Ireland In Focus: 1950s Photographs

Clare O'Beara
6 min readFeb 7, 2020

This exhibition Ireland In Focus is currently housed at the Museum of Decorative Arts and History in Collins Barracks Museum, Dublin. Three photographers from outside Ireland came here during the 1950s, either on assignment or for an extended stay, to document Irish customs and country life. Today their works are both fascinating and important parts of our historical record. I visited the exhibition, which is in the middle of its run, and was delighted to hear that its immediate popularity has not waned.

Quayside photo by Robert Cresswell shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Quayside photo by Robert Cresswell shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

The photographers

Robert Cresswell 1922–2016.

American amateur photographer and professional anthropologist Cresswell asked advice from the Irish Folklore Commission on where he should go to record tradition. Kinvara, County Galway, was his choice; also suggested were Achill Island and Tipperary. He stayed in the community for fifteen months from 1955. His photos depict the everyday trades and efforts of the farm folk. Cresswell had served in the US Army during WW2 and after the war, in Paris. He documented change and emphasised emigration with his photography, including one strikingly framed small boat, its mast poking up in front of a roofless house in a quayside street.

Two photos of working horses by Robert Cresswell shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Two photos of working horses by Robert Cresswell shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Cresswell’s archive was donated by him to the Kinvara community in 2010. He had taken more than 500 images in monochrome and Kodachrome colour slides. The study had been published by him in 1969 as Une Communauté Rurale de l’Irlande.

A nun in St Stephen’s Green photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
A nun in St Stephen’s Green photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Henri Cartier-Bresson 1908–2004.

This famous professional photographer came on assignment from Harper’s Bazaar. He had used the German-made Leica which really sparked photojournalism, since 1932. He pioneered the photo-essay on a single topic. His work for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1952 was to be a photo-essay on ‘Derby Day at the Curragh’ but he continued to record the streets of Dublin, including a nun in St. Stephen’s Green with duck wings mimicking the sweep of her headdress.

Eamon Valera addresses a crowd, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Eamon De Valera addresses a crowd, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

A cinematic display includes a strong visual of De Valera standing up to make a speech; the photographer looks at the faces of the crowd instead of the speaker, and I was immediately struck by the number of women revealed by this method. The Museum says that of the 30 images they are showing in this way, almost all have not been shown previously. That June, Cartier-Bresson shot over 1,300 images of Dublin, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.

Samuel Beckett in Paris, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Samuel Beckett in Paris, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

On holiday with his wife, later, Cartier-Bresson took more photos, including places associated with James Joyce. He also managed to snap Samuel Beckett in Paris in 1964; the vintage gelatin silver print is on display.

Catherine and Anne O’Halloran, photographed by Dorothea Lange, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Catherine and Anne O’Halloran, photographed by Dorothea Lange, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Dorothea Lange 1895–1965.

An American photographer (and polio survivor) who famously recorded the Migrant Mother during the Dustbowl and Mormon women, Lange came on assignment from Life magazine in 1954. She took 2,400 images, most in Co. Clare, again at the suggestion of the Irish Folklore Commission. The photo-essay ‘Irish Country People’ was published in 1955, but critics say the work was romanticised by Life, whose editors created the captions and text. Photos on display include Catherine and Anne O’Halloran standing in front of their kitchen dresser.

Lange’s landscapes are often empty, highlighting emigration once more. Aspects of rural life such as dairying and a funeral are shown instead of her better-known works such as the characters at Ennis Fair. By contrast, the Irish Folklore Commission’s Seamus Delargy and Kevin Danaher are portrayed with books, framed art and a telephone as they work in Dublin.

Men of the Irish Folklore Commission, photographed by Dorothea Lange, at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Men of the Irish Folklore Commission, photographed by Dorothea Lange, at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

The 1950s in Ireland

Ireland struggled to emerge from its post-colonial state, without industry and having been neutral, but lacking trade, during WW2. The Rural Electrification Scheme which began in 1946 was bringing power to countryside homes.

