Old Ireland in Colour: Second instalment gives a fresh look at the past

It was the biggest book in Ireland last year, so it isn't surprising that dozens of more old photographs have been given the colour treatment for a follow-up
Old Ireland in Colour: Second instalment gives a fresh look at the past

Old Ireland In Colour 2 has just been published.

It was the publishing sensation of 2020, selling 50,000 copies in ten weeks, and the only Irish book last year to have sales worth over €1m, yet the two people behind it haven’t even met in real life. 

Old Ireland in Colour is a collection of historical colourised images of Irish life, the result of a collaboration between NUIG academic John Breslin and historian Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley.

Breslin still sounds awed by the phenomenal success of the book, which, when published last autumn, had an initial print run of 5,000 — a year on, 80,000 copies have been sold, and a follow-up, Old Ireland in Colour 2, has just been published. 

All of this was achieved without the usual swirl of publicity obligations and book-signings that go hand in hand with getting a book onto the bestseller list.

“Myself and Sarah-Anne still haven’t met,” says Breslin. “We are actually meeting next week for the first time. Until about six weeks ago, I hadn’t really been anywhere, we had no book tours or public signings. I signed a few books in my local bookshop in Moycullen, some in Eason, Galway, and when we were on holidays in Kerry, I went to the bookshop in Kenmare and signed a few books there. That has been it.” 

Old Ireland In Colour: Building Fastnet Lighthouse, c. 1900: Men at work on the granite construction that replaced the earlier cast-iron casing. Picture: Robert Stawell Ball, courtesy National Library of Ireland  
Old Ireland In Colour: Building Fastnet Lighthouse, c. 1900: Men at work on the granite construction that replaced the earlier cast-iron casing. Picture: Robert Stawell Ball, courtesy National Library of Ireland  

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first book, which emanated from a personal side-project by Breslin, whose day job is as a professor in electronic engineering at NUI Galway, meant a second was an obvious proposition.

“While the numbers are obviously great, what meant even more was the emotional reaction from people. Hearing about it being used in various hospitals for reminiscence therapy and the reaction from people who had given it to their parents or grandparents, really made us decide to do a second book,” he says.

Old Ireland in Colour 2 follows a similar formula to the first book, featuring a fascinating collection of images covering themes such as politics and revolution, childhood, working life, and sport and leisure.

Members of the Sheridan and O’Brien families from the Traveller community photographed in May 1954, in Loughrea, Co Galway. Picture: Elinor Wiltshire, courtesy of National Library of Ireland
Members of the Sheridan and O’Brien families from the Traveller community photographed in May 1954, in Loughrea, Co Galway. Picture: Elinor Wiltshire, courtesy of National Library of Ireland

 Breslin and Buckley went to great lengths to get the images as historically accurate as possible while providing informative and engaging captions. Breslin cites the example of a picture of Mortimer’s shop in Waterford, taken in 1916.

“I spent quite a lot of time on that image, I could nearly draw it from memory. I tried to find the actual boxes, of Peek Freans biscuits, Fry’s chocolate, Oxo, all of that. I did find some of the original boxes and I used the colours for those on different items. At the bottom, there is a row of tins of Alaskan salmon — I found the labels of those tins in an Alaskan library and I used those.

"There is another picture of an Ireland versus Yugoslavia match in 1955. I actually found the programme for the match, there is a guy holding the programme in the picture and I was able to super-impose the colours on that,” he says.

Old Ireland in Colour 2: Armed RIC men outside a shoe shop on St Patrick’s Street, Cork, in 1921. Picture: WD Hogan, courtesy National Library of Ireland
Old Ireland in Colour 2: Armed RIC men outside a shoe shop on St Patrick’s Street, Cork, in 1921. Picture: WD Hogan, courtesy National Library of Ireland

Breslin says he is always conscious of maintaining the right balance when it comes to colourising black-and-white images.

“In terms of going too far with different AI tools, there is always a balance between the automatic and the manual. There are lots of tools you can use to enhance faces and do more, sharpen things up. I try to keep them more realistic in terms of how they look. 

"You can go in one direction where you remove all the scratches and marks and so on but sometimes you want to leave them in because they suit the picture and make them more authentic,” he says.

Regarding the debate around the ethics of colourisation, Breslin acknowledges the views of scholars who disagree with the technology and process, but believes the impact of the images outweigh these concerns, seeing the Old Ireland in Colour project as a means of encouraging people to explore and to engage with the past.

Old Ireland in Colour 2: Mortimer’s Shop on Bridge Street in Waterford in 1916.  Picture: Poole Studio, courtesy National Library of Ireland
Old Ireland in Colour 2: Mortimer’s Shop on Bridge Street in Waterford in 1916.  Picture: Poole Studio, courtesy National Library of Ireland

“Everyone knows and appreciates that there is a subjective view in terms of what colours you apply to different images. All we can do is try and do our best in terms of making it as true to what people might expect as possible,” he says.

Given the success of the first book, which will no doubt be replicated by the second, is there a temptation to do a third? Breslin laughs.

“When I did this one, I said, ‘okay, that’s it'. Somebody sent me a message yesterday saying ‘I can’t help but think trilogy’. I probably said last year I had no plans for a second one but right now, the amount of work I put into book two, I don’t see myself doing another one.” 

Old Ireland in Colour 2: Muriel Murphy MacSwiney, widow of War of Independence figure Terence MacSwiney, photographed in the US in 1922. Picture: Courtesy National Library of Ireland
Old Ireland in Colour 2: Muriel Murphy MacSwiney, widow of War of Independence figure Terence MacSwiney, photographed in the US in 1922. Picture: Courtesy National Library of Ireland

  • Old Ireland in Colour 2, John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley, published by Merrion Press, is out now

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