Amateur sleuthing helps solve the mysteries of old Irish photos

Members of the public helped unpick the National Library’s image collection on Flickr

The Rileys – survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania, Cobh, Co Cork. Meet Annie and Edward Riley, and their twins, Sutcliffe and Ethel. Photograph: AH Poole

The Rileys – survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania, Cobh, Co Cork. Meet Annie and Edward Riley, and their twins, Sutcliffe and Ethel. Photograph: AH Poole

 

The first community-sourced exhibition of photographs and stories from the collection of the National Library of Ireland was opened on Wednesday by Sabina Higgins. Photo Detectives, at the National Photographic Archive in Dublin, celebrates the library’s historic collections by highlighting the work of researchers around the world who have helped discover details about the photographs in the library’s holdings.

In June 2011 the National Library joined the Flickr Commons digital platform to give wider exposure to its archive and to encourage the public to add comments, descriptions and tags. The library’s images within the Commons have no known copyright restrictions, which means they are available for non-commercial research and private study.

On the road to Cahirmee – Women and children preparing for Cahirmee Horse Fair, Buttevant, Co Cork
On the road to Cahirmee – Women and children preparing for Cahirmee Horse Fair, Buttevant, Co Cork

The collection now has more than 34,000 followers, with 52 million image views and more than 40,000 comments. Contributors from around the world have acted as virtual detectives, helping to identify locations and people, establishing dates and providing background information.

The 26 images and stories in the new exhibition cover almost a century of Irish lives, ranging from weddings in Waterford to the footing of turf in Antrim. The subjects include the Rileys, probably one of the few families who survived the sinking of the Lusitania in1915 intact, a group of holidaymakers in Bundoran at the end of the 19th century, which includes a mysterious south Asian woman who as yet remains unidentified, and a Traveller family in their beautifully decorated caravan en route to the Cahirmee Horse Fair.

Beside the seaside – Holidaymakers at Bundoran, Co Donegal. “We all wondered about this south Asian woman in Donegal, and had our fingers crossed for a great story.” Unfortunately, this mystery so far remains unsolved. Photograph: John J Clarke (1879-1961)
Beside the seaside – Holidaymakers at Bundoran, Co Donegal. “We all wondered about this south Asian woman in Donegal, and had our fingers crossed for a great story.” Unfortunately, this mystery so far remains unsolved. Photograph: John J Clarke (1879-1961)

Annie and Edward Riley, and their twins, Sutcliffe and Ethel, had been living in Massachusetts and were travelling to visit relatives in England during the first World War. Their ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Irish coast.

Information on people, locations and dates relating to these and other photographs was provided by members of the public.

Bollards – Woman sitting beside ornate ironwork bollard on O’Connell Street, Dublin, June or July 1969
Bollards – Woman sitting beside ornate ironwork bollard on O’Connell Street, Dublin, June or July 1969

Sabina Higgins described the project as “a wonderful example of using technology to give life to old photos and share their stories”, while National Library director Dr Sandra Collins expressed her gratitude to “the many Flickr volunteers and contributors who have helped reveal the riches captured in the evocative photos in our collections. Through their hard work and ingenuity, they have uncovered information which is sometimes personal, often moving and always surprising.”

  • The exhibition runs in the National Photographic Archive on Meeting House Square in Dublin until September 2018. Admission is free. flickr.com/photos/nlireland