When the future met the past — the Ireland in Colour phenomenon

National Army troops taking over the Custume Barracks in Athlone from British forces. As a result of the ratification of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the British Army withdrew their forces from Ireland throughout 1922. The barracks were originally built as temporary accommodation for cavalry and infantry units in 1691 and named after Sergeant Custume, who defended the bridge from the forces of King William III during the 1690 Siege of Athlone. After the takeover by the army of the Irish Free State, they served as the headquarters of 4th Western Brigade until the brigade was disbanded.

National Army troops taking over the Custume Barracks in Athlone from British forces. As a result of the ratification of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the British Army withdrew their forces from Ireland throughout 1922. The barracks were originally built as temporary accommodation for cavalry and infantry units in 1691 and named after Sergeant Custume, who defended the bridge from the forces of King William III during the 1690 Siege of Athlone. After the takeover by the army of the Irish Free State, they served as the headquarters of 4th Western Brigade until the brigade was disbanded.

A historian and a technologist walked into a bar... Well actually, they didn’t. In fact, the two of them have only met up face to face in the last week having spent the last year being remotely apart yet firmly at the centre of Irish publishing’s biggest success.

The Ireland In Colour book adorned more than 50,000 coffee tables last Christmas in a move which stunned publishers, but which represented a welcome boon to booksellers right across the country, and further afield.

The brains behind this idea, NUI Galway colleagues historian Dr Sarah Anne Buckley and technologist Prof John Breslin normally occupy different spheres of interest. Dr Buckley is the latest in a series of innovative historians who have brought history to life through modern documentary techniques; and Prof Breslin, who has been at the forefront of innovation, infomatics and electronic engineering for most of his life.

I am often taken by the wonder of strange juxtaposition. A poet with a chef; an astronaut with a farmer; and here, a product that is the combination of peering back and looking forward.

This week, I chatted with John and Sarah-Anne as they hit the virtual road to promote Ireland In Colour 2 and found them remarkably relaxed despite their massive success.

Interest

“It’s fair to say that while we thought there would be some interest in an Old Ireland in Colour book when we first discussed the idea at the end of March 2020, the actual level of interest when it was released in October 2020 was quite unexpected,” said Dr Buckley.

“To have been on the front page of CNN and featured on the Late Late Show was really something that we could not have possibly imagined, not to mention the 80-90,000 copies produced since release, with 50,000 of those sold in just 10 weeks,” said Prof Breslin.

Has the success tempted them to go beyond Irish shores for the series?

“We might leave that to others. There have been calls for books from nearby neighbouring countries, as well as one on the diaspora, but interestingly there are books emerging for other countries in parallel already (John picked up two or three recent books of French colourised photographs a few weeks ago: one is simply called “They Lived in Colour” ). As well as that, our expertise and interest is in Ireland and Irish history,” said Sarah Anne.

“There are still plenty of amazing Irish photographs that have not been colourised yet, not to mention ones from individual towns and counties, with lots of great collections in our local libraries, archives and museums.

“Our local readers will be happy to hear that we have a dozen or so colourised photographs from Galway and Mayo in book two, including our cover photograph from Loughrea in 1954,” she added.

As a historian, does Dr Buckley feel it has drawn people back into a greater appreciation of the past?

“Completely. There have been fantastic messages of support, but also people asking about how to access records on their local area, genealogy research and broader social and political history.

“We love when people go down rabbit holes, and we have tried to highlight the amazing online and freely available sources like the Dictionary of Irish Biography, as well as highlighting our fantastic local and national archives (and archivists ).

Love for the past

“We have such a love for the past, but some people do feel disconnected from it, so we think the book and the project has helped to encourage more interest and research - not only into well-known figures, but also into the many fantastic ‘ordinary’ people who lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

I ask if the addition of colour leads to increased empathy with our ancestors. Were they a significant Other when they were black and white?

