A Tipperary family’s collection of photos offers a glimpse into life a century ago, writes John G Dwyer.
It has sometimes been said that “war or not, you must still pay the butcher”.
The veracity of this saying becomes apparent with even a casual flip through the Murphy Collection, which was donated to Tipperary County Library by the Clifton-Browne family.
When digitised by Dr Pat Bracken of Thurles Library, the collection gave a fascinating insight into Irish rural life of the period, but not in the way most people would have expected.
Containing 1,053 photographic negatives relating to the period from the 1890s to the 1930s, the pictures were taken at a time when Ireland was already firmly on the road to insurrection and Civil War.
Yet the world portrayed in television series Strumpet City and Rebellion , along with that of movies such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Michael Collins appears nowhere.
Rather than violence and conflict, the images show a family well integrated with the social life of the Ascendancy.
Life goes on as normal with abundant scenes of supposed ‘garrison pastimes’ — hunting, horse racing, croquet, tennis, and hockey.
Part of the minor landed gentry, the Murphys of Ballinamona House, Cashel, were among the small number of wealthy landowning Catholics.
Taken by siblings Edmond and Kathleen Murphy, both of whom had remained unmarried, the early photographs give the impression of a tranquil and relatively prosperous society, worlds away from the trauma of the Great Famine just 50 years earlier.
The gentry portrayed within the collection clearly radiate the unconscious aura of power, while less affluent folk appear content and accepting of their lot.
Certainly, there is little evidence in the photographs that this is a nation already inexorably on the path to rebellion.
The timeless imagery continues with serene photographs titled ‘Judging yearlings at the Dublin Horse Show’.
Yet this was captured at a time when the 1913 Lockout — initiated by namesake
William Martin Murphy — convulsed the surrounding capital city.
Hints of deep-rooted but, perhaps, socially accepted inequalities are provided by two images from 1914.
Pigs roam unhindered through an impoverished- looking Athenry street, while a tennis party takes place on the extensive and well-manicured lawns of Ardmayle House.
People continue having a jolly old time even after the 1916 Rising, which was probably regarded immediately afterwards as merely a blip on the road to Home Rule.
The human ability to cope by compartmentalising life and discounting unpalatable realities is clearly demonstrated by the image titled ‘Cricket match between Cashel and Tramore, 31 of July, 1916’.
Players in impeccable whites stand languidly around, apparently without the slightest care.
Yet the contest took place when the bloodiest and perhaps most gruesome battle in history was at its height on the Somme.
Certainly, the match could not have happened had the British government succeeded in imposing conscription in Ireland.
The Murphys were a military family but a disability prevented Edmond from enlisting, although Kathleen did become a volunteer nurse. It was almost inevitable, however, that the youngest of the family, Alfred Durham (Durrie), would join the British army.
A much-decorated officer, he fought in France and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Yet worries about Durrie and the ever-present possibility of a “Regret to inform you” telegram are put aside at Ballinamona.
There are tennis parties and visits to great mansions at Tudenham Park and Belvedere House, Co Westmeath.
Even when, in November 1917, Durrie dies at the Third Battle of Ypres, there is no hint in the collection of what must have been the family’s profound grief.
The War of Independence was an uncomfortable time for the landed gentry but the Murphys — protected, perhaps, by their Catholicism — appear little discommoded.
As fighting raged, they holidayed in Kerry and took the individualistic step of visiting Great Blasket when renowned authors Peig Sayers, Tomas O’Criomhtháin, and Muiris O’Súilleabháin resided there. Later, they journeyed to the North as Belfast suffered its worst-ever sectarian rioting.
Apparently unfazed, Kathleen is pictured crossing the then challenging Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge with insouciant aplomb. Afterwards, their individualistic spirit is emphasised with a climb of Galtymore, while woefully ill-attired to accomplish this.
Perhaps it is the disappointingly dismal reality of Irish independence but the glamour seems to evaporate after 1923. Gone is the cricket, croquet, horseracing, and the big house visits while, in more egalitarian times, the social class of those photographed becomes more difficult to guess.
Facilitated perhaps, by the advent of the motor car, garrison sports are replaced by less stylish hillwalking excursions. There are expeditions to Lough Muskry, Greenane and Coumshingaun, but you can’t escape the feeling that this once high-flying family is now in twilight.
Mother of the household Mary Ellen Murphy died in 1931 and, after two poignant pictures of her grave, the chronicle of photographs ended soon afterwards.
It many ways, the Murphy Collection tells a melancholic tale and yet it is strangely heartening.
In a time when stoically ‘getting on with it’ was the motto, the Murphys survived the tragedy of the Great War and the atrocity-laden War of Independence.
The Collection is certainly worth a look if only because it puts our present-day travails into a truer perspective.
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