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DRI Blog: Documenting Destruction: Westropp Collection and the 1916 Rising

Author: Dr. Sharon Webb

Documenting Destruction: the Westropp Photographic Collection and the 1916 Rising

Since we “went live” last month we have been busy adding new collections to our (‘Data Seal of Approval’ approved) Repository. One such collection is the Royal Irish Academy’s ‘Photographs of Dublin City Centre after the 1916 Rebellion’.

The forty photographs in this collection, taken by antiquarian Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922), document key buildings, monuments and streets in Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising. Westropp donated these photographs to the Royal Irish Academy in June 1916, just weeks after the events of the Rising unfolded. When we spoke to Siobhan Fitzpatrick, Librarian (RIA), about Westropp’s collection and in particular his commitment and interest in documenting the destruction of Dublin’s landscape, she said:

'He obviously went to great lengths to take many of the photographs which are preserved in the collection.  The fact that he had the images developed, printed and mounted in an album within a week conveys a certain sense of urgency and the fact that he deposited the album with the Academy for safe keeping shows his strong archival sense and the importance he placed on preserving the record. Similar albums were deposited with other repositories in Dublin confirming Westropp’s archival commitment.' (23 July 2015)

Westropp’s collection captures the destruction of Dublin’s architectural landscape following a week of fighting, artillery fire and bombardment between Irish rebels and British forces. His pictures show the damage caused to a number of iconic Dublin buildings, including the General Post Office (GPO), which was the rebel headquarters, and depict a number of famous Dublin streets including O’Connell Street, then called Sackville Street, strewn with rubble and glass - the fragments of a rising which changed the course of Irish history.

Westropp’s approach to documenting the destruction is representative of his training and of the accuracy and care with which he approached his work. Of this, Siobhan states that the photographs

‘demonstrate the intrepid nature of [Westropp’s] recording of landscapes and buildings. Throughout his life he recorded buildings in Ireland as seen through the prism of an antiquarian scholar.  His training as an engineer ensured that he recorded dimensions and other details with a high level of accuracy.  His images of Dublin in ruins may be seen in the context of this lifelong study of buildings in various states of disrepair or even ruin.' (23 July 2015)

A number of photographs in the collection document specific sites from a number of vantage points. For example there are photographs of O’Connell Street (Sackville Street) and the GPO from different angles and street levels including aerial views taken from the top of Nelson's Pillar, which was blown up in 1966, and a photo of O’Connell Street taken from the south Liffey quays. Westropp also documented the corner of Middle Abbey St before and after the fall of the 'corner house'.

Corner of Middle Abbey St, before fall of corner house, May 17 [1916]. Photograph copyright: Royal Irish Academy.

Corner of Middle Abbey St, after fall of corner house, May 17 1916. Photograph copyright: Royal Irish Academy.

These photographs capture the devastation of Dublin’s urban landscape but the scenes also provide insights into Dublin life and its citizens, who were no doubt affected by the Rising.

When we look beyond the buildings, the rubble, the dust, we get a sense of what it might have been like to stand amongst the chaotic aftermath: photos in the collection depict the clean up operation, the onlookers, the workers, the British soldiers standing guard, and life getting back to “normal” as people walk past the ruins. Different photos show labourers with their horse drawn carriages cleaning up rubble from outside the GPO, a small boy struggling with a cart which looks like it is full of luggage, while another photo shows a large group of people looking at the ruins of the “corner house” (above). Photos portray people going about their daily routine, while one particular, poignant, image includes a small boy looking directly at the camera (below) - what did he think of the Dublin’s new landscape, of the Rising, of the fighting? Indeed, what did he think of Westropp’s camera? Taking a step back from the camera, what did Westropp think standing at his many vantage points, climbing Nelson’s Pillar to take shots of the GPO, of Henry Street? What did he think, surrounded by the rubble of the GPO, light filtering through the steel girders and the Rising’s dust still settling

General Post Office, flag staff at corner, May 17 [1916]. Photograph copyright: Royal Irish Academy

If any of our readers can identify the small boy in this picture, do let us know! Our contact page is here.

As mentioned, Westropp ‘developed, printed and mounted’ the photographs into ‘an album within a week’ of taking them. He deposited a copy of the album with the Royal Irish Academy as well as other repositories in Dublin. Similarly, the digital collection, now available in our Repository, is not necessarily unique to us since a number of digital copies exist elsewhere on the “interweb”! Indeed, as I was finishing this blog post, TCD Library posted about their Westropp collection - I was literally pipped at the [blog] post. Westropp I’m sure would have delighted in the use of his collections and the continued success of his archival methods in the digital age. LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe) springs to mind!

The Royal Irish Academy collection in the Digital Repository of Ireland can be reviewed and studied in relation to other, complementary, digital artefacts (letters, postcards, documents, diaries, witness accounts) from other institutions. When I started this blog I initially wanted to just write about the Westropp collection but after spending a few hours (perhaps a few afternoons is more accurate) perusing the different collections I was amazed at the various connections and historical narratives I was able to follow.

