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Remembering people and places

The National Library of Ireland is running a photographic exhibition called People and Places, which showcases cultural and technological changes that have taken place across Ireland from the middle of the 19th century up to the turn of this century. It features some amazing farming and rural-life images, and Bernie Commins caught up with curator, Sara Smyth, to talk about the the exhibition, the best bits, and why you should visit.

Did you know that we have taken more photographs in the last two years or so, than we have in the entire time that photography, as we know it, has existed? For reference, that is about 200 years. We are privileged to be able to capture whatever, whenever.
It is hard to imagine a time when photographs didn’t exist and, when they eventually did, that there was such a complex and lengthy process involved in their capturing and development. We have certainly come a long way since the camera obscura, images on plates, hand-held cameras created by Kodak Eastman. But these early iterations of cameras paved the way for photography to claim its right as an essential documenter of life and of history.
Currently, the National Library of Ireland is running a free photographic event, the People and Places exhibition in the National Photographic Archive. As well as celebrating the age of analogue photography in Ireland, the exhibition captures various aspects of life in Ireland from the middle of the 19th century up to the turn of this century. It offers unique glimpses into Irish history and ordinary Irish farming lives.
“The events of today become our history tomorrow,” said exhibition curator, Sara Smyth. “And with this exhibition we wanted to use our photographic collections to showcase a wide variety of the people and places of the island of Ireland, and to highlight some everyday events that shaped our social history from the 1850s up to the turn of the 21st century.
We highlight working-class and middle-class communities; women, who usually appear less often than men in history telling; and we juxtapose rural communities alongside their urban counterparts. Themes, such as climate change and transport, are also addressed.
The photographs are selected from 20 collections that are digitised and available through the National Library of Ireland’s online catalogue, according to Sara, and among the 50 wonderful images are a number of fascinating agricultural and farming-related ones.

Caught on camera

One striking image on display comes from the Tynan Photographic Collection at the National Library of Ireland. This glass negative in black and white is 6.2cm x 8.8cm, and features a young man, maybe even a boy, in a field with horse-drawn plough, with an older woman, who may be a relation, in the background watching on. It is believed that this image was captured in the 1950s or 1960s. Another image shows a busy fair day in Co. Longford, while a third photograph shows a Dudley nurse visiting a family on Arranmore Island, Co. Donegal, in around 1906-1914. This photograph is from the Congested District Board Collection..

The subject matter of a another fascinating image from photographer AH Poole shows the political side of agricultural life in the form of a pig-related protest in Waterford city in 1897. Poole was a studio photographer, but it is believed that he captured the protest from his studio window from where he had a bird’s eye view. In 1892, factories started to buy pigs directly from farmers, cutting out the traditional professional pig buyers who had acted as middlemen. In an attempt to recover their role, the buyers pressurised farmers entering the city with their herds to sell to them.

The Congested District Board Collection

This was established in 1891 with the aim of regenerating localities designated as poor, over-populated and underdeveloped by supporting agriculture and industry through the redistribution of land, the rebuilding and improvement of harbours and roads and providing training in skills for the local populations in the poorer areas along Ireland’s west coast. Public health was also identified as a key issue. In 1903 Lady Dudley, wife of the Viceroy to Ireland, established the Dudley Nursing Scheme to train women to be public health nurses.

The photograph, a glass plate negative, printed originally at the size of 17cm x 22cm shows the farmers and pigs getting a police escort to the quays.

One of Sara’s favourite photographs, she says, depicts a busy fair day  in Longford, in 1918, from the Lawrence Collection. It tells a rich story. “Fair days and markets were very important economic and social occasions in the agricultural calendar. What makes this image even more interesting is when you really start to look at the detail you will notice the ‘Don’t Worry’ sign on the gable end. It helps us date the photograph to the time of the Spanish Flu pandemic in Ireland. The sign was put up in 1918 to boost morale during a period of high mortality from the disease."
“In more recent times, the message was recreated in the same location by a local artist during the Covid pandemic in 2021. It really resonates with me how our history is a shared experience that can support and inspire a community.”

National Ploughing Championships in 1954 in Co. Kerry, from the Morgan Aerial Photographic Collection.
A Dudley nurse visiting a family on Arranmore Island, Co. Donegal, around 1906-1914. This photograph is from the Congested District Board Collection.

Sara explains that the earlier photographs in the exhibition come from a time when it was really only an expensive hobby for the more well-off in society. However, some of these photographs, such as those taken by Lord and Lady Clonbrock, Sara explains, showcase life on their estate including agricultural activity. But when we look at the photo taken by AH Poole, we see how it was becoming easier to capture a moment if you were in the right place at the right time.
Apt for this time of year is another ploughing-related image, this time taken at a World Ploughing Championships in Killarney, Co. Kerry on October 8, 1954. This aerial photograph, which shows the stalls promoting and selling agricultural goods, is part of the Morgan Aerial Photographic Collection. It was captured in black and white and was printed at an original size of 10cm x 13cm.

Sara says this exhibition really has something for everyone: “It was quite challenging to select 50 photographs from our huge collection but the aim was to try and create an exhibition that everyone could relate to and recognise something of their own history in it.
“It covers cities, towns and rural life, but also the social, cultural and technological changes that have taken place across Ireland. Visitors have commented on how the images have triggered memories of their own experiences or reminded them of stories that their grandparents have told them.
“Besides that, it’s also free and accessible for anyone visiting Dublin city centre. You can spend a few minutes or a few hours taking a look at the exhibition, at your own pace. That’s important too.
“I’d hope that it would also encourage people to explore our collection through the website; have a look today at the ‘around the island’ project for example. In 2007, the National Library of Ireland started a major project to digitise our glass plate negatives and more than 65,000 photographs of Ireland and Irish life have been made available online, as wanted to ensure the availability of historic photographs for every county on the island."

Become a photo detective

The National Library of Ireland is encouraging people to join its online community of ‘photo detectives’ here:
Photographs are posted daily by National Library of Ireland volunteers and then the detectives – members of the public, historians, academics – get to work, trying to provide information about the images, such as a location, a more exact date, or maybe even the names of the people in the photo. This is to ensure that the story behind the photo is not lost to time.