Ten years ago this month, Mongrel magazine published its final issue. For the previous five years it had established itself as an outlet for writers, photographers, stylists and ideas merchants looking to make a bigger splash. Contributors reflect on its existence, the bonds forged and paths taken afterwards.
Whether you’re a publishing newcomer or a photography neophyte, today’s self-help guides and seminars for emerging creatives are in overwhelming supply. Often eager to capitalise on the over-saturation of social media — wherein small fish are engulfed by big-budget brands in the race for prime, paid visibility — the online boom has left many creative purveyors clambering to raise their profile through formulaic means. With myriad templates for “making it” doing the rounds digitally, today’s creative climate couldn’t be further removed from the circumstances in which Mongrel was first conceived. Vibrantly emerging in 2003 against the backdrop of Celtic Tiger heydays, this national free-print flourished in more disconnected, less copy-and-paste times. As far as Mongrel’s original orchestrators are concerned, it wasn’t so much a case of tearing up the rulebook as having never bothered to scan through its pages.
The magazine’s seeds were first sewn by college roommates Yousef Eldin and Sam Bungey, who merged their respective degrees in Film and English to forge a much-needed platform that could showcase their work. As Eldin recalls, “Setting something up felt like a natural transition from college: a way to tell stories, where we could work with our friends, and do it in a monthly format. Back at the beginning, digital cameras weren’t even on the horizon: if you wanted to do a short film, you’d apply to the Irish Film Board and hope to be one of three a year to get made. It was a very long process.” Upon securing the aid of an entrepreneurial scheme backed by AIB — “they gave us an office on Talbot Street, above a tattoo parlour,” Bungey adds — the teasing out of Mongrel’s inaugural issue stretched across eight or nine months. Funds were amassed, in part, with some decidedly pre-crowdfunding methods: “We used to go out and sell these customised maps of Dublin to the Tourist Information Centre, to try and make money for the first issue,” Eldin states. “After a while we thought, ‘Christ, if we even get one issue out, we can retire happy’.”
Of course, reception to this refreshingly-irreverent title was buzzing well before the official launch party — an October ’03 affair that saw Dizzie Rascal, fresh from winning £20,000 for his Mercury Music Award, flown in on Ryanair tickets for a performance at The Village. Both Eldin and Bungey will happily admit to having no experiences or resources whatsoever when they first started out — yet this formed a key part of Mongrel’s magic. It never set out to be what it ultimately became: namely, a magnet for Ireland’s brightest, burgeoning creative talents and, by extension, a healthy smattering of international brands looking to make their Irish advertising debut. In the latter instance, the funding for Mongrel’s print debut not covered by Dublin map sales was handled by advertisers, all of whom eager to display in this alternative to the comparably conservative Irish press; the former much more likely to captivate their target audiences anyway.
“We were incredibly lucky that Mongrel hit at a time when there really weren’t any other magazines that our advertisers would use in Ireland,” says Eldin. “Because of that, we’d have brands like Puma and Adidas coming in and straight away saying, ‘how much is a page?’ — and we were telling ourselves, ‘Jesus, we’ve managed to pull off a huge fraud’!”
Because Mongrel’s editors were unconcerned about doing things by the book, an incredibly fluid working environment emerged that would see its writers and photographers given sizeable creative control. Apart from Eldin and Bungey’s inherently relaxed approach, this was greatly influenced by the wealth of talented, twenty-something innovators that turned up to contributor meetings: the names of whom reading like a call-sheet for Ireland’s most visionary diaspora. There’s Eoin Butler, a Mayo man who enjoyed “an absolutely seamless transition” from working at the Slate (a Dublin-based title with an echo of Mongrel’s tongue-in-cheek ethos, which wrapped some weeks after the latter’s first issue) to Mongrel itself, quickly becoming an integral team player in the process.
Then there’s Michael Freeman, whose relationship with the magazine began during the summer after his third year of college, a couple of years into Mongrel’s timeline, when he “wrote a physical letter to every publication that I could find an address for – there was probably around 15 altogether. Nobody got back to me, except for Sam (Bungey), who rang me up one day out of the blue and said, ‘yeah, I think we could have you in for a few weeks’”. That informal internship morphed into a coveted spot on the rotating cast of writers and, ultimately, the role of editor for Mongrel’s final two years of circulation.
Between 2005 and 2007, Linda Brownlee shot editorials for several of its most visually-arresting photo stories; joining the ranks of Richard Gilligan, Niall O’Brien and Ross McDonnell to name but a few headliners. Aisling Farinella, moreover, operated as fashion editor from 2006-2008, having leant her styling chops to a series of imaginative shoots. In typical Mongrel fashion, there was never any formal discussion about her securing the editor role: “I seem to remember a friend pointing out my title to me in the credits – and so it stuck.”.
