Posts Tagged ‘Irish-Americans’


I was delighted to write a piece for the Gallery of Photography’s current project and exhibition The Photo Album of Ireland. The exhibition was opened last Friday by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter and it explores the history of photography in Ireland through the family album. It runs at the Dublin gallery until the 31st August and you can also view the publicly sourced photographs at the project website here.

The following text and image appear in the exhibition and relate to a photograph from my own family’s collection. It tells the story of female emigration from Ireland to the United States and also explores the role photography plays in the construction of family narratives.


I collect photographs and write about them on my blog. Most of the people in these photographs are anonymous and will remain so. Sourced from online auctions, charity shops and even skips, the images have become separated from the families who once valued them. I look for interesting faces, extreme fashions and unusual formats or studios. I then research and write short pieces which I hope illuminate a moment in Irish social, photographic or fashion history.

Naturally, I know and understand my own family photographs in a different way to those that I write about on my blog or within an academic context. Their value comes from the telling and re-telling of stories which transform sometimes unremarkable images into something special. Would I buy these photographs if offered for auction on eBay? Probably not! But they do mean a great deal to me.

My love of photographs started with my grandmother, Roseanne, whose mother is shown in the above image. No visit was complete without a thorough examination of the box of photographs which she ceremoniously brought down from the ‘upper room’. An act which intensely annoyed my grandfather who declared that ‘no-one wants to look at that old rubbish.’ She ignored him and commenced her guided tour. She held each photograph, dictated the viewing order and seldom deviated from her script.

Mingled amongst the images of her daughters at dinner dances and snapshots of haymaking were the American photos sent across the Atlantic by a previous generation of emigrants. Different in format, they included tintypes and photobooth pictures, neither of which were prevalent in Ireland. The American photos felt and looked different to Irish photographs.

One such example, is this photograph of my great-grandmother Susan Smith and her cousin, taken not in her native Cavan, but in the Massachusetts city of Brockton. It is the only evidence of the ten years that she spent in America between 1895 and 1905. We hear little of Brockton now but during the time that my great-grandmother lived there it claimed to offer the highest industrial wage in the world at $3.75 per day. At one stage ‘shoe city’ had over 100 factories and it was booming.

Put into an historical context my great-grandmother’s tale was typical of Irish emigration during the period. More single women than men left. Some stayed forever. Some like Susan Smith emigrated for substantial periods of time, in her case ten years, during which she earned enough to provide herself with a dowry. This and her husband-to-be’s earnings as a copper miner in Arizona allowed them to buy a house and farm upon their return. My great-grandmother’s tale, mirrors that related by Diane Dunnigan in A South Roscommon Emigrant: Emigration and Return, 1890–1920 (2), in which she tells how these independent women worked, saved and sometimes returned to Ireland bringing with them different life experiences.

When my great-grandmother and her American cousin entered the studio of D.T. Burrell at 68 Main Street, Brockton, they commissioned an image which adhered to the well-established conventions of studio portraiture. They wear their ‘Sunday best’ of fashionable lace high-necked blouses and choker necklaces. They have piled their hair into ‘Gibson Girl’ pompadours so prevalent during the period. Presented in cameo upon embossed paper, the two young women stare confidently at the camera. Her cousins, Mary, Kate and Rosalie were the American-born children of Cavan parents who had emigrated in the 1880s. Like them they worked in shoe factories, however, they had advanced from manual positions to jobs as clerks and stenographers.

The anthropologist Daniel Miller’s survey of the possessions owned by the residents of a single South London street focused not upon their aesthetic qualities but instead he revealed that objects, such as photographs, often matter to people because of the relationships they signify. The meaning attached to the above photograph cannot be deduced by an analysis of its image content alone instead it is integral to a story known only within a family context. My grandmother’s relationship to her family photographs and in particular to this image reminds me of what Miller referred to as the ‘the sadness of lives and the comfort of things.’(2)

When my grandmother talked about this photograph she was not considering emigration trends nor the role of the returned Yank. Instead she used it as a vehicle to discuss a very personal event: the death of her father less than ten years after his return to Ireland. Although not included in the photo, he was the focus when this portrait was examined. The story of her parents’ hopeful return to Ireland starts with this image. His premature death from silicosis, the result of his work in copper mines, was naturally a major blow to his only child and this photograph allowed her to raise the subject sixty or more years after the event.

