Niamh O’Sullivan, the museum’s consultant curator and Professor Emeritus of Visual Culture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, writes in a museum newsletter:
Ragpicking was a common occupation in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Ragpickers eked out a living by rummaging for scraps of cloth and paper and other discarded items to identify anything that could be recycled or sold (even dead cats and dogs could be skinned to make clothes). Ragpickers turned over what they salvaged to a master who would sell it, usually by weight; anything of value was to be returned to the owner or the authorities….Painters and writers of the Romantic period turned the ragpicker into a type of street philosopher who, living from day to day and unburdened by material things, understands human nature. Unobserved, he observes others.
Allan’s image dates to 1900. O’Sullivan suggests the scene “is consistent with the dunes of Ringsend, Dublin, seen from South Lotts,” which is on the south bank of the River Liffey at the eastern edge of the city, near the open sea. The name Ringsend is a corruption of the Irish “Rinn-abhann”, which means “the end point of the tide,” according to Wikipedia. The area went into decline about the time of Allan’s painting as shipping activity moved to other parts of Dublin and ports further south along the coast.