Friday, September 15, 2017


Click on any image for a larger version

So, who are these Photo Detectives and what do they detect.

Well, the National Library of Ireland has thousands of photos in various collections. Some, like the Lawrence Collection, have been around for more than a century and others have been donated to the library in more recent times.

Wonderful as the images may be, a major lacuna in many of these collections is that they are often not fully documented. Sometimes they are hardly documented at all. So it can be a mystery where the photos were taken, when they were taken and who were the subjects. That's where the Photo Detectives come in.

Little incidentals in the images can suggest a place or a time and, at the end of the day, the subjects may be someone's granny or auntie or suchlike.

But how is the Library to get to know these hidden facts?

The answer is to shoot the photos out into the street and hope that some member of the public sees them, recognises something in them, and comes back with the goods.

So mystery photos are put up, one a day, on Flickr with appeals for information and the result has been stunning.

Some are spotted by people with connections, direct or indirect, to the photos but in other cases complete strangers set about trying to unearth the answers from old newspapers and other historical sources. All are detectives, but the obsessive nature of some soon turns them into Special Agents.

This initiative has been going for a number of years now and the Library thought to celebrate it and get it even wider publicity by having a year long exhibition at the Library's National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar.

I went along to the launch on Wednesday (13/9/2017)

The A Team: (l-r) Maeve, Carol, Sandra, Sabina & Nicola

Let me introduce the team. Maeve Casserly, Carol Maddock and Nicola Ralston are on the staff of the Library, and with the assistance of some others, it is they who have put this wonderful exhibition together.

Sandra Collins is the Director of the National Library of Ireland and Sabina Higgins has come to formally launch the exhibition. Sabina is an actor and artist in her own right. She was a founder member of the Focus Theatre. But she also happens to be the wife of the current President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.

After taking Sabina around the exhibition, of which more later, Sandra opened the proceedings by welcoming all to the Archive.

On behalf of the Library she thanked all those whose work contributed to the success of the initiative and made today's exhibition possible.

She was particularly pleased that much of the audience was made up of those who had become part of the Photo Detective Squad, some of who had travelled long distances to be here.

She looked a very happy lady.

Meanwhile, the First Lady was patiently waiting to take the floor under the watchfull eye of Photo Detective Photopol.

Sabina had brought a script with her and she launched into it, punctuating it with unscripted remarks reacting to the exhibition itself which she had just toured.

Soon her ad lib remarks had made the script redundant and she gave a wonderful, and impromptu, emotional speech on the importance of history and of people connecting with one another.

She drew on the examples on the wall around her and I would have been shouting my support were she not the President's wife and a certain modicum of decorum on the part of the audience was appropriate to the occasion.

You can hopefully sense her involvement and the intensity of her remarks from the images below, not forgetting the glint in her eye and her well developed sense of humour.

You can watch a video of Sabina's speech here, from the Áras website (11 mins).

In her earlier tour, Sabina was introduced to some of the amazing results of the work of the Photo Detective Squad. This was Seán O'Casey's house, pinned down through a myriad of sources.

Incidentally, you can view the photos used in the exhibition in a custom Flickr album here. Just click on the shot you want to examine and you'll get it as part of a slide show with the Library' comments beneath and also the interplay between the Library and the Photo Detective. Click on the photo again to enlarge it and again to return it to its original size. There is a link at the top left of the screen which brings you back to the original album.

Nicola is explaining the background to the moving Bollards at the junction of Parnell St & O'Connell St to Sabina.

Sabina emerges from the Tardis on St Patrick's Hill, Cork City around the year 1900.

But it's not all serious stuff. There's buckets of fun and enjoyment to be got out of the exhibition and you might even be encouraged to become a Photo Detective yourself. Mind you, detective work is 90% hard work and 10% luck, but when it all comes together there's no beating that buzz.

There is a serious side to it, of course.

I don't know what Sandra was expostulating here but Sabina looks receptive. A word in Michael D's ear these days though is not what it used to be when he was Minister for Culture and the Arts with a pot of real gold at his disposal.

One of the Library's strong points these days is catering for young people. I noticed this at their recent birthday party and it's evident here again today.

They are not always this young, but you're looking at a span of four generations here from two month old Finn to his great grandfather Tadhg Devane in the picture on the wall.

The photo above is how I lined the family up.

Mark Stedman

Enter photographer Mark Stedman and the dramatic content shoots through the roof.

This is Mark's line up. I've commented before on Mark's ability to organise a shot. Unfortunatly I was not best positioned to exploit it to the full.

As I said, they're not always that young and the Library caters for a spread of ages at these events. This is a drawing of a lady from one of the exhibition photos ready for colouring in.

For the more analytically minded child there is a maze, also themed on the exhibits.

And for the trainee junior Photo Detective a fold-out quiz based on searching the exhibition, finding the relevant exhibit, and answering questions about it. A sort of a photo treasure hunt.

And I shouldn't forget to mention that the above materials, and the exhibition signage and panels, are in both English and Irish.

After expending all that energy you must be hungry and thirsty. The Library's own Café Joly is on hand with the catering.

The Mortimer's Grocery and Confectionery Shop is part of the exhibition and it particularly caught my eye. Mortimer is not all that common a name. My own grandfather Mortimer was in the grocery trade and rose as far as manager of Lipton's store in Birr, Co. Offaly.

However he dirtied his bib, the how I don't know, ended up back in Dublin as a canteen assistant in Richmond barracks and, within a few years, his corpse was fished out of the Liffey on Eden Quay. I'm sure Mr. (Waterford) Mortimer above had better luck.

But let's not spoil the day that's in it. You want to see a very happy Director. Well, there you are.

Photo: Bríd O'Sullivan

And as for me?

I'm guaranteed a year's immortality on the wall in the company of all the other Photo Detectives.


Photo: Pamela McDermott

Just before leaving I had a conversation with the First Lady regarding Michael D and Tom O'Donnell when he was Aire na Gaeltachta. Her reaction was to insist on having her photo taken with me (or maybe the other way round?). But anyway, there it is, and me thrilled to bits to boot.

And before I forget, kudos to New Graphic for nailing the brief.

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