(1) Dunnigan, Diane, A South Roscommon Emigrant: Emigration and Return, 1890-1920, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007.

(2) Miller, Daniel, The Comfort of Things, Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

Orla Fitzpatrick
June 2014

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I picked this snapshot up on a trip to New York a couple of year’s ago. The marking of New Year’s Eve always has a poignancy to it and this 61 year old snapshot exudes a certain pathos. I wonder how the year panned out for Florence, Walt, George, Lil, Cass, Jim, Betty and Cookie?

I love the fact that the two women have similar dresses and hairstyles and are being held by their partners in identical poses. The men are all in white shirts with high-waisted trousers. One man looks as if he is singing along to the music whilst another stares wistfully away from the camera.

2933 Disston Street is in Northwest Philadelphia in an area called Mayfair which had very strong Irish-American connections. A cursory perusal of the listings for the street reveals many Irish and Italian surnames.

I am happy to report that today has had one of the highest number of views since Jacolette started and I’d like to thank all those who have looked at and commented upon my posts in 2012. I look forward to sharing many more photographs in 2013! Happy New Year!

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I love the colours in these early 70s holiday snapshots which I purchased from an online seller recently. There is something very evocative about this Kodak colour process with its strong red and brown hues. 

The photographs were taken by Irish-American tourists in 1971 and include the slightly surreal image of an A and B pay phone. This pay phone system required the caller to contact an operator and if for some reason the call didn’t go through they could hit the ‘B’ button to return their coins. I wonder if the photograph was taken in an airport and that the green phone is perhaps a courtesy phone? I cannot make out the headlines on the newspaper which might have provided clues as to the time of year. 

I’ve identified the clock tower in the background of this photograph as that on Waterford Quay which was built in 1881. The man is the foreground appears to be enjoying his holiday. 

Upon their return to the United States, the travellers chose to photograph the items they had purchased during their trip to England and Ireland. It provides a great insight into the types of souvenirs which were popular with tourists during the period. I recognise several brands including an Irish Wade pin dish and a leprechaun figure which looks very like those made by Crolly in Donegal. They also bought plenty of linen teacloths and some strange looking records.

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The commission for the Irish Pavilion at the 1964/65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York was awarded to the Irish architect, Andrew Devane. An article which appeared in The Irish Times on the 12th June 1963 assured the public that the Irish pavilion would “be unpretentious and neither excessively modernistic nor falsely traditional.” The complex in its entirety is depicted on a 5 penny Irish stamp.

Devane was assisted by the American designer, George Nelson and the wooden canopy is reminiscent of Nelson’s 1946 platform bench. The entrance, with its Liscannor slate façade was a popular spot in which to be photographed. This Irish-American lady was one of the ca. 3.8 million visitors to the Irish section and I love her pale green shift dress. The horizontal shadows create an interesting pattern on the slate wall adding a dappled effect to this 1964 kodacolor print.

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Just a quick Easter post. I always find it hard to date children’s clothes but my guess is that this lavish outfit originates from somewhere between 1890 and 1910. The photograph was sent to an Irish emigrant in Philadelphia along with several postcard views of Clonmel, County Tipperary. The photographer was English-born, Albert Joseph Webster, and I can confirm that his studio was in business between 1901 and 1911. I wonder did Bridie ever get to meet her sister Mary’s child? There are no surnames given within the correspondence, however, one of the postcards mentions that a J. Landy is emigrating to Philadelphia and will call on Bridie. 

