Tag Archives: Dubin

Irish history movie ideas: The Colors of Ireland

While reading and researching Irish history I sometimes consider how the events might look on film or video, dramatized to enhance narrative and commercial appeal. Three examples come to mind: “Michael Collins,” 1996, and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” 2006, both against the backdrop of the Irish War of Independence; and “Black ’47,” 2018, set during the Great Famine. This is the first of an occasional series on episodes of Irish history that I believe provide abundant cinematic opportunities. Ideas and comments are welcome. Enjoy. MH


In spring 1913, Madeleine Mignon-Alba and Marguerite Mespoulet traveled to Ireland to create what are widely believed to be the first color photographs of the country. Their effort was part of a larger project called “Archives of the Planet,” which sought to create a visual record of the globe, an effort that preceded Google Maps by a century.

The two French women, both in their mid-30s, were “experienced travelers and confirmed intellectuals,”1 Karine Bigand writes in the academic article linked in the note. Both had participated in earlier intercultural exchange projects conceived and financed by Albert Kahn, the French philanthropist who bankrolled the women’s Ireland trip. Bigand continues:

At first glance, these photographs are very much a reflection of the “romantic” representation of eternal rural Ireland … [but] the intention of the two photographers’ mission was not to produce a simple holiday album or a tourist report. It was not a pleasure trip but a mission, both ideological and scientific … The gaze on Ireland [was] not always as candid as it seems.

Imagine scenes of these women traveling across early 20th century Ireland, the first stirrings of revolution in the air, a year before the explosion of the Great War. The film would focus on their efforts to obtain images of the verdant landscapes, Galway markets, remote villages, and abandoned antiquities such as Clonmacnoise and Glendalough. It would dramatize their challenges with variable light, changeable weather, and rough terrain.

Their encounters with rural peasants still living in 19th century conditions would further drive the narrative tension. This could include both suspicion of the foreigners and their boxy Autochrome Lumière cameras, and happier connections between the visitors and the locals that transcend cultural differences and technology.

Both images on this page, and in the slide show below, taken by Madeleine Mignon-Alba and Marguerite Mespoulet during their May-June, 1913, travels in Ireland.

Here is an opportunity to introduce a fictional Irish guide and translator, who also could be the film’s omniscient narrator. At first I considered such a character as a man. “Why not another woman?”, my wife asked, which would further increase the film’s Bechdel Test rating. And what of the relationship between the two women: just photojournalists on assignment, or something more? 

Another opportunity for narrative tension is to consider that Mignon-Alba and Mespoulet visited Ireland in the waning years of the Lawrence Studio in Dublin. From 1880 until 1914, owner William M. Lawrence employed Robert French to photograph all 32 counties for postcards, albums, lecture sets, and other commercial enterprises. The estimated 40,000 images were all black and white. By 1913, both men were in their 70s and their collection — an important historical archive today — was being eclipsed as cameras became commonplace, including color photography, and moving pictures captured popular attention.2

There’s a natural contrast between the aging men doing black and white photography and the young women using color technology. Perhaps the photographers would meet in the movie, finding common ground — or not.

Hollywood will not make this movie. This is an art film. Irish, French, and European Union cultural organizations should finance it. It could include three languages — French, Irish, and English — with subtitles. It should have a dreamy background score appropriate to its cinematic sweep. I’d avoid mainstream actresses for the roles of Mignon-Alba and Mespoulet, but the aging Lawrence, French, and Kahn could be good cameo opportunities for Irish and French actors.

Potential first scene: Mignon-Alba and Mespoulet arrive at an Irish port filled with emigrants. They discuss why so many people leave Ireland, never to return. Potential last scene: Back in their Paris studio, the women realize their photo plates of one special encounter with Irish people were exposed to light and did not survive the journey; it remains only in their memories. Their remaining 73 photos become part of history and this film.

If some filmmaker has already tackled this project, please let me know. For now, watch a 3-minute slide show of the 1913 images from Ireland.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Dublin slums

This blog serial explored the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited 


“[In the 18th century,] “the Irish landlords were more fond of living in Dublin than a good many of the Irish nationalists [are in 1888].”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert’s first three days in Ireland were spent in Dublin, mostly talking with unionist M.P.s and government administrators such as Arthur Balfour. He also took some time to explore the city:

“During the day I walked through many of the worst quarters of Dublin. I met fewer beggars in proposition than one encounters in [some parts of London], but I was struck by the number of persons–and particularly of women–who wore that most pathetic of all the liveries of distress, the look of having seen better days. In the most wretched streets I traversed there was more squalor than suffering–the dirtiest and most ragged people in them showing no signs of starvation, or even insufficient rations; and certainly in the most dismal alleys and by-streets, I came upon nothing so revolting as the hives of crowded misery which make certain of the tenement house quarters of New York more gruesome than the Cour des Miracles (17th century Paris slums) itself used to be.”

A German map of Dublin from 1888, the year Hurlbert visited the city.

Dublin’s growth was stunted after the Irish parliament was dissolved by the 1800 Act of Union. As History Ireland explained:

The removal of the parliamentarians, who would now leapfrog Dublin en route to Westminster, had two immediate effects. The first was that the elegant townhouses built as the urban residences of the Ascendancy became redundant (a century later many would be tenements); the second was that the service industries and consumer culture that had developed around the parliament were stripped away. This social and economic hammer blow, when combined with newly established absentee governance from London, precipitated Dublin’s long decline from second city of the empire to provincial center within the U.K. And within the U.K., Dublin’s primary function was as a transit point for the export of food and people, and the importation of British goods: a perpetual motion driven by the imperatives of Britain’s industrial centers, and which also starved Dublin of the wherewithal to develop its own manufacturing base. In the mid-19th century this economic stagnation was accompanied by one of the most significant social developments in the city’s history, as the emergent Catholic (and remaining Protestant) middle classes abandoned the city between the canals and relocated to new townships such as Clontarf and Rathmines. In the vacuum left behind, the tenements flourished.

As poor, post-Famine rural residents packed the once elegant Georgian townhouses, the wealthy targeted the structures for salvage. In his book, Hurlbert reported that Dublin-born M.P. Lord Ashbourne (Edward Gibson), author of an 1885 Irish land law known as the Ashbourne Act, spent his free time poking around the city slums “to look up some fine old wooden mantelpieces and wainscotings … A brisk trade it seems has for some time been driven in such relics of the departed splendor of the Irish capital.”

It wasn’t until the September 1913 collapse of two houses on Church Street killed seven people that serious attention was focused on Dublin’s dismal tenements. Photographer John Cooke produced a series of startling images about the city’s squalid living conditions, which he titled “Darkest Dublin.” The substandard housing, however, persisted into the second half of the 20th century.

Hurlbert did not name the streets or neighborhoods he visited on his walks. Church Street and other “between the canals” locations photographed a quarter century later by Cooke were within a mile or so of the Kildare Street hotel where Hurlbert stayed through 3 February 1888. Then, with Lord Ernest William Hamilton, he boarded the 7:25 a.m. train for Strabane, leaving behind the Dublin slums.

John Cooke photo of Dublin tenement life in 1913.

NEXT: Sion Mills

NOTES: This post is based on pages 59 and 72 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Dublin, Cork and Belfast population figures have been removed from the post as I update the figures.

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan