Show, don’t just tell

Moments in Motion from the National Folklore Collection’s Photographic Archive

Traditional customs and practices, particularly those no longer forming part of our daily lived experience, can often be difficult to envisage. We can read intricate written descriptions, or listen to vivid audio recollections, but sometimes all you really need is a photograph to bring the matter springing to life before you.

In this way, it becomes immediately apparent what differentiates a turf creel from a crab creel. A strawboy from a wren boy. Or perhaps a Donegal currach from its Kerry cousin. The potent power of the visual image, and its effect on the human mind and imagination, has long been in evidence.

The Irish Folklore Commission, predecessor to the National Folklore Collection, UCD, was not blind to the potential of modern photography, and saw the discipline as presenting another valuable and supplementary strand to its folklore collection work, embarked upon from 1935 onwards.

Folklore collectors, in receiving their early instructions, were encouraged to complement their manuscript and audio materials with additional resources such as photographs where possible.

‘Don’t simply describe a process or a custom; illustrate it if you can. Show, don’t just tell.’

Indeed, a number of Commission collectors became known for the artistry of their photographic skill, notably Dr. Kevin Danaher, whose photographs are beautiful tableaus of Irish rural life; capturing living moments of tradition and custom; of material culture and human experience. Placement and position, light and shadow, perspective and focus have all been expertly handled in his work. Maurice Curtin, in a similar vein, captures the bustling vitality of urban life in 20th century Ireland. So well-timed are certain shots, that you feel as if you’ve simply walked into the frame of a moment in motion.

Now forming a fundamental part of the National Folklore Collection’s holdings, these treasured images number more than 80,000 in total. The images themselves are preserved in a variety of film formats: positives and negatives (including some 6,000 nitrate negatives), both black & white and colour, ranging from 35mm to larger format film. The collection also contains a significant number of early glass plates and lantern slides alongside a large number of photographic prints, drawings and art works that have been photographed.

Together they capture over a century’s worth of Irish life, urban and rural, indexed across the following 14 headings as per The Handbook of Irish Folklore:

1) Settlement and Dwelling, 2) Livelihood and Household Support, 3) Communications and Trade, 4) The Community, 5) Human Life, 6) Nature, 7) Folk-Medicine, 8) Time,
9) Principles and Rules of Popular Belief and Practice, 10) Mythological Tradition,
11) Historical Tradition, 12) Religious Tradition, 13) Popular Oral Literature, 14) Sports and Pastimes.

Such treasures are too good to hide away. Too impactful not to share. And so… Drum roll please…

And so, next week, Tuesday 26 September 2017, will see the official launch of the National Folklore Collection’s Photographic archive on its digital platform,, a collaboration with our wonderful partners Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, DCU. The first batch of 10,000 digitised images will become freely accessible for the first time, marking the next stage in the on-going digitization of the Folklore Collection’s holdings. To date the popular Schools’ Folklore Collection 1937-39 has been made available for public consultation. More images will follow in due course.

Users will be able to search by a range of criteria:
Name, county, parish, topic, photographer, and keyword

We invite you then to visit dú next Wednesday to explore the photographic collection and to immerse yourself in the riches it contains. To give new life to these images; to call to mind these faces, places and traditions once again, is a mission the National Folklore Collection and its partners warmly embrace each day. Modernity meets tradition in the best possible way.

Hearth and chimney

Hearth of Micheal Morris, Carnanrancy, Glenhull, Co. Tyrone

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.

3 thoughts on “Show, don’t just tell

  1. Maura Norton says:

    Love the photos by Maurice Curtin
    Special interest in one in my locality – Kilsallaghan- Co. Dublin photo ref.A041.06.00001 ref 46944. This photo shows two young boys using the local pump . Trying to ascertain date and if possible names of the boys. Is there any way I can get this information from your records

Leave a Reply