Search “1916” in the Repository and you retrieve a whole host of items that enable you to piece together elements of the Rising, from the physical damage, as illustrated through Westropp’s photos, to the human (citizen and soldier, child and adult) cost or sacrifice of the Rebellion. Collections related to the 1916 Rising include Maynooth University’s ‘Letters of 1916’, National College of Art and Design’s ‘Michael Healy Collection’ and the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives, ‘The Capuchins and the Irish Revolution’ Collection.

In each collection you can discover different aspects of the Rising, the events, the aftermath as well as the political situation, before, during, and after the Rising. One intriguing connection between the Westropp collection and the others is the use of images from the Rising and the reconstruction effort on postcards. Does this demonstrate the public re-imagining or re-appropriation of the Rising from a rebellion with little public support to an event that garnered public sympathy? Perhaps it demonstrates the political opinion of the media or those that controlled the printing press? It certainly tells us something of the relationship between the correspondents, the sender and receiver of the postcards.  

For example, the Capuchin collection includes a ‘postcard to Fr. Aloysius Travers, Church Street, from ‘E. Ní F’ declaring that a ‘very small room for your friend is ready in August’. Significantly, ‘the photographic print of the postcard shows refurbishment work on Liberty Hall after its destruction in the 1916 Rising’; one of the buildings which Westropp photographed. Liberty Hall was strategically an important building, it was said to be a garrison for the Volunteers but it was also the headquarters for the Irish socialist movement and described ‘as the centre of social anarchy, the brain of every riot and disturbance’ ('Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion', Charles Townshend, 2005, p.191).

Liberty Hall symbolised (and still does) the socialist movement that gained traction during the early twentieth century under the leadership and ideological thinking of James Connolly (1868-1916). Connolly, one of the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation, became a working class martyr following his execution for his involvement in the Rising. Indeed the banner across the façade of Liberty hall, as shown in the postcard to Travers reads: 'James Connolly murdered May 12th 1916'. 

Liberty Hall bombarded house Beresford Place May 17 [1916]. Photograph copyright: Royal Irish Academy

Other objects in the Repository that complement Westropp’s photos include a postcard showing the interior of the GPO, taken ‘after the insurrection’. This ‘postcard was written on 11 May, the day before the final executions of the leaders of the Rising’. Significantly, ‘The Papers of Fr. Aloysius Travers, OFM Cap.’, which is a sub-collection of the ‘The Capuchins and the Irish Revolution’ collection held at the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives, contains correspondence between Fr. Travers and some of the prisoners of the Rising. Travers’ memoirs (included in the digital collection) also contain his recollections of the Rising and include eyewitness accounts of some of the executions, including James Connolly.

In ‘My Memories of the 1916 Rising’ Travers writes:

'Thirty-four years have gone since the historic Rising which led to the independence of our Nation - rather, I should say, to the freedom of twenty-six counties, for six of them are still in bondage.'

Travers also discusses how the Rising has been perceived, documented and re-appropriated since 1916 and refers to the complex task of reconstructing the events:

'The story, in years to come, will be constructed from various contexts pieced together into a whole, with the more important events sifted from the trivial and insignificant, and errors corrected. Every little detail, no matter how small in itself, provided it is factual and not imaginative, may be valuable in the compilation of that history.'

99 years after the event we know ‘that history’ is still being compiled, constructed and pieced together through the litany of artefacts, objects, documents, letters, etc., from the period. Digital objects from the various online collections help us to understand in greater detail the events of 1916 and as an exercise in public, digital, history they allow the public to investigate and interrogate those artefacts that have long since informed the creation of ‘that history’ by professional historians.

Important artefacts that demonstrate the complexity of the events of April 1916, include a letter from Eoin MacNeill (1867-1945) to Éamon de Valera (1882-1975). The letter, contained in Maynooth University’s Letters of 1916 collection, was sent from MacNeill (founder of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 but ‘against a rising without a firm chance of success or without British provocation’) in an effort to stop any Volunteer operations that day (Easter Sunday).

'In this letter...[MacNeill] issues a direct order [that] no movement of Irish Volunteers is to take place that day. He also commands that the order be made known to other officers. The order was issued to de Valera as MacDonagh was "not accessible'".

Westropp’s photographic collection demonstrates the aftermath of the Rising but letters like these and other digital artefacts in the Repository, such as  the correspondence of Travers and the many related collections online, provide the contextual information that shows the political, social and human consequences. Collections related to 1916 - correspondence with prisoners, his eyewitness accounts - all document destruction, but from different viewpoints, angles and perspectives.

But before I let you go to explore these collections (and if you have read this blog straight through without ducking in and out of the many links to the various objects, I commend you - you are more disciplined than I), the motivation for the Digital Repository of Ireland is not just to bring collections like those described above to the fore, but to preserve them in the long term for future study and interpretation. A fact which Westropp would truly appreciate.


Street map of Dublin showing locations featured in the Westropp Collection. DRI's mapping functionality allows you to view the various objects in the mapping tool. We achieved this by adding geo co-ordinates to the metadata.


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