The colorization of old Ireland

Life happens in color, but photographic documentation of it once occurred primarily in black and white. The limits of 19th and early 20th century monochrome technology prompted the simultaneous development of colorization techniques, which were applied to the original images of people, places, and events. Hand-tinted photochromes of Irish landscapes, an early tourism marketing tool, are a good example.

Advances in digital technology over the past few decades have enhanced and expanded the colorization of historic black and white photos and films, sparking debates about the manipulation of the original source material. Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote:

Whether colorizers spend minutes or hours working on a photo, there is an element of guesswork and computer programs and historical context can be uncomfortable bedfellows. The pictures that were taken at any moment in time were the pictures as the takers saw them; what those working with a 19th-century camera saw, in color, can be far from the same as what a colorized photograph becomes in the 21st century.[1]Colourisation undermines the essence of old photos“, The Irish Times, Oct. 29, 2021.

Children in Feothanach, Co. Kerry, 1946, from the National Folklore Collection.

These debate are unlikely to be settled soon, and I will not attempt to resolve them here. Engineer John Breslin and historian Sarah-Anne Buckley, who have collaborated on the books Old Ireland In Colour (2020) and Old Ireland in Colour 2 (2021)[2]Offered and provided to me by a representative of publisher Merrion Press, County Kildare. view their efforts “as part of the democratization of history, a tool to develop empathy and a connection with the past while the original photograph remains intact  … drawing attention to the existing collections as opposed to replacing them in any way.”[3]”Introduction” of Vol. 2 (‘democratization’) and Vol. 1 (‘drawing attention’).

The two Old Ireland volumes contain nearly 330 images, which range from just before the Great Famine to the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The photos are arranged in broad categories “driven by public interest in the history of Ireland and the Irish–particularly the history of the Irish revolution, social and cultural history, gender history, the history of the Irish abroad, and images of Ireland’s beautiful landscapes and streetcapes,” the authors write.

Irish Travellers at Loughrea, Co. Galway, 1954. National Library of Ireland Collection. This image appears in Vol. 1.

Many of the black and white originals will be familiar to even casual students of Irish history: the General Post Office, Dublin, after the 1916 Rising; rifle-carrying anti-Treaty IRA men striding down Grafton Street in trench coats and fedoras; the battering ram brigades of Land War evictions; the RMS Titanic leaving Belfast; and famous figures such as ‘Jack’ Alcock and ‘Teddie’ Brown, Edward Carson, Michael Collins, James Connolly, Tom Crean, Éamon de Valera, John Devoy, Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, ‘Mother’ Jones, James Joyce, John F. Kennedy, ‘Jim’ Larkin, Terence MacSwiney, Constance Markievicz, Charles Stewart Parnell, Peig Sayers, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats.

In an example of how easily errors are introduced to any historic work, the famous photo of de Valera and Devoy, joined by John W. Goff and Judge Daniel F. Cohalan at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, is incorrectly dated to March 1919 in Vol. 1. But Dev was still on the run from his month-earlier escape from Lincoln Prison. This hotel photo was taken in June 1919, within days of Dev’s arrival in America. Old Ireland sources the photo to the Library of Congress, which uses the incorrect date from Flickr Commons.

Colorization gives Dev a green tie, the neckware of the other three are hues of purple. Their suits remain dark and gray.

For me, the real magic of the Old Ireland books are the unfamiliar images of everyday Irish life, either populated by non-newsmakers, such as market scenes, or focused on the country’s natural beauty. I will not list favorites here, since I can’t reproduce them. The images invite viewers to linger and notice the details: shoeless children, absent power lines and automobiles, minimal commercial signage, the harmonious cohabitation of people and animals.

It’s worth remembering here that the French women Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon created the first color photographs of Ireland in May/June 1913. Their 73 autochromes suggest the Old Ireland collaborators have faithfully, if not flawlessly, recreated what century-ago photographers viewed in their cameras and captured in black and white.

Old Ireland in Colour are lovely gift books. If there is a Vol. 3, I’d love to see colorized images of Kerry’s famous Lartigue monorail, from the Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland, such as below. Buckley provides enough details to inspire further historical exploration … or a trip to Ireland. Because the true colors of Ireland are best seen in person.

The Lartigue monorail in Kerry opened on Leap Year Day in 1888. The line closed in 1924.

References

References
1 Colourisation undermines the essence of old photos“, The Irish Times, Oct. 29, 2021.
2 Offered and provided to me by a representative of publisher Merrion Press, County Kildare.
3 ”Introduction” of Vol. 2 (‘democratization’) and Vol. 1 (‘drawing attention’).

2 thoughts on “The colorization of old Ireland

  1. John Breslin

    Thanks for spotting this date error – I have highlighted this to our editor for any future editions! I think some of the collections like Bain probably introduced broad dates to cover boxes of glass plate negatives. Glad you liked the books and thanks for the review. John Breslin, co-author.

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