Irish women of the 20th century – in glorious colour

Maud Gonne MacBride
Colouring old photos, as with these images of Irish women, show us the past in a new way

For many people 2020 has been a time of reflection – on the present and on the past. History – local, family, national or global – has been a part of this reflection, and as we move into 2021 and further significant centenaries it seems the appetite for public history continues to grow.

Historic photographs offer us a window into this past, and the process of colourisation – as these historical photos of Irish women demonstrate – allow us to view it in a new way.

Four visiting girls, some from Dublin, in traditional dress on Inis Meáin, the Aran Islands, Co Galway
Four visiting girls, some from Dublin, in traditional dress on Inis Meáin, the Aran Islands, Co Galway
Furthest to the right is Hanna Sheehy- Skeffington as she arrives at Richmond Barracks, Dublin, in June 1916, for the court martial of Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, who murdered her husband, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, in April 1916. Also in the picture (left to right) are Meg Connery, Sheehy-Skeffington’s sisters Mary Sheehy Kettle and Kathleen Cruise O’Brien
Furthest to the right is Hanna Sheehy- Skeffington as she arrives at Richmond Barracks, Dublin, in June 1916, for the court martial of Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, who murdered her husband, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, in April 1916. Also in the picture (left to right) are Meg Connery, Sheehy-Skeffington’s sisters Mary Sheehy Kettle and Kathleen Cruise O’Brien
Grace Gifford was an Irish caricature artist and a self-professed republican. She married Joseph Plunkett, one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation, in Kilmainham Gaol hours before his execution following the Easter Rising. She is pictured here with William Orpen, an Irish artist who fought during the first World War for the British army and was later knighted. Gifford studied under the direction of Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art from 1904 to 1907
Grace Gifford was an Irish caricature artist and a self-professed republican. She married Joseph Plunkett, one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation, in Kilmainham Gaol hours before his execution following the Easter Rising. She is pictured here with William Orpen, an Irish artist who fought during the first World War for the British army and was later knighted. Gifford studied under the direction of Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art from 1904 to 1907
Peig Sayers was born Máiréad (Margaret) Sayers in Dunquin, Co Kerry in March 1873. She was the youngest child of Tomás Sayers and Máiréad Ní Bhrosnacháin (Margaret ‘Peig’ Brosnan) Sayers and was educated at Dunquin national school until she was aged 12. She married Pádraig Ó Guithín in February 1892, and had six children. She was a storyteller who dictated her famous autobiography, Peig, as well as imparting hundreds of stories to the Irish Folkore Commission
Peig Sayers was born Máiréad (Margaret) Sayers in Dunquin, Co Kerry in March 1873. She was the youngest child of Tomás Sayers and Máiréad Ní Bhrosnacháin (Margaret ‘Peig’ Brosnan) Sayers and was educated at Dunquin national school until she was aged 12. She married Pádraig Ó Guithín in February 1892, and had six children. She was a storyteller who dictated her famous autobiography, Peig, as well as imparting hundreds of stories to the Irish Folkore Commission

Drawn from the 2020 book Old Ireland in Colour – in which colour is added to existing black and white photos – they document both ordinary and extraordinary people, places and moments of modern Irish history, some that we know well and can now view with fresh eyes, others that we don’t know at all.

The book is part of a wider project which began in early 2019 when John Breslin – his day job is at the Insight SFI centre for data analytics in NUI Galway – started to colourise family photographs as part of his own genealogy research.

Beatrix Frances Beauclerk, the duchess of St Albans and the marchioness of Waterford, was born Lady Beatrix Frances Petty-FitzMaurice in 1877. She was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and in recognition of her work as a hospital administrator during the first World War she was appointed to the Order of the British Empire and the Order of St John of Jerusalem. She died in 1953. She is pictured here with her daughter who would go on to be Lady Blanche Maud de la Poer Beresford Girouard (1898-1940), an Irish journalist and writer. She died in a car accident in 1940
Beatrix Frances Beauclerk, the duchess of St Albans and the marchioness of Waterford, was born Lady Beatrix Frances Petty-FitzMaurice in 1877. She was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and in recognition of her work as a hospital administrator during the first World War she was appointed to the Order of the British Empire and the Order of St John of Jerusalem. She died in 1953. She is pictured here with her daughter who would go on to be Lady Blanche Maud de la Poer Beresford Girouard (1898-1940), an Irish journalist and writer. She died in a car accident in 1940
Maud Gonne MacBride (1866 -1953) was a political activist who was instrumental in the advancement of republican feminism in the early 20th century. While often known for being the subject of much of the love poetry of WB Yeats, she was actively involved in social justice and humanitarian campaigns in Dublin city throughout the revolutionary period. She was deeply immersed in dramatic and literary circles in Dublin. After her divorce from John McBride in 1906, she moved to France, returning just after the Rising. During the Civil War she took the anti-Treaty side
Maud Gonne MacBride (1866 -1953) was a political activist who was instrumental in the advancement of republican feminism in the early 20th century. While often known for being the subject of much of the love poetry of WB Yeats, she was actively involved in social justice and humanitarian campaigns in Dublin city throughout the revolutionary period. She was deeply immersed in dramatic and literary circles in Dublin. After her divorce from John McBride in 1906, she moved to France, returning just after the Rising. During the Civil War she took the anti-Treaty side
Linda O’Reilly (née Ward) was an American model who married Brendan O’Reilly, a presenter on Sports Stadium on RTÉ television. Pictured here on a photoshoot in Dublin, she swapped New York for Dublin’s modelling scene, and this picture shows two local boys admiring her outfit. This photograph was taken by renowned photographer Colman Doyle and is thought to be dated between 1960 and 1966
Linda O’Reilly (née Ward) was an American model who married Brendan O’Reilly, a presenter on Sports Stadium on RTÉ television. Pictured here on a photoshoot in Dublin, she swapped New York for Dublin’s modelling scene, and this picture shows two local boys admiring her outfit. This photograph was taken by renowned photographer Colman Doyle and is thought to be dated between 1960 and 1966

He began using DeOldify – a computer-based AI system that colourises black and white photographs. After that stage, photos are brought into Photoshop to be adjusted and corrected based on additional research or knowledge. Documents such as prison and emigration records, memoirs, oral histories and other sources are consulted to try to get the colours correct. We cannot always know that our interpretation is right, and we are always open to interpretation.

After seeing the huge interest in the photographs on Twitter, in April this year John approached his NUI Galway colleague Sarah-Anne Buckley to see if she would be interested in collaborating on a book.

The resulting book of 173 photographs spans the period from just before the Famine to the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a period in which the population of the island of Ireland went from just over 8 million to a low of 4 million in the 1950s.

Those published here are largely from the 20th century, with one from 1898. We hope they add something, however small, to our understanding of the lives of women in 20th century Ireland.

Old Ireland in Colour, by John Breslin & Sarah-Anne Buckley, is published by Merrion Press