Eldin may be too modest to admit to Mongrel’s positioning as a springboard for forward-thinking alumni and their internationally-thriving careers – instead settling for the still-befitting term of “early practise ground” – but there’s no question that the print’s signature blend of unhampered creativity made for the perfect platform to experiment with one’s evolving approach. Farinella confirms the “overriding sense of freedom and spontaneity” palpable in Mongrel shoot days, adding that “what impacted me most from my days with Mongrel was a break away from commercial fashion publications working only with models, a team of hair and make up, production, etc. My favourite way to shoot is still me, the photographer, a model, a bag of clothes and a car. Mongrel was definitely an influence in starting [Farinella’s independent fashion publication] Thread as I wanted to have a space for that creative freedom again, outside of the commercial work and conventional fashion system that I work within.“
For Brownlee and many others, working with Mongrel was a total game-changer for doing “whatever the hell you wanted, creatively — but there was always that trust [from the editors] behind it.. it was really fresh at the time, like an alternative to Vice in Ireland”. Incidentally, while the print was still in its infancy, Eldin remembers the Vice boys paying a visit to Mongrel HQ and offering them their Irish franchise — on the condition that they shut down Mongrel. “After England and America, it would have been the first Vice publication overseas.. Of course, we were balky 22 year olds and went, ‘nah, man, you should do Mongrel’.”
Bungey only half-ruefully chalks up the encounter as “an example of how we didn’t make financially sound decisions. We met them a couple of times, but I don’t think we bothered getting back to them in the end — they then went on to be, like, a $500 billion company.”
Be it Freeman’s fond reminiscing on hours spent “sitting around in the office, just talking shit, going for lunch, coming back and talking shit some more”or Farinella’s recounting of her shoots under Eldin and Bungey’s helm — “adventure[s] involving failed road trips, our rented flats, front gardens, trampolines and the many nooks and crannies that the city has to offer as our locations” – colourful anecdotes pepper the discourse of Mongrel’s original line-up as frequently as “we didn’t have any fucking clue of how to run or produce a magazine”.
Butler’s mind is, by his own admission, bursting-at-the-seams with good-time memories: “I remember Sam and I got into an afterparty with that band The Roots, pretending that we were a hip-hop duo ourselves. I remember myself and Yousef’s brother, Samir, out delivering the magazines around the country, staying in random B&Bs.. Everything we did was some adventure.”.
The hugely eclectic nature of Mongrel’s reportage – a defining characteristic from day one of publishing – only further aids the diversity of the magazine’s memory vault: a one-on-one with the Dancing Priest Neil Horan, a semi-scarring journey through the re-born doll industry and a hair-raising face-off with rebel fighters in the Palestinian West Bank being some that stick out. Even the incidents that could have landed them in hot water – the C**t’s List they penned, reactively, to an era dripping in Rich Lists, later splashed across the front page of the Sun, being one; Mongrel writer Mark O’Connell’s spotlight on Fox News during his interview with notorious jail-owner Joe Alpaio being another – only resulted in greater coverage and an even larger pool of advertisers. As Bungey memorably puts it, “it’s like we failed upwards.”
Those who shaped Mongrel’s orchestration over its five years of existence – or intently observed from a reader’s perch – will concur that the magazine’s sustained eminence was a product of being in the right place, at the right time; with the right people. For a publication that, Freeman laughs, “deliberately set out to annoy the Irish press”, it’s somewhat ironic that domestic news coverage was plentiful from the outset: Butler’s memory is that “almost as soon as we started, there was a big story about us in the Irish Times”, and credits rolled in from there onwards. Mongrel’s colouring-outside-the-lines creativity scored them the attention of journalists “who appreciated something that was a bit chaotic,” says Freeman.
“That definitely worked to our advantage. There’s also the fact that Ireland is such a small pond, it is – or at least was – relatively easy to make an impact.” As a free-print that truly valued the creative process over profit – any money they made was put straight back into the page – Mongrel benefitted immensely from its mid-2000s Ireland setting, garnering advertising from credible international brands hungry to “pour money into this exciting, emerging Irish market” without having to fend off competitors from the independent publishing scene. With today’s digital boom having massively altered the nature of advertising – many companies now focusing on direct brand-to-consumer relationships through, for example, sponsored social media postings – Mongrel’s trip-funding, six-page advertising deals with Puma or €2,000 back page advertisements with American Apparel would certainly prove elusive (for more reasons than one).
