The Small Lives exhibition at the National Photographic Archive
There are some wonderful glimpses at an Ireland long past in the new exhibition at the National Photographic Archive. It features Irish childhood between 1880 and 1970.
Richly dressed 19th century children gaze out of studio portraits, while images of charity school children making fishing nets in West Cork industrial schools, or learning lace-making in Donegal hang side by side with20th century boys and girls praying, acting out war games or getting ready for a day at the beach.
These are just some of the many photographs in the exhibition Small Lives where captivating views of Irish childhood between 1880 and 1970 juxtapose children’s lives with the broad sweep of Irish social and political history.
From stiff 19th century studio portraits of wealthy children dressed in their best to more candid shots of cheeky 20th century city kids wearing hand-me-downs and glaring at the photographer; from themes of wealth, poverty, industrial schools, rural life, work and causing divilment to the serious issues of religious worship and major events in Irish history, Small Lives has it all.
This captivating new exhibition showcasing images of Irish childhood between 1880 and 1970 opens at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar on 25 August.
It features many photographs drawn from across the National Library of Ireland’s (NLI) 630,000-strong photographic collections. The photographs show Irish children not just in the context of their own lives but also against the backdrop of Irish history, depicting the young witnesses to major events such as the Civil War; Michael Collins’ funeral in 1922; the centenary celebrations for Catholic Emancipation in 1929; the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 – events which were an important part of 20th century Irish social and political life.
Happy seaside shots taken around 1890 showing impractically dressed little girls daring each other to go deeper into the waves or behaving in a most unladylike fashion on their tricycles. Images of enthusiastic dancers lining up for the 1924 St Patrick’s Day Parade hang side by side with scenes of delighted youngsters skipping outside Ballymun flats in 1969 or taking part in a convent school dance exercise class in 1908.
Harsh social realities of Ireland are captured in images of very young boys learning net making in the Industrial Fishing School in Baltimore West Cork in 1944; schoolboys in poverty-stricken Donegal in 1892; shabbily dressed boys transporting creels of turf in Connemara in 1900; ‘pampootie-clad’ girls on the Aran Islands in 1939; young girls being taught to make crochet lace in Donegal in 1880; members of the Travelling Community standing in front of a traditional caravan in 1954.
The process of selecting images that would represent the spectrum of Irish childhood proved challenging. “We didn’t want to focus exclusively on people who could afford to have their photographs taken” says Aoife. “I trawled through at least 25,000 photographs before I managed to select the final 50. The breadth of the Library’s photographic collection is staggering.” Although it’s impossible to pick a favourite from all the stories these photographs tell, Aoife does love one particular image from the Wiltshire collection – that of a young girl praying. “Most children love to challenge photographers, by making silly faces and so on, but this little girl just gives the photographer a piercing glare. And that’s really the aim of photography – to capture the ordinary in an extraordinary way.”
The Library team look forward to welcoming hordes of small people, big people, families, school tour groups and other visitors to Small Lives in the months ahead. As well as displays of fabulous photographs, the exhibition features a range of educational materials and a curator board where visitors can comment on their favourite images.
Small Lives runs at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar until June 2012.