Farmers with horse and dog photographed by Dorothea Lange, at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Farmers with horse and dog photographed by Dorothea Lange, at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Emigration was still high. In the 1946 Census, Ireland had the lowest proportion of married men between 30–35 years old, in the world; two out of five. Men could not marry if they could not support a family, which might mean buying out the family farm from siblings and settling parents in a retirement cottage. Unwed mothers were often banished to industrial laundries run by the clergy; some never left. Children who were orphaned or troublesome were enclosed in industrial schools, working to benefit the clergy. Only two in five people lived in cities with a population over 1,500, and high levels of poverty meant tuberculosis was rife. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Dublin street scenes show people were far from wealthy.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is filmed on assignment, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Henri Cartier-Bresson is filmed on assignment, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Curating the exhibition

I interviewed The Staff and Duty Industrial Officer, Edith Andrees, about the exhibition Ireland In Focus.

“The exhibition was Dr Fidelma Mullane’s idea (independent curator) and it was brought to the then Director, Raghnall Ó Floinn, who approved it for the NMI. Initially, Fildelma approached the Museum suggesting to work with the Cartier-Bresson Foundation to bring his photographs to Ireland. Other photographers were then also included to complement his images.

“The exhibition will not be travelling to another venue at the end of its run. The Cartier-Bresson prints were lent for a specific period and must be returned to the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris.

“Licence was given to print the Dorothea Lange photographs by the Oakland Museum of California and that was for a set period only.

“There are no Irish photographers included although that was the intention at one point.”

Dorothea Lange photographed by Paul Taylor, at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Dorothea Lange photographed by Paul Taylor, at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Attendance at the exhibition

Ireland In Focus: Photographing the 1950s was launched in November 2019 and according to Brian at the Museum reception desk, attendance has been steady and shows no sign of slowing down. Mostly he had seen an older age group visiting, who might recall the 1950s, or parents might. Indeed, the visitors I encountered were mature people, pleased and charmed by the occasion. Brian told me the Brogan family photographed by Cresswell in Kinvara, had members present on the opening night. The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, had opened the exhibition and been highly supportive. Previously, the Museum hosted a photography exhibition about September Eleventh 2001. Photos also formed part of their exhibition about the 1916 Rising.

Portrait of Robert Cresswell in Kinvara, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara
Portrait of Robert Cresswell in Kinvara, shown at Exhibition: Clare O’Beara

Related Content

Word Count: 975

Key Words:

1950s Photographs

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Dorothea Lange

Tags:

Photography, Ireland, 1950s, Dublin, Museum

Tweets:

I review an exhibition of photography from 1950s Ireland. Lifestyle, culture, rural work and urban scenes. @NMIIreland #photography #1950s #Ireland https://bit.ly/2UAL8Mj

Photos of Ireland by world-famous Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange. Catch my review and catch the exhibition before April. @NMIIreland #photography #HenriCartier-Bresson #DorotheaLange https://bit.ly/2UAL8Mj

Photos from the 1950s archive by Robert Cresswell of Kinvara, Ireland. On exhibition at Collins Barracks Museum, Dublin. Read my review. @NMIIreland #photography #Kinvara #CollinsBarracks https://bit.ly/2UAL8Mj

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I review an exhibition of photography from 1950s Ireland. Lifestyle, culture, Galway, Clare and Dublin. Photos by world-famous Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange. See DeValera and Samuel Beckett. Catch my review on Medium and catch the exhibition at the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History before it closes in April. @nationalmuseumofireland @kinvaracommunitycouncil https://bit.ly/2UAL8Mj

I review an exhibition of photography from 1950s Ireland. Lifestyle, culture, rural work and urban scenes. Photos from the 1950s archive by Robert Cresswell, of Kinvara, County Galway and others. See historical record and tradition captured by what was then an emerging art and technology. Emigration, farm work with horses, small boats, kitchens, the life of rural and city women. On exhibition at Collins Barracks Museum, Dublin. Read my review on Medium. @nationalmuseumofireland @kinvaracommunitycouncil https://bit.ly/2UAL8Mj

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Clare O'Beara

Environmental journalist, tree surgeon and expert witness, and former national standard showjumper. Author of 19 books of crime, science fiction, YA fiction.