Exploring some of the earliest photographic images of Ireland

A new TG4 series explores some of the earliest photographic images of Ireland, writes Marjorie Brennan.

We are all photographers now: it barely costs us a second’s thought or effort to pick up our smartphones and tap our screens for a snapshot or selfie, which is processed and stored in the blink of an eye. A fascinating new series on TG4 looks back at a time when photography was a far from accessible pursuit in Ireland, only practised by a wealthy and educated elite.

Tríd an Lionsa (Through the Lens), produced by Sibéal Teo and presented by Dr Úna Ní Bhroiméil, returns for a second series to explore Irish photographic collections at the turn of the century and what they reveal about society at the time.

The first instalment in the six-part series — ‘Radharc na nUasal’ (View from the Big House) features the extensive collection of the Clonbrock estate in Ahascragh, Co Galway, while other episodes focus on formative moments in an Ireland which was emerging from the yoke of colonialism and progressing towards independence.

According to series director and producer Niamh Ní Bhaoill, all six programmes offer very different perspectives on Irish life.

“The first programme on Clonbrock is from the point of view of the landlords and the upper class, while the following programme is looking at prisoners in Kilmainham and Mountjoy, which is the completely opposite end of life. What I found fascinating about it is when you see the human stories behind these photographs, it opens everything up. It’s a fascinating way for people to engage with history, to bring it down to the local and individual level.”

The Clonbrock Collection comprises over 3,000 glass plates and was primarily the work of Lady Augusta Crofton Dillon, wife of Luke Gerard Dillon, the fourth Baron of Clonbrock, and their daughters Edith, Ethel and Georgiana.

“The Clonbrock collection would really only have been seen by the family members and whoever they wanted to see them. There was no agenda behind it except to document their lives and interests, which lay in their surroundings, the estate, and whatever was happening there. There are lots of photographs of the tenants and their work, their houses and the stock, and also the interiors of the house and the family themselves and their leisure activities,” says Ní Bhaoill.

One of the photographs in the collection features something rarely seen in Irish estates at the time, a specially designed ‘Photograph House’.

“It is quite unusual and it was where they used to develop and print the photographs and also show them — a lot of them would have been on lantern slides and they would project them on to a screen. It still exists and has been partially restored.”

Ní Bhaoill says while the collection naturally gives a flattering portrayal of the Dillon family, there isn’t a sense that they are patronising their subjects.

“There is more a sense of pride in their ability to keep a good estate. They were good landlords, comparatively, though obviously there were negative things about the system. Like anything, they wanted to put their best side forward. It is interesting to ask if the tenants had a choice in posing for pictures. They probably wouldn’t tell their landlord, ‘No I’m not going to stand outside my gate and let you take a photograph of me’. It is a very interesting collection, even in terms of what kind of farming was being done, what tools were being used, what kind of fashions they were wearing, all those different things.”

The other episodes explore the stories behind images of the Jubilee Nurses of Donegal, the Dublin tenements in the wake of the Church Street disaster and the inmates of
Kilmainham and Mountjoy Jails, which provides some particularly poignant moments.

“Most of these criminals were put in prison for minor misdemeanours such as stealing to buy food for their families or for things that were socially unacceptable, such as prostitution or drunkenness; although there were more serious crimes, such as infanticide,” says Ní Bhaoill.

Photographs were taken of the prisoners for the purposes of identification, as it was very common for criminals to assume a number of identities, according to Ní Bhaoill, who says they also traced a relative of one of the prisoners.

“His name was Samuel Hale and he was jailed for robbing a bag of sugar when he was 12. He was given five years in reformatory school, which was almost like a training school for becoming a career criminal. He went on to become a real character, and he escaped from prison a couple of times. We found a relative of his in Belfast, Stephen Perry, who came down to Kilmainham jail, to see where his great-grandfather escaped from.

“As he said, you always hope there’s someone famous in your ancestry but this wasn’t quite what he had in mind. At the same time he was very proud of Samuel because he was only trying to put food on the table for his family.”

Ní Bhaoill says that photographs were also often taken of prisoners on their release.

“That is also an interesting comparison to make — what did people look like when they went in and when they left. At the time, at least two-thirds of the population in Dublin were in absolute poverty. Often, prisoners looked healthier when they were leaving because they were being fed, which was a very poor reflection on society, that you would prefer to be in prison.”

The changes in technology are also evident as the series draws to a close, says Ní Bhaoill.

“In the middle of the 19th century, they almost had to bring a chemistry lab out with them but by the end of this series, almost anyone could take a photograph. The last programme in the series looks at the beginning of the notion of privacy when it comes to photography. Before, if you wanted to have your photograph taken, you would have to go into a studio. With the arrival of the Kodak box brownies you could press the button and the rest would be done by somebody else. It marked the introduction of the concept that a photograph could be taken without consent, that it could be something invasive.”

  • Tríd an Lionsa begins tonight on TG4

The fake ‘native’ village

One episode of Tríd an Lionsa looks at the story behind the Ballymaclinton fake ‘native’ village which was a huge success when staged at the Franco-British Exhibition in London in 1908.

The village was a marketing tool for McClinton’s soap company which was based in Co Tyrone; it featured replicas of the Blarney Stone, a round tower, a Celtic cross and numerous model cottages, along with a staff of 150 Irish men and women who lived in the village for the six months of the exhibition, giving demonstrations of ‘traditional’ Irish village life.

Images of the village were widely distributed on postcards, including this one which features Irish ‘colleens’ going about their morning toilette.

“Photographs began to be used as postcards and in 1902, a law was brought in to allow messages to be written on them,” says Niamh Ní Bhaoill.

“They became like the texts or Snapchat of the time and were also used as a marketing tool which was very innovative at the time. When you think of the image that many Americans would have had of Ireland, some of it could possibly have grown from the Ballymaclinton postcards, as they would have been the only images people would have seen of Ireland. Some people still come here looking for that.”


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