Dress in a leprechaun suit or win a tiara, dance a jig or sing “Danny Boy,” march in the Patrick’s Day parade or hoist a pint anywhere in the Philadelphia area, and chances are pretty good that Tom Keenan will be there with his camera to record the occasion for posterity. Or the Irish Edition. Either one.
Keenan has been documenting virtually every aspect of Irish life in the Delaware Valley since the mid-’90s. He’s zoomed in on everyone from Irish presidents to Kensington publicans. He knows everybody, and they know him. He’s the slim, average-looking guy with the graying brown hair and the brushy moustache who quietly slips into the ballroom or onto the ball field, settles into the background and quietly, dutifully records all those Celtic Kodak moments.
The Irish Edition’s longtime shooter clearly loves being on the viewfinder side of the camera. It’s a passion he developed early in life, never realizing that his hobby might someday become a profession. He’s grateful for that, and he’s happy to continue playing the role of invisible man.
That’s why, he confesses, he’s a little embarrassed to be on the receiving end of an award recognizing his service, to be presented Sunday afternoon at the Penn’s Landing Irish Festival. “That’s why I’m on the other side of the camera,” he says. “I take pictures of other people doing good stuff.”
To Michael Bradley, Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade director and emcee of the Penn’s Landing festival, Keenan’s “aw, shucks” attitude just proves that he richly deserves the attention.
“When you hear a remark like that, you know that’s the right person to honor,” says Bradley. “There are always so many people behind the the scenes who don’t get recognition. Tommy’s at everything. I’ve never seen him honored. He’s gotta be there for 20-30 years and never any recognition. I don’t see a lot of people saying ‘thank you.’ I thought he was a great choice.”
That Keenan would ever become such an integral part of the fabric of Philadelphia’s Irish community is as much a surprise to him as it is to anybody. He’s been part of the community for his entire life. His grandparents are from Ireland, and his uncle Mike Ruan headed up Irish Northern Aid in Delaware County. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “my parents used to take me and my brothers to the Irish Center. That was our playground.”
As an adult, he became active in the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Still, he didn’t set out to be the Philadelphia Irish community’s unofficial documentarian.
Tom Keenan first started taking photos as a leisure-time pursuit back in the ‘70s when he served in the Navy. “I always took pictures wherever I went,” he says. “I entered some contests and won some amateur contests. People liked what I did.”
After his discharge, Keenan didn’t completely sever his ties to the Navy. He settled into a job at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, installing missile systems. Then, in the early ‘90s, work at the shipyard started to slow down—and on September 30, 1995, the facility closed, costing Keenan his job.
“When they closed the shipyard, I had to find a new career,” Keenan says. “They offered to send us back to school for something, so I decided to go to Antonelli Institute (in Erdenheim, Montgomery County) for photography.”
Round about the same time, he noticed that the Irish Edition office was in Wyndmoor, just around the corner from school. He’d spent a lifetime in the Philadelphia Irish community and he thought shooting photos for the paper might be a good fit.
“I looked for a niche,” he says. “Jane Duffin (the editor) is a very nice lady, and she started to send me out on projects. Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty good clientele from it.”
Keenan is quick to point out that photographing Irish people and events is only a part of his business these days. “There’s nothing I can’t shoot,” he says.
Maybe there is one thing Tom Keenan can’t shoot. That moment will come on Sunday afternoon, when he steps onto the main stage overlooking Penn’s Landing’s Great Plaza and accepts his award. For someone who’s happiest becoming part of the scenery, it’s an uncomfortable position to be in.
Well, we’ve known and admired our fellow photographer for several years. In fact, it’s very likely that we’ll be there to record his special moment. So here’s to you, Tom, and let us offer this advice: Just smile and say “Cheese.”