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Experience Ireland’s Past in Colorized Coffee Table Books

A personal journey that began with the colorizing old family photos turned into a true publishing success for two Galway university professors when they decided to launch two coffee table books giving readers an insight into Old Ireland.

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Professor John Breslin, together with his colleague, Dr. Sarah-Anne Buckley, both of National University of Ireland Galway, compiled the first coffee table book in 2020 and a year later, came out with a companion publication featuring additional colorized photos of different scenes from across Ireland.

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The first book titled, Old Ireland in Colour, is 173 pages of carefully curated photographs that have been colorized using an open-source AI tool called DeOldify.

The second book, Old Ireland in Colour 2, is a natural follow-up to the first book, featuring more photographic gems that depict Ireland in a different time.

Both publications display in beautiful color the daily lives of Irish people, from the gentry right down to the poorest tenant farmers, all in stunning clarity.

The photos that were chosen for the first book create a pretty accurate picture of what Ireland was like from the period just before the Great Famine (1845-1852) through to the outbreak of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland in the mid-1960s.

The second book continues to be a “snapshot of Ireland's political, social, economic and cultural life with many known and unknown faces,” say the authors.

Both books make for great gifts at any time of year but especially during the holidays.

What to Expect in the Original Old Ireland in Colour Book

The book is broken up into sections.

They include The Irish Revolution, Society and Culture, Women and Children, The Irish Abroad, and Scenic Ireland.

Breslin, who started using the tool on old photographs of his grandparents, said the images reflect the “dramatic demographic, social, economic, political, cultural and technological change in Ireland and internationally” over the span of at least 150 years.

While much of the imagery in the book was taken in rural Ireland, there are several old photos that will give readers a glimpse into the country’s urban landscape.

You’ll discover plenty of recognizable characters in there, too.

Take the one of Ireland’s former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and President Eamon de Valera pictured outside the Waldorf Astoria in New York City during his American tour in March 1919.

The late Éamon de Valera, pictured third from left, with dignitaries outside the Waldorf Hotel New York in 1919, one of the unique colorized photos from Ireland in Colour, a book that will help readers experience Ireland's past.. Photo courtesy of the authors of Old Ireland in Colour.

Or the one of Michael Collins making a speech to a large crowd in Cork in 1922.

a man shouting at a crowd of people experience Ireland's past
Photo of Michael Collins speaking to a crowd in Cork in 1922, shortly before he was shot in an ambush in West Cork. The original photo was taken by Agence de Presse Meurisse. Source: Bibliothéque Nationale de France/National Library of France.

Pictures of the patriots who fought in Ireland’s Easter Rising are also there in living color, as well as other well-known figures such as Michael Davitt and William Butler Yeats.

Dreaming of Ireland: A Planning Journal

a man standing up with his hand on a sign experience Ireland's past
A colorized photo of Michael Davitt, the founder of the National Land League. Photo: Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.

Breslin, who serves as a professor at NUI Galway's School of Engineering and is also a researcher at the Data Science Institute, says the images were culled from a variety of archival sources, including photographs that were already in the public domain.

Other resources used for the book that will allow readers to experience Ireland's past include the National Folklore Collection, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and the National Library of Ireland.

International resources include the Library of Congress, the Getty Museum Open Content, the Bibliothéque Nationale de France, and Wikimedia Commons.

Read More: Famous Landmarks from Irish History that Every First-Time Visitor Should See

The Work of Women Photographers in Ireland

Many might be surprised to learn that some of the colorized photos in the book are from originals taken by women photographers.

“I think many have been delighted to discover that there were quite a number of influential women photographers at that time,” explains Breslin, a Clare native who has lived in Co. Galway for the past 30 years.

a woman with a bowl in her hand experience Ireland's past
A woman baking at Galgorm Castle in Co. Antrim. The original photo was taken by Mary Alice Young (1867-1946). Source: Deputy Keeper of the Records, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

The work of Irish female photographers during the Victorian era had largely gone unnoticed until recent years.

The work of a handful of them is included in the book and no doubt helps readers to experience Ireland's past in a new way.

“There are a smaller number of women photographers in the book overall, but their works are amongst the most exquisite photographs that we were able to include,” Breslin adds.

