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Murder, grave digging and exploitation: These six images changed Ireland

The impact photography had on Ireland’s social, political and cultural past is examined in a new series.

IMPORTANT PHOTOGRAPHS IN Ireland’s history have saved people from being sentenced to death and brought international attention to the struggles of Irish families.

A TG4 series is examining the birth of photography in Ireland by looking at the stories behind six iconic images which played an important role in Ireland’s social, political and cultural past.

From encouraging tourism in the Aran islands to photographs which tell darker tales of grave digging, each image opens up a unique story about Ireland’s past.


The first photo the series looks at was taken by amateur photographer Jane Shackleton in 1895.

Bridget Mullen by Jane Shackleton

The image of Bríd Mullen, simply dressed and standing by a spinning wheel while heavily pregnant documented ordinary working people in domestic settings for the first time in the history of Irish photography.

Jane Shackleton was a well-to-do woman with influence and the development of photography allowed her to capture the remote Aran Islands in the late 1800s.

Her photographs led to over 100 members of the Antiquarian Society visiting the island.


The second programme in the series tells the story of a photograph which led to the collapse of a murder case.

This is Derry photographer James Glass’s photograph of Donegal native William Coll.

William Coll

Coll, along with 24 other men and women escaped the death penalty while on trial for the murder of Land Inspector William Martin, thanks to a photo of a humble thatched cottage taken by Glass.

The case collapsed as the photograph powerfully illustrated to the jury the grim living conditions of the average Donegal tenant.

The 1889 trial was one of the first in the country to use photographic evidence.

Impoverished tenants

The O’Halloran sisters are seen gazing defiantly at the camera in this 1887 photograph.

The O'Halloran Sisters - Prog 6 - Evictions - Finne ar Uafas

In a desperate bid to keep their home, the girls tipped buckets of slop from upstairs windows and threw sods of burning turf at the officials employed to evict them.

Hundreds of tenants gathered to watch.

The image brought their story and the plight of desperately impoverished tenants in Ireland to international notice.


The fourth programme in Tríd an Lionsa raises unsettling questions about colonial expectations and exploitation.

Gap Girls features seven images of barefoot young girls in Kerry’s Gap of Dunloe in the late 19th century.

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Gap Girls

The series explores why the photographer focused on these young girls who sold poteen and goat’s milk to tourists, and why they were photographed barefoot and backed by a bare rock face.


The photograph  ’Anthropometry in Inishbofin’  looks at the Victorian fascination with the science of Anthropometry and reveals a time of racism, deceit and grave-robbing.


The story behind the photograph taken in Inishbofin tells how at least 10 skulls were stolen from grounds in the Aran Islands by Dublin and Cambridge scientists.

Cambridge scientist Alfred Cort Haddon and Dublin scientist Charles Browne were studying the origins of the Irish race when they visited the Aran Islands in the belief the islanders presented a purer, more primitive model of Irish physicality.

Measuring aspects of the human body, in particular head size, Haddon stole at least 10 skulls from the grounds of a ruined church, and stowed them on a boat back to the mainland.

Extreme poverty

The final episode in the series shows grim scenes of unfurnished hovels used by the  Mansion House Committee to seek funding for relief of distress.

Prog 3  - Cruachas i gConamara - Mansion House Committee - Interior of Cabin in Carraroe

The programme questions if the photograph used in 1898 was staged, as it may not have been possible to take the image without the aid of a flash.

The first episode of Tríd an Líonsa is on TG4 at 8pm tonight, Sunday October 25.

Read: These stunning scenes of Ireland’s coastline might well make you gasp>

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