It began with personal research into a family tree, then became a viral hit on social media and is now set to become one of the most popular stocking-fillers in Irish homes this Christmas.
Old Ireland in Colour is a fascinating collection of colourised images which offers an illuminating photographic overview of Ireland and its people during a period of dramatic change, from just before the Famine to the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland.
For John Breslin, a professor in electronic engineering at NUI Galway, who compiled the book, in collaboration with historian Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, it has been a whirlwind endeavour.
“I was doing some genealogy work in spring/summer of last year, and as part of that, I decided I would try to colourise some photographs of my grandparents, who were from Glenties in Co Donegal. I looked at some online tutorials, got Photoshop and started drawing colours around the edges.
"It was taking so long just to do two colours, the hair, faces, clothes and so on. Coincidentally, I was on Twitter and I saw a post talking about this new system called DeOldify which was developed in the US in 2018. "
The DeOldify system is an AI-based system that uses deep learning, where it learns from a bank of colourised images that it uses to train itself.
"Then when it finds a new black and white image, it knows the textures, shapes or whatever should be a certain colour. I tried it out and found I could colourise the photographs in a short period of time. The photograph of my grandmother was done in a few seconds and was a lot better than what I had been trying to do myself.”
Breslin set up the Old Ireland in Colour account across social media platforms last August, sharing colourised versions of digitised images from sources such as the National Library and the National Folklore Collection in UCD. After the initial colourisation is done through the AI system, Breslin then does manual colourisation, along with some restoration.
“The colours aren’t always correct. Especially clothes, they typically come out an average colour, which is often blue or purplish, when it should have been green or brown. That is one thing you would need to fine-tune….another thing is eye colour.
"The average eye colour worldwide is brown but a lot of Irish people have blue eyes, so you need to go back manually and change that kind of stuff. That takes time. With all these things, we try to update them if we find out the information. It brings us closer, hopefully, to what it would have been like if you had seen it.”
In this respect, a certain amount of detective work is required. Breslin gives the example of a striking image of Countess Markievicz in the book, along with her dog Poppet and Fianna Éireann officers Thomas McDonald and Theo Fitzgerald.
“That went through a couple of iterations — I spoke to Saileog O’Halloran who does a lot of costume work for theatre productions and TV, about the colours of the uniforms. [In terms of her eye colour], I knew Markievicz had travelled to the US, so I looked for her travel records from Ellis Island and found her there, her name spelt differently, with a H instead of a Z. Her eye colour was blue.”
The colourisation process can also bring previously overlooked details into relief.
“In the picture of [explorer] Tom Crean with Edgar Evans, in which they are sewing seal skins into sleeping bags, there is a lot of detail in the background. It is a fantastic picture in black and white, so clear and so much in there but your eye does gloss over some of the detail. When I colourised it, I could see there was a cigar box, a thing of Fry’s chocolate, and a pipe behind him, things I hadn’t really noticed.”
There has been disquiet among some historians and others about the ethical implications of manipulating photographs from the past to make them more engaging to people in the present.
Breslin and Buckley argue that “people from this period lived their lives in colour, and we believe it is important to try to view their lives in this way”.
Breslin says the reaction to the social media accounts and now the book have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I would say a handful of people complained about messing with history or the original photo. A lot of colourisers make the point that it is not as if we are going to the original photo and ripping it up. You always have the original there, this is an interpretation of it which does connect us in a different way to our history.
"I think there are many people who lost interest in history a long time ago or just young people who have a disconnect to history, and this project brings it to life for them.”