfast Film Festival on April 2nd. “Your excellent sleeping bag kept me nice and cosy. He was lying in his sleeping bag under Westland Row bridge when Moloney first saw him, “this Dickensian-type character”, in November 2013. Hart’s list is far more humble.”

Bucket list: Martin Hart in Belfast, one of the places he wanted to visit. I couldn’t describe unhappiness to you.”

What does “home” mean, Moloney asks. He is a man who frequently says so little, but what is said – and often left unsaid – speaks volumes. Donal Moloney has heard the stories and documented the lives of many homeless people in Dublin. Photograph: Donal Moloney

Christmas dinner: the photographer brought Martin Hart Christmas dinner, with a bottle of wine, beneath Westland Row bridge. Still an enigma
Hart remains something of an enigma to Moloney. “I just found him so intriguing. Wicklow Mountains: Martin Hart on one of his trips outside Dublin with the photographer. “One is accurate and the other is 2½ hours slower. When they visited the lake Moloney found it curious that they were greeted by three swans. There were images of people sleeping bodies adorned with sleeping bags in doorways and featured tales of heroin addiction and of children brought into foster homes – plus the odd brush stroke of romance on a palette of life blurred with chaos. “Home is the intellectual capacity to be happy,” Hart replies. “There are lots of things to occupy the mind,” Hart says. Photograph: Donal Moloney

Moloney marvels, in cold weather particularly, at a man who must have “the constitution of a mountain goat”. I slept quite well, actually,” the reply came one winter morning. The things that make him happy are “reading a book, or even feeding the pigeons. His pace is unhurried but comfortable as he negotiates his way through the greenhouses.”

He was touched by Hart’s sense of tranquillity as he sat in the walled garden, “hands clasped on his lap, that gentle warm smile, a sense of peace”. He let Hart take it all in alone before driving back to Dublin. Since then Hart has always spent part of Christmas Day at Moloney’s former studio, in Portobello. In the film Hart swirls the wine in its glass, smelling it, appreciating a rare treat. He’d intended then to move on, but he couldn’t get the images of Hart, who is now 63, out of his head. “Many of us have a bucket list of places we’d like to visit,” Moloney says. Even rain. But he does not consider himself homeless. He might take a walk around St Stephen’s Green or stop for coffee on Grafton Street. Then Hart packs all his belongings into a plastic Dunnes Stores bag and asks if Moloney can wait a few moments, so Hart can feed the birds. Christmas makes me happy. He’s reluctant to reveal too much of himself or his life, taking the view that the closer you get to someone the greater the opportunity there is to be hurt. Its nine minutes and 21 seconds are an aperture into a world where every frame counts. Photograph: Donal Moloney

Serenity: the photographer was touched by Martin Hart’s sense of tranquillity at the National Botanic Gardens. Moloney asked if he could shoot a couple of frames. After dinner they might watch a James Bond film. Even the coming of spring makes me happy. Time is personal to him. “I always feel very weird dropping him back to the bridge on Christmas Day, while I go home to my family and he slips back into his sleeping bag,” Moloney says. “Many of these places are in exotic locations around the globe. Summer makes me happy. Over time, the photographer found, they began to follow a well-worn narrative of abuse and neglect and of life generally coming apart at every seam. “When I take him out he observes, touches and sometimes even smells everything around him, like a galactic explorer who has just discovered Earth.”

Whenever Moloney asks if he’d like to go for a drive, Hart’s reply – “Yes” – always comes before Moloney has a chance to begin his next sentence. There’s a Human in There, a project for which he complemented his images with interviews, showed ”. “And then I’ll head home, to Westland Row.”

Reflective mood: Martin Hart on Great South Wall, in Dublin Bay. Moloney has got closer to Hart than most, and even he doubts that he will ever truly know him. In the whir of early-morning rush-hour traffic, close to Pearse Station, he is at peace, crushing a handful of digestive biscuits for the pigeons, “my little beasts”. “He sometimes looks puzzled but more often looks like a child in a sweet shop. The man’s name is Martin Hart. And then it’s time for him to leave. When I went back I found a man who was very well spoken, with a distinguished accent, and I was even more intrigued.”

Moloney’s photographs of Hart have garnered a growing following online; many visitors are touched by a story unique in its origins, trajectory and beauty. Bayside: Martin Hart and Donal Moloney on Portmarnock beach

There will always be quirks to Hart that Moloney may never understand, such as why he wears two watches on his left wrist. Moloney once asked if he had ever had an alcohol or drug problem. When Hart politely declined, Moloney brought Christmas dinner and a bottle of wine to him under the bridge. Photograph: Donal Moloney

Sense of peace: Martin Hart at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. Then one man appeared fleetingly in Moloney’s eyeline while he was driving home.