The first Irish photographs date from 1840. In the century that followed, Ireland was to know tragedy and triumph, bitter struggle and agonized compromise. Much of that experience, now remote, is brought to life here in images so powerful that they remind one of the miracle that photography once seemed. Ireland in 1840 was a subject nation. Its predominantly Catholic, Gaelic-speaking people were ruled from Westminster by a parliament that was largely Protestant, British, and drawn from a narrow land-owning elite. In the 1840s, photography in Ireland was the genteel hobby of the leisured Anglo-Irish landed class. The well-to-do subjects of the daguerrotype portraits of the 1840s peer with bemused expressions toward the mysterious contraption in front of them. It is a shock to realize that many such images were taken as the Irish starved: between 1846 and 1851, over a million poor people died in the Great Famine, while an even greater number emigrated. In the following decades, Irish political life was dominated by the struggle for land rights, for Home Rule, and finally for independence. As that story unfolds in this enthralling visual history, we encounter inspirational leaders and impatient rebels, and their campaigns of persuasion and violence. We see too the injustices that inspired them, above all the mass eviction of destitute peasants from their homes and lands. And we see how the march of Irish nationalism was thwarted not only by British resistance but also by militant Unionismthe equally passionate desire of Ulster Protestants to remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet these images do more than tell a gripping political story. They give an insight into a people, a landscape, and a lost way of life. They capture the hard labor of rural survival: cutting peat for fuel, gathering seaweed, fishing, and tilling the soil, against the magnificence of the often-harsh Irish landscape. And they show the grandeur, elegance, and complacency of life in the Big House, home and symbol of the doomed Anglo-Irish elite. 271 photographs in color and duotone.
Christine Kinealy is an Irish historian and the author of This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845–52.
Sean Sexton is an Irish-born photographic collector. His previous books include The Irish: A Photohistory.