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I am off to New York for ten days and on that note I thought I’d post one of my latest snapshot purchases which, although not Irish per se, has a distinctly Irish-American theme. This snapshot was taken on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, and features a stylish 1920s dame sitting on a ridiculously fake model of the Wishing Seat at the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim.  Presumably the sitter had to pay to pose on the seat and it is interesting to note that the Irish landmark was well enough known to have a resonance with the American public. 

I particularly like the cut-off American flag and the groups in the background. These are typical snapshot details which were not necessarily the object of the photographer’s gaze.

The woman’s outfit is quintessential 1920s style and includes most of the trends from the era discussed in a comprehensive post from the fashion history blog Gamour Daze. These include the cloche hat and t-bar shoes and even though her face is obscured by a flaw in the print I think the snapshot as a whole evokes the holiday location and the flapper era. One of my favourite films is The King of Marvin Gardens which was shot in Atlantic City. It is also highly atmospheric but shows the location in the early 1970s when it was long past its peak. 


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Before 1907, if you were sending a postcard to the United States you couldn’t write anything other than the address on the back of the card. As a result of this people wrote their messages around the image and this led to an interesting and quirky intersection of words and pictures. The pattern created by the text against the image is often fascinating. The sender of the first postcard from Howth/Beann Eadair has managed to write a considerable amount of text over the sea and sky! It was sent to California in April 1905. The second card was sent to Boston in 1905 and mentions a trip to the Dublin Horse Show and Donaghadee, near Belfast. 

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The image on this Gaelic League postcard was taken by the Irish-American photographer and artist, Anna Frances Levins (d. 1941). It was published by Malcolmson and Hayes, a New York based printing and engraving firm which was founded by Cork-born, Cornelius J. Hayes. 

Levins was an interesting character who was also a portrait painter and the official photographer to the Irish-American Historical Society. She married the landowner and politican, Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde (1862-1935) and when in Dublin their home was at 84 St. Stephen’s Green. 

Yet again the colouring of the photograph is what really appeals to me. The approximation of 15th century dress is based more upon a romantic notion of the period than on actual historical evidence. It has many similarities with the costumes created by the Dun Emer Guild in Dublin. 

The postcard may have originated from one of the World’s Fairs, however, I have a feeling that it had something to do with the ‘Irish Historic Pageant’ which took place in New York in 1913. It was organised by the Gaelic League‘s Irish and New York branches. The pageant, which was a fundraiser, for the League, celebrated Ireland’s ancient past. 

It was held at the Sixty-Ninth Armory, New York and featured 500 professional and amateur actors in ‘ancient’ Irish costume. It cost $10,000 to put on and was designed by John P. Campbell. For more information on the event see Deborah Sugg Ryan’s article in Ireland’s heritages: critical perspectives on memory and identity edited by Mark McCarthy, Ashgate (2005). 

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This unusual object is a celluloid photographic medallion which was made in the United States between ca. 1900 and 1930. It is about 16cms in diameter and is marked “Columbia Medallion Studios, Chicago”.    

The image itself (according to a hand-written scrap attached to the back) is of “Uncle Lar Kavanagh of Leighlinbridge, County Carlow”. The original photograph was probably sent over to an emigrant in America and has been enlarged and encased using a process which was extremely popular in the United States but which doesn’t appear to have been so common in Ireland. The George Eastman House Museum has an extensive range of these celluloid buttons and provide an explanation of how they were made – the process is similar to making a regular button badge.  The following links show the machines used to make them and also a salesman’s case containing sample borders and designs. 

The lush greenery surrounding the cottage creates a hazy image which would doubtless of conjured up thoughts of home for the emigrant who received it. According to the 1901 census there were quite a few Kavanaghs in Leighlinbridge. It can be difficult to date these objects as older photographs were often made into medallions long after they were taken and some were tinted and enhanced before they were encased.

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Stacy Waldman from House of Mirth Photos & Ephemera, kindly asked me to be a guest blogger on her excellent site. I decided to write about a fascinating Irish-American album relating to a family from Goresbridge, County Kilkenny, who emigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. The album is full of great photographs and if you would like to see some of them and read more about it please follow this link to House of Mirth.

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