Photographs taken in the aftermath of the Easter Rising 1916 by Thomas Johnson Westropp, housed in the Library of Trinity College Dublin
A Relic of the Rising
In the weeks following the Rising the antiquarian and archaeologist Thomas Johnson Westropp took a sequence of 44 photographs of the affected buildings and streets of central Dublin. He shot most of these photographs between the 17th and 18th May 1916, with some additional ones taken in July of the same year. He developed, printed and mounted the photographs into four separate, although similar, albums and three of these were gifted to the following prominent archival institutions: Trinity College Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy and the National Library of Ireland. A fourth set of photographs is held by the Irish Architectural Archive. This exhibition examines the 44 images included in Trinity’s album, the most extensive of the four albums (TCD MS 5870).
The photographer – Thomas Johnson Westropp
Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922) was a Limerick-born scholar and graduate of Trinity College Dublin (BA 1882, MA 1885). He was an antiquarian and a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland; he published widely and spent his life researching and recording the archaeological sites of Ireland. Westropp is especially notable for pioneering the use of photography as a method of recording ancient buildings that were in danger of being lost. In the weeks following the Easter Rising, he found himself surveying ruins of a more recent date.
Photographs begin to appear in Westropp’s published papers from the 1890s onwards. In his framing of photographs he mimics the style of traditional graphic illustration, in which he was especially skilled. The Library of Trinity College Dublin holds other Westropp photographic albums, such as 'The Ancient Buildings of Ireland' (TCD MS 5869), as well as research notes and accompanying drawings. As someone who spent his entire career recording buildings at risk of destruction, he approached his study of the ruins of the Rising as a species of field work. The journalistic impulse to convey reactions or emotions was peripheral to his main objective, which was to document the damage inflicted on Dublin's buildings, from as many angles as possible.
Westropp’s images also communicate the changing nature of the urban landscape in the period immediately following the Rising. The city had many precarious structures on the brink of collapse or demolition. This is conveyed in two before-and-after images taken on Middle Abbey Street: one is labelled ‘Corner house on point of falling’ and another reads ‘Immediately after fall of corner house’. The viewer also gets a sense that work to make the buildings safe was started immediately after hostilities ceased. One image of the Dublin Bread Company (DBC) Luncheon Rooms taken on the 17th May shows the ruin boarded up on the ground floor, whilst another taken on the 24th July shows its upper floors already removed, with workers and scaffolding just visible behind. Westropp notes ‘The remainder of the front was taken down next day’.
Many of the early shots in the album were taken from the summit of Nelson’s Pillar in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’ Connell Street), roughly where the Dublin Spire now stands. This perspective gives a bird’s-eye view down onto the debris, particularly into the shell of the General Post Office. Nelson's Pillar was a focal point of the city and a famous public attraction, until it too was destroyed (by the IRA in 1966). For sixpence visitors could ascend the 168 spiral steps built into its interior – not an easy climb for a middle-aged man carrying his own heavy camera equipment. That Westropp made the effort is a sign of his determination to make good use of the Pillar as a uniquely dramatic vantage point.
This film footage records many of the same scenes as Westropp's photographic survey. It is tempting to think that Westropp himself could be amongst the crowds
Text and curation: Estelle Gittins, Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, The Library of Trinity College Dublin
Images: Gillian Whelan, Digital Collections, The Library of Trinity College Dublin
Technical Support: Greg Sheaf, Web Librarian, The Library of Trinity College Dublin
With thanks to The Board of Trinity College, the University of Dublin, British Pathe and Clare County Library
For further information see www.tcd.ie/Library/1916/ and Mairead Ashe FitzGerald 'Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922) An Irish Antiquary' (Dublin) 2000