The fact that Mongrel was such a creature of its time played a significant part in the collective decision to wind down operations. After five skyrocketing years of success, it was important that the magazine should go out on a high – and with its main protagonists facing natural life shifts, geographical-location changes and career responsibilities, the general consensus in early 2008 was that Mongrel had run its natural course. Of course, there was no less gusto imparted in the final February ’08 issue than with any other edition: after Butler wittily put to bed any Chinese whispers of “blazing arguments, massive financial irregularities, a spate of church burnings and even a ritual human sacrifice” causing Mongrel’s disbandment, the techni-coloured pages that followed detailed article and editorial highlights from over the years; replete with regular columns such as “Stuff Reviews” and this beautifully-named interview feature, “‘Mary Harney is a Total Geebag!’ …and other outrageous observations Bertie Ahern was not persuaded to make to Mongrel Magazine.”.
Capping half a decade of visually-arresting covers, Butler stumbled upon a mass card during a trip to the West that fronted Mongrel’s 38th and final issue. As a result, it was only fitting that the magazine’s last get-together was, literally, more of a wake than a launch party: a coffin made from past issues was carried in to the Sugar Club, soundtracked by the many bands invited to perform that night. It was a definite closing of a door that, had it stayed open during the recession, would likely have been forced into an adapt-or-die scenario so alien to Mongrel’s trailblazing roots.
Ten years on, the magazine’s immediate and extended cast have clocked up some highly impressive accolades. Following an exciting (if intense) period working with Vice’s then-compact videography department, Eldin branched into freelance directing – his most recent project with Failte Ireland and Nialler9 set to launch this Spring. Both himself and Bungey are now London-based, with the latter having just wrapped a podcast about the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder case for Amazon’s Audible. Freeman now reigns as commercial creative director at Journal Media; Butler’s article on religious observance in County Mayo made it into “The Great Irish Reportage” two years ago, with his most recent reportage forming Ireland’s entry into the Venice Biennale; Brownlee has amassed myriad photography credits from Dazed, Vogue, the New York Times and many other publishing powerhouses; Farinella’s prolific undertakings in styling and fashion-consultancy are coupled with her stellar output as founder/creative director of Thread Magazine.
Additional mentions must include Celestine Cooney (involved in Mongrel’s earliest issues under the official title of “Fashionista”) whose styling wizardry led her to establish the acclaimed London title, Twin Magazine; Larry Ryan, who, in between working with the Independent and the Guardian, established “The Long and Short”, a forward-thinking online publication which counted several Mongrel alumni as contributors; and Mark O’Connell, who transcended Irish press to write for the NYT Magazine and the New Yorker and drummed up notable buzz last year for his outstanding book, To Be A Machine, which explores modern-day immortality. A favourite memory of Freeman’s is commissioning O’Connell to “interview someone about trans-humanism, which is this quasi-scientific discipline whereby people try and extend their lives through technology. His book – which enjoyed a bidding war in New York — was based on trans-humanism, so I felt like, in a tiny way, the seed for To Be A Machine was planted when he did that Mongrel feature 12 or so years ago. I take a bit of pleasure from that!”
What is perhaps even more striking than the collective repertoire of the above creatives is just how seamlessly the Mongrel team have kept in touch – the fluidity of which mirroring the working atmosphere the magazine fostered. Brownlee and Eldin often ring one another up for advice, swapping notes on shooting, while O’Connell lives just down the road from Freeman. Butler travelled to Burma two years ago with Eldin for a feature on the country’s democracy movement, while Farinella and Brownlee forged a close friendship in post-Mongrel years – the two even joined forces for I Zii, a book on Farinella’s Sicilian family.
Notwithstanding the jam-packed ten years that have followed Mongrel’s demise — i.e, professional progressions and crying toddlers a-plenty – there is still remarkable synchronicity amongst its core contributors, and a multitude of mutually positive memories to boot. Towards the beginning of my conversation with Freeman, I ask if he and his old magazine contemporaries would ever consider reuniting – his laughter-filled reply cuts me off: “for some kind of shit road-trip movie, where we come together for one last job and wear matching leather jackets and talk about our receding hairlines?”. When I later tell him just how in sync his thoughts are with that of his former team members, however, he laughs a different kind of laugh in reply. “Maybe we’ll do that road movie after all.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady
From the Shoot Are Ye Right There Michael, Shot By Rich Gilligan, Styled by Aisling Farinella
Eoin Butler, Yousef Eldin, Michael Freeman – Photo by Linda Brownlee
Aisling Farinella Portrait – Al Higgins
The Meetings of the Waters – dir. Yousef Eldrin