“Readers have told us that it has increased their empathy, made the image and the history more relatable, and we know that’s how we feel when we see the colourisation results and when we get to research individual elements of a photograph and discuss the context.

“It’s not that they were a significant Other, but we don’t relate as easily or as deeply. It helps to build a connection and an interest, and they are beautiful to look at,” she added.

But is colourising altering history? Or do they think that the people lived their lives in colour and it was the original monochrome image that altered that more than the modern colourising?

“Colourisation is nothing new: in fact, to as far back as one of the first photographic techniques invented in the 1840s, the daguerreotype, photographs have been colourised. People lived their lives in colour, and while there is a fair amount of subjective interpretation involved, we do our best to make as informed decisions as possible when choosing colours,” says John Breslin.

“Our colourisations have improved over time, using a combination of the knowledge we had already gained from our prior work on book one, along with published resources on dyes, textiles and dress styles in Ireland that we have referenced.

“Our usage of tools such as Photoshop and DeOldify (an artificial intelligence system ) has also become more advanced, to give what we believe are a collection of vibrant, compelling colourised photographs across a broad range of topics of interest to readers new and old.”

Monochrome

Do they think we will ever have a fascination with seeing modern colourised images in monochrome; in the same way that we are fascinated by colourised images? Monochrome images are so rare now in newsprint and online.

“We’re not sure - we think for us the main thing has always been does it enhance interest? The photograph remains in its original form after we colourise it; we are using it to increase empathy and interest in the past - the monochrome might be for a different purpose (and of course beautiful to look at too ),” said Sarah Anne.

“There are many cases where modern monochrome photographs have more impact, for example in architectural shots, or where it can be used as a contrast with colour to highlight something, like in the red coat scene of Schindler’s List.

“Because our brain is somewhat used to seeing monochrome associated with older or historical images, taking a modern image and removing the colour can sometimes make you think at first glance that you are looking at an old scene, which in the reverse direction (to the colourisation of old photos ) can show that some things don’t seem to change despite the passage of time: the faces of children, a smile, poverty, the beauty of nature, etc,” he said.

They have worked with a lot of renowned collections to put together this series. Do they get images sent in from members of the public?

“We often have photographs sent to us by members of the public,” they said. “Although due to time constraints we can only provide pointers to where they can get them colourised themselves. However, in the other direction, we have sought interesting photos from individuals as well as collections: the photograph of the 1947 “Big Snow” was provided to us by the son of a chemist who took it from the door of his shop on Main Street in Belturbet.

“We have included some of the most recent popular photographs from our social media channels in this book, and about 60% of the photographs in “Old Ireland in Colour 2” have been newly colourised and not shared previously, with a portion of those largely unseen since they have come from private collections. The book features photographs from all 32 counties, ranging from 1843 to 1964, and even includes a photo of a 1798 rebel who was born in 1780.

Surely, an exhibition is in the offing? They said they are working on two at the moment: one in Galway and one in Cork.

“They won’t be permanent displays but we hope they will be of great interest to the public.”

Is the sky the limit with this series. Can we see this going on like Now That’s What I Call Colourised Ireland No 56?

“While the idea of a second book had been percolating in the background, and we had been gathering some ideas for photographs that could potentially be used for it, it was really the love for the first book from those who had bought it or given it to friends and family that made us decide to push on and do a second one.

“The reaction to the first book was very emotional, from parents or grandparents who shared tales of when they were growing up with their children and grandchildren, to others in home or hospital environments who were using it to help with various memory conditions in the elderly.

“We don’t have any plans for books beyond “Old Ireland in Colour 2”, although a “Now” or “Hits” series (showing age here ) would be fun,” said Dr Buckley.

“Nonetheless, we hope that the audience will appreciate the effort put into book two: both the attention to detail in colourising the photographs, and the extended captions which focus on the story in the photograph as well as providing broader historical context,” she added.

Ireland In Colour 2 is now available in your local bookstores.

 

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