Some of them include the following:

  • “Woman Baking,” by Mary Alice Young, taken at Galgorm Castle, Ballymena, Co. Antrim, in 1910 and inspired by Flemish art;
  • “Maggie From Man of Aran,” by photographer Frances Hubbard Flaherty;

    people by a wagon having tea experience Ireland's past
    Experience Ireland's past through the eyes of a group of itinerants enjoying tea and some bread by their wagon. The photo, titled “Teatime,” was taken by Elinor Wiltshire. Source: National Library of Ireland.
  • “Teatime,” showing members of the O’Brien and Sheridan itinerant families at mealtime in Loughrea, Co. Galway, by Elinor O’Brien-Wiltshire, as well as two images depicting inner-city Dublin, also by O’Brien-Wiltshire.

Getting the Colors Right

Knowing how to colorize an image that was taken perhaps a hundred years ago or more isn’t an easy task.

After doing the initial colorization, Breslin says he had to tackle the more painstaking work of restoring and adjusting based on everything from an individual’s eye color records/norms, known clothing colors, flags, or other things that he felt didn’t look just right.

Photo of Countess Constance Markievicz wearing her Irish Citizen Army uniform pictured here with her dog Poppet and Fianna Eireann officers, from left, Thomas McDonald and Theo Fitzgerald. The original photo was taken by Poole Studio. Source: National Library of Ireland.

A fair bit of detective work was also necessary.

For example, when attempting to colorize a photo of Countess Markievicz, Breslin says he was pretty confident based on having colorized a number of photographs of her previously, but still found it difficult to confirm her eye color.

A portrait of a young Constance. Photo: Public Domain.

Digging deeper, he discovered a record of the politician’s April 1922 entry into the United States through Ellis Island.

Even though the spelling of her last name was wrong, he was able to determine that it was in fact the countess and that she had blue eyes.

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The Stunning Results

One look at this impressive book and most people can agree that the results are stunning.

From Markievicz’s bright bottle green dress to the vivid blue jerseys worn by players of the Dublin hurling team, to a detailed scene from the “Eviction,” a photograph that brings to life one of the common atrocities of 19th-century rural Ireland.

Asked about his favorite images, Breslin says that photographs from the West of Ireland are among his most cherished ones.

Breslin has a particular fondness for photographs in the book that were taken in Counties Galway, Clare, and Donegal, where his extended family hails from.

Experience Ireland's past in the pages of Old Ireland in Colour and Old Ireland in Colour 2. Here is one image from the first book that shows two women walking in rural Ireland. The original photo was taken by Kathleen Price. Source: National Folklore Collection.

In addition to his teaching duties, Breslin, who is also a serial entrepreneur, says that the colorization of old images is something that fascinates not just him.

By clicking on the Amazon link below, I may earn a small commission from the Amazon Associates Program if you decide to buy something on the site. However, you will not incur any additional costs by doing so. 

Read Ireland: A Luminous Beauty (Coffee-Table Book)

“Honestly, I think colorization is the closest many of us will get to time travel, seeing these old images – whether familiar or unfamiliar – in a new way that really draws you into the scene.”

Social media fans of the authors’ work will be familiar with many of the images that are included in the book, but for those who aren’t familiar with the online version of Old Ireland in Colour, this hardcover, he says, will be a real treat.

Eyre Square Galway in the 1880s is one of the colorized photos in this new book that will allow you to experience Ireland's past. Photo provided by the authors of Old Ireland in Colour.

The project has been well-received among those in Ireland.

Breslin and Buckley have gained many fans across the worldwide Irish diaspora, too.

“I’m very proud to have been a part of this exciting project, bringing Irish history to life through artificial intelligence, human artistry, and the brilliant captions and narrative created by Dr. Buckley that weaves it all so well together.”

All the photos used in this blog post were kindly provided to Ireland on a Budget by the authors.

Are you interested in old photos of Ireland that help readers to experience Ireland's past? Let me know in the comments below.

Read More: 5 Inspirational Irish Women Who Influenced the Politics and Culture of Ireland 

colette

Colette is a County Sligo native who created Ireland on a Budget to provide her readers with money-saving tips on how to get to Ireland and then save even more when they're there. She's a professional copywriter who lives in the New York area with her husband and two children.

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