The Ethnologist’s Eye

Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh was one of Ireland’s most prolific photographers of the early 20th century. He’s perhaps best remembered for capturing the everyday life of ordinary people living in Ireland’s rural districts.

Ó Muircheartaigh was born in Dublin in 1907. His father Tomás and his mother Bríd Ní Mathúna both worked as teachers in the city. Sadly, Ó Muircheartaigh’s father died while he was still young, leaving his mother, Bríd, to raise him and his six siblings on her own. To help support his family, Ó Muircheartaigh left full-time education after completing primary school and found employment with the Department of Education, where he continued to work for the rest of his life. It was during this time that he began learning Irish and met his mentor and friend Dónall Ó Corcora (Daniel Corkery), author of the influential text The Hidden Ireland (1924).

While Ó Muircheartaigh would remain a civil servant throughout his life, his true passion was the revival and preservation of the Irish language. In 1937, he published a pamphlet entitled You may revive the Gaelic language. He also undertook translations of popular works of literature such as Chun na Fairrge Síos (Riders to the Sea) by J. M. Synge (1945). It’s no wonder then that Ó Muircheartaigh became an avid member of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) and even served as the organisation’s president from 1955 to 1959. He chose to resign after his final term when his proposal to build an Irish-language theatre at a cost of £60,000 didn’t garner the public support he expected. It’s believed that the personal effort made by Ó Muircheartaigh to raise funds for the project contributed to the decline of his health in later years.

Although his theatre didn’t get off the ground, Ó Muircheartaigh succeeded in promoting the Irish language and culture through his photography and his work on the Irish-language journal Feasta, published by Conradh na Gaeilge. He was involved with this journal from its inception in 1947, and nearly every issue from 1948 to 1964, three years before his death in 1967, featured his photographs, alongside writing samples too.

Cover of Feasta from March 1964

Cover of ‘Feasta’ from March 1964 displaying sketches of key influencers in Irish culture and art at the time. A sketch of Ó Muircheartaigh appears on the right-hand border next to Seán Ó Tuama.)

In the 1950s and 60s Feasta regularly printed beautiful, full-page prints of Ó Muircheartaigh’s work on its covers. These photographs frame the day-to-day affairs of mostly rural Irish people in an almost mythical light. His portraits, especially, emphasise the link between these people and the landscape surrounding them. They also reflect the active folk customs and traditions of the day. Here below we see the popular Tossing of the Sheaf gracing a 1963 cover, whilst seven years later the sport was still encountered in Limerick in 1970 by folklore collector Caoimhín Ó Danachair.

Three hundred and twenty of Ó Muircheartaigh’s photographs have been published in the book An Muircheartach (1970), edited by Seosamh Ó Duibhginn. The book also includes a short biography written by Ó Duibhginn, who was a close friend of the artist. The book is a fascinating exploration of Ireland in the 1930s and highlights the beauty of the Gaeltacht regions and their inhabitants. Ó Muircheartaigh photographed everyone from groups of schoolchildren to elderly men and women with a level of care and artistry that is evident in the quality and striking composition of his images.

In October 2019, the National Folklore Collection at UCD will unveil an exhibition of previously unpublished Ó Muircheartaigh photographs that were gifted to its predecessor, the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971). A select few images are included here, but more than 300 negatives are currently being digitised. These images have also revealed that Ó Muircheartaigh didn’t work exclusively in Ireland. Over fifty photographs were taken in Austria in the year 1939 and document the local traditions and landscape there in much the same way as Ó Muircheartaigh approached his Irish subjects.

Ó Muircheartaigh also corresponded regularly with the Irish Folklore Commission during his lifetime. He submitted three folklore texts to the Commission between the years 1936 and 1945, which include English and Irish-language stories as well as notes about local herbs and Irish sayings in Kerry and Cork.

If you’d like to see more of Ó Muircheartaigh’s work, check out An Muircheartach. It’s a great introduction to his photography, and the short biography reinforces his influence as an artist and advocate for Irish culture in the early 20th century. Finally, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the National Folklore Collection’s upcoming Ó Muircheartaigh exhibition. Information will be available on the Collection’s website and social media platforms.

  • Thanks are due this week to Masden Stribling (MA, Folklore & Ethnology, 2019) for researching and writing this post, and to Brida Hu (MA, Folklore & Ethnology, 2019) who, alongside Masden, is working to digitize the Ó Muircheartaigh Collection.

 


References

An Muircheartach. Edited by Seosamh Ó Duibhginn. Clódhanna Teoranta, Dublin, 1970.

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