Photo collection reveals contrasting lives in Ireland's real Downton Abbeys
Published 23/12/2011 | 05:00
THEY were the first photographers in Ireland and left us a record of a country long gone.
But not only did they photograph themselves, they captured the lives of their servants, tenants, and farm workers. Photography was an expensive and time-consuming hobby only available to the wealthy during the early 19th Century, and some of these images feature in a new exhibition, 'Power and Privilege: Photographs of the Big House in Ireland 1858-1922' which has opened at the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo.
The photos include Richard Musgrave snapped with his fellow cricketers in Tourin, Cappoquin, Co Waterford, 1902, to the rare sight of a lady driver pictured in Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway, in 1904, as well as the tenants of Snowhill, Co Kilkenny, summoned to attend a coming-of-age party of the landowner's son around 1900.
"Two things strike you about these photographs. First, the softness and opulence of the lives led by the gentry, and, secondly, the hardship in the faces of their servants and tenants," says Tony Candon, manager of the Museum of Country Life.
"The sunken cheeks and malnourished look shows us they were not as well fed as their masters."
All the pictures come from personal collections donated to the National Library, and are a selection of images drawn from the National Photographic Archive's collection of 630,000 images.
But while the names of the landowners and ladies are recorded, less is known about the humble servants and farm workers pictured.
"So often the servants dutifully line up to have their picture taken but Lord knows what they were thinking, or even who these people were?
"The more you stare, the more character you see in their faces so we would welcome hearing from anyone who recognises a distant relative, or whose grandmother was a governess in one of these big houses," added Mr Candon.
And just a few short decades later life in the Big Houses was over, as many were burnt down in the War of Independence, or fell into ruin when their Protestant owners fled the Free State.
"These were people who viewed themselves as Irish but who were suddenly made to feel like the enemy in this quasi newly independent Catholic State during the 1930s and 40s.
"When they left we lost a cultural richness but they did leave us these images behind," said Mr Candon.
'Power and Privilege: Photographs of the Big House in Ireland 1858-1922' is running at the Country Life in Turlough Park, Castlebar Co Mayo until April. The museum is operated by the National Museum of Ireland.
The opening hours are Tuesday to Saturday 10am--5pm, Sunday 2pm-5pm and the museum is closed on Mondays as well as on the 25 and 26 December. Admission is free. See www.museum.ie for more information.