Revolution: A Photographic history of Revolutionary Ireland, 1913-1923

Contributed by Orla Fitzpatrick

This new book covers a period that is particularly fascinating, albeit somewhat confusing, for photographic historians.  The Irish revolutionary period offers a rich photographic archive.  Portraits range from official mugshots held in government archives to family portraits commissioned from commercial photographic studios. Snapshots taken by onlookers and documentary images captured by press photographers offer powerful depictions of armed combat and its aftermath. All of these could be and were manipulated and circulated for the purpose of propaganda or indeed suppressed or hidden by the various sides. The chaos which prevailed at certain times during the period scattered photographs far and wide and has left a bewildering array of personal and private collections which both excite and perplex the researcher and historian of the period.

The matter of provenance can be challenging for such a disparate group of photographs. Prints can be held simultaneously by multiple institutions and individuals. Generally speaking, the holder of the negative, if it exists, takes primacy over the print owner although many have been lost over the years. The further you move away from the original source negative the poorer the image quality becomes, so that second, third and even later generation prints can lose definition and clarity. For these reasons, when conducting photographic research, I tend to use photographs where the negatives or original prints are held by public institutions.  The assignation of a verifiable number to each image and clear provenance and copyright for the collection make them more accessible and usable than those held by private companies and individuals.

Revolution: a photographic history of revolutionary Ireland, 1913-1923 covers the period leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916; the War of Independence and the Civil War and its aftermath. The images were garnered from a wide variety of public and private sources although over half are cited as originating in either the Mercier Archive or Kilmainham Gaol Museum. These are augmented by the author’s own collection; rarely seen photographs from British military museums and some especially poignant photographs owned by the families of those involved in the conflicts.

The overall design of the book is very attractive and includes many features which make it a useful reference tool for the photographic researcher. The source for each image is clearly indicated and especially welcome are the detailed reference numbers. These are vital for researchers and their omission can make picture research a tortuous affair. This volume also includes a comprehensive and full index:  all too often, if they appear at all, the indices in photographic books are shoddy or incomplete.

As a photographic historian, I am interested in the process whereby family mementos come to be used as propaganda or how some photographs become iconic and others not. I would have liked the book to identify the photographic format and the size of the original print or negative. This information alongside the name of a photographer or photographic studio allows the historian to contextualise its production and consumption. Camera types and film formats can dictate the way an image looks, for example, snapshots reveal personality, swagger and character in a way that other photographic formats do not. This is something which was recently recognised by the artist Mick O’Dea whose 2010 exhibition of paintings was based on the snapshots of Black and Tans from the collection of the National Photographic Archive.

I think the book is at its strongest when Ó Ruairc queries how the photographs were produced and circulated. The author’s introduction provides some social context for how these photographs were used. The reference to a portrait of Thomas Ashe and its position within the home of Peig Sayers is particularly enlightening as it places such images within the domestic environment and tells of how they were displayed.

Any attempt to get a complete photographic history of the period must also refer to the magnificent Cashman collection (held by RTÉ and the National Museum of Ireland); collections such as the Hogan in the National Library of Ireland and, of course, material held in the commercial archives of photographic companies such as Getty Images.

As a point of comparison, I re-examined a similar photographic publication which I have used for researching the period. The Irish Civil War was published in 1998 by Seven Dials Press and is based on the collection of George Morrison.  The photographs are reproduced as duotones rather than straight black and white which is something that the images in Revolution may have benefited from. It also features many of the photographs included in Revolution, for example, the iconic photograph of Molly Childers and Mary Spring-Rice aboard the Asgard appears in both publications and is credited to both the Morrison and Mercier collections. To further add to the confusion, I know of a national cultural institution and a major university who also claim copyright for this image.

Of course, such matters are of little interest to the general reader and Revolution does well in bringing together photographs from all periods in one volume. The public appetite for monographs such as this is only set to increase over the coming years and the convenient size and clear layout make for a very attractive package.

Orla Fitzpatrick is a librarian and photo-historian from Dublin, Ireland. She has worked at the National Photographic Archive, Dublin and is currently the Librarian for the National Museum of Ireland. Her blog, Jacolette, deals with Irish vernacular and ‘found’ photography.

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3 Responses to “Revolution: A Photographic history of Revolutionary Ireland, 1913-1923”

  1. Frank Says:

    This book might have benefitted from a trawl through the digital archives of Irish newspapers which would establish exact dates and information about the circumstances in which the photographs were taken. Also I found several excellent photos in old newspapers from the period that appeared in various auction catalogues over the past decade which definitely merited inclusion in this book. That being said, one photograph in this book particularly caught my eye. De Valera is shown in front of a platform speaking to a crowd in Ennis. While the author states that the photo was taken in 1918, I was not convinced as the reference to Thomas Ashe and the Soldier’s Song together with the fact that De Valera was in military uniform suggested an earlier date to me. A quick trawl through the newspapers revealed that De Valera spoke in Ennis in early October 1917 shortly after Ashe’s death. This seems a more probable date for this photo. An argument could also be made that the author spread his net too wide and should have focussed on a shorter time frame (1916-1921), leaving the civil war for a later volume.

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