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Historical photos of Ireland: an unseen glimpse of the 1950s

historical photos of Ireland, Corpus Christie

Ireland in Focus: Photographing the 1950s is a photography exhibition currently on at the Collins Barracks showing historical photos of Ireland, including never seen before photos from Henri Cartier-Bresson.

On the 20th of November, 2019 the National Museum of Ireland opened its doors to an excited press and specially selected guests who crowded in to get a first glimpse at never seen before historical photos of Ireland. Ireland in Focus: Photographing The 1950s is the second-ever photography exhibition to be displayed at the Collins Barracks.

The exhibition in question is a photographic collection of 1950s Ireland, conveyed by three prominent chronologists of the time, photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange and anthropologist Robert Cresswell. The exhibition, curated by Fidelma Mullane, is also the largest exhibition of Cartier-Bresson’s work to ever be displayed in Ireland.  

Michael D. Higgins talking, historical photos of Ireland

Michael D. Higgins talking at the opening. Photo credit: National Museum of Ireland

With both Lange and Cresswell being American and Cartier-Bresson being from France, the exhibition provides a unique glance into an era we hear a lot about – perhaps from older friends and relatives or maybe other celebrations Irish of history – but is rarely seen, especially from the perspective of outsiders

Curated by Irish born Fidelma Mullane, the exhibition documents a changing Ireland after a particularly turbulent time, particularly for the farming community, in the wake of two famines, a war of independence and civil war. 

Images of churchgoers and Corpus Christie marchers, race attendees and families, children and traders all weave together to paint a vivid picture of the rural Ireland of a bygone era, which is regarded by many as Ireland’s toughest. What remains unchanged, however, is the unique personality of the nation that beams out from the frames of the 50s straight to the viewer in the gallery. 

As we speak on the phone, Fidelma tells me how she didn’t want the exhibition to be too emotionally heavy, but that being said, 

“They were photographing in a time when Ireland was still a very traditional and controlled society. Controlled education, the control of the church, the way women were treated if they got pregnant out of wedlock, banned books, emigration. It was hard.”

And whilst it’s true that the lives that these photographers observed would have been largely deprived, a vivacious and vibrant Ireland, full of charm, still seeps through, making this forgone epoch feel almost relatable. 

This is made very apparent through the almost playful like content of the photographs – from the mischievous glint in the milkman’s eye and an upwards turn of his mouth as he looks for a good conversation to the crowds surrounding two men striking a deal… the quintessential snapshot into everyday life these images present simply pulsates through.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

historical photos of Ireland, men at horse race

©Fondation HCB Paris/Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson is somewhat of a godfather figure in the world of street photography and photojournalism, of which he was a pioneer. His life’s work was ruled by an obsession with capturing fleeting moments, ones that encapsulate the essence of life itself. Many of his images focus on crowds during events, rather than the event itself, as seen in the image above (1952) which is one of his most famous images. During his 20 day photographic assignment to Ireland, he travelled all over the country, and so on offer is a full range of images that people might relate to. 

historical photos of Ireland, nun at tSt Stephen's Green

©Fondation HCB Paris/Magnum Photos

The exhibition is showcasing 50 images by the photographer, 30 of which have never been seen before by the public. Fidelma spent hours going through images with the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in France to bring these to us, and despite the strict sanctions that remain, a result of the artist’s requirements regarding the use of his photos after his death, the results are something really quite special.

Dorothea Lange

historical photos of Ireland, young child

CC: The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Paul S. Taylor

You may know Dorethea Lange from her famous photographs of America’s Great Depression era in the 1930s.  Lange came to Ireland in 1954 on assignment from Life Magazine to document life in County Clare. From milk churns to churches, children to farmers: she took thousands of pictures during this time, though only 25-30 of these historical photos of Ireland are currently being exhibited. Her pictures relate a “no-frills” kind of Ireland that is accentuated by focusing on people living their everyday lives. Fidelma’s curation places Lange’s work in clusters and pairs, like a nod of appreciation to what Lange once said about pairing images being like  “… a sentence of two words. [Where] we can express the relationships, equivalents, contradictions, positives and negatives…”

Ireland in Focus: historical photos of Ireland

Photo credit: The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Paul S. Taylor

What is remarkable about Lange’s documenting of Ireland is that although she was a radical and a feminist, she seemed to stay quite traditional whilst she was photographing Ireland, which is interesting, but the result allows the images to speak for themselves instead.  

Robert Cresswell

historical photos of Ireland, Corpus Christie March

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Robert Cresswell Archive. Gift of Robert Cresswell

Cresswell was an American anthropologist who lived in Kinvara, County Galway for 15 months during 1955-56. While he was there to write an anthropological study on the transition of rural communities, he was able to use his privileged position – debatably only ever achieved by a few – of overcoming the observer’s paradox, to take intimate photographs of a community as if there was no one there at all. In his section of the exhibition, the only coloured images are shown, taken from Kodachrome slides, adding another dimension to this otherwise wholly black and white exhibition.

Ireland in focus, historical photos of Ireland

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Robert Cresswell Archive. Gift of Robert Cresswell

There is no doubt that the human touch of this exhibition acts as an intimate portal into a perfectly preserved history through photographs, which should unite many throughout the country who feel connected to or share an Irish history. “Already”, says Alex Ward, keeper at the gallery, “we have had many come through thinking they can identify relatives or people they know in the pictures.” 

Whether you can identify relics of your own past or not, these historical photos of Ireland are, no question, a must-see. As Fidelma so aptly puts it, “the images speak for themselves. How they make you feel is personal”.

Fidelma Mullane’s moving exhibition celebrates the photography not only of a long-departed time, but of an art form, photojournalism, that perhaps can never be the same again. The exhibition is on till April 2020 and is entirely free, so you have no excuse not to go. 

Location: The National Museum of Ireland, Decorative Arts & History

Opening times:

The exhibition will on until the end of April 2020.

Sunday/Monday: 1pm – 5pm
Tuesday – Saturday : 10am – 5pm
Closed Christmas Day & Good Friday

Price: Free

Contact Details:  +353 1 6777444

Website: Ireland in Focus: Photographing the 1950s

About the author

Leora Mansoor

Leora is a freelance journalist who is currently working for Babylon Radio, covering all things current and cultural


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