Bringing old photos to life... in full colour

Sarah-Anne Buckley talks to Maeve Lee about her best-selling book that aims to bring colour to Irish history. 
Bringing old photos to life... in full colour

The front cover of Old Ireland In Colour book by John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley.

COBH native Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley joined forced with Professor John Breslin to create a best-selling book that is bringing Ireland’s rich and colourful history to life.

Since its official release, Old Ireland In Colour has been named Ireland’s number one bestselling non-fiction hardback and has been shortlisted for the An Post Award for the Best Irish Published Book for 2020, proving to be a popular pick for readers longing to learn more about Ireland’s past.

The book includes images of nineteenth and twentieth-century Ireland and deals with the themes of Irish Revolution, Society and Culture, Women and Children, the Irish Abroad, and Scenic Ireland.

“Photography comes to Ireland in 1841 and over the 120 years that we cover, there’s huge changes socially and politically and culturally, so we show this change through the photographs and we wanted there to be a very wide and diverse range that covers class and gender and ethnicity and we hope we’ve achieved that,” Dr Buckley explains.

“I guess our aim is that, obviously, the technology wasn’t there at the time for colour photography but people were still living their lives very much in colour, so we find that this is no way a replacement for the original primary source, it’s an enhancement and a representation based on the documentary evidence that we can find.”

The transformation of the images from nineteenth and twentieth-century Ireland provide a new perspective on major events in our country, as Professor Breslin and Dr Buckley create memorable images while also providing accurate historic context that they hope will inspire people to dig further.

According to Professor Breslin, who colourised the images, the use of colour on new images, or ones we may already be familiar with, is perhaps a contributor to Old Ireland In Colour’s success so far.

“I think colourised pictures do resonate with us more,” says Professor Breslin, who first began posting the images to social media last year.

“We not only empathise more with the people in the pictures or the scenes, I think you will also spot things in photographs that you have not seen before because we are used to seeing in colour and your eye is drawn towards certain details and in black and white you can miss certain things, so it makes you a bit more connected to the scene.”

Professor Breslin has been working with the images from public collections with a combination of artificial intelligence and his own creativity, while Dr Buckley included the historical context, reflecting her own academic interests in modern Irish social history.

“John asked would I be interested in putting the historical context on it and also just putting this thread of social history through these amazing images, so I came on board and we started our research.

“You can see in the book, there’s examples where we have used records to find eye colours, we’ve looked at uniforms, we’ve done the research in many ways to give the best representation we can.

“The feedback from people in regards to John’s project and the book is that it does seem to encourage them to look again at these topics and my aim as a public historian is any way that we can enhance the interest of people in social history is fantastic.”

Sarah-Anne Buckley studied at University College Cork and is now a lecturer in history at the National University of Ireland, Galway and the President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland.

She recently worked on the documentary 74 Days: The Hunger Strike of Terence MacSwiney. Cork and its history still has a major place in her work — and Old Ireland in Colour is no different.

“The national Folklore Collection is a big part of the book which is the West of Ireland and because of how the project ran, it’s quite prominent,” she says.

“So, it’s very much driven from the collection and it was difficult to choose 173 and we did come from a figure of about 250 down, but the book is 300 pages so we felt that was a lot, even at that point. But I think we have a good spread really and we try to have a geographical spread as well.

“Cork is represented fairly well”

Photographs from Dr Buckley’s homeplace feature in the book, including an image of a family who survived the sinking of the Lusitania, a visit from the Red Sox manager to his birthplace in Cobh and a photo called ‘Sliding on the Lee.’

Dr Buckley and Professor Breslin worked on the book over Ireland’s lockdown in March and have never actually met in person, having began the process earlier this year.

Despite working remotely, Old Ireland In Colour has been a huge hit and they are both delighted with the response it has received so far.

“People seem to really like it. We knew people really liked and still love John’s Old Ireland in Colour project and John managed that so well and he has this huge following, but people seem very happy to get it as a present and its bringing a little bit of joy which is great,” Dr Buckley says.

“It’s fairly dark times at the moment and people seem to be getting a bit of joy from it which is great to see.”

Old Ireland in Colour is available now.

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