Frank Stephens - A Life in Photographs

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Images of early twentieth-century Ireland from the lantern slide collection of Frank Stephens housed in the Library of Trinity College Dublin


Francis Edmund (Frank) Stephens was born in Rathgar, Dublin in November 1884, eldest son of solicitor Henry (Harry) Francis Colcough Stephens and his wife Annie Isabella, née Synge, sister of the playwright John Millington Synge. The Synge family connection was a powerful and formative influence on Frank Stephens. The two families lived in adjoining houses in south Dublin from the time of the Stephens’s marriage in 1884 until shortly before J M Synge’s death in 1909.

When Synge first visited the Aran Islands in 1898 he acquired a camera to document his experience.The plates from this first visit were developed by his nephew in Castle Kevin, Co Wicklow, which marks Frank, aged 13, as a proficient in the chemistry of photography. Frank, in turn, paid homage to the islands in the 1920s and 1930s in his own series of beautifully realised images.

Frank graduated as a B.A. from Trinity College Dublin in 1908 and qualified as a solicitor, but he soon relinquished his practice. He trained as a teacher and worked in education for the rest of his career. He was a lecturer in Irish and history in the Church of Ireland Training College, Kildare St, Dublin from 1930 until his death, aged 63, in 1948. He also lectured on local history, antiquities and European history for the County Dublin Libraries Committee and various local history societies, deploying his 2000+ lantern slide collection to illustrate his talks.

Frank Stephens cast a non-partisan eye on life in Ireland at a time of seismic political and cultural change. His images capture traditional aspects of life and landscape in Ireland that were rapidly disappearing. But it is not a purely sentimental or nostalgic view. Frank deployed his hand-held box camera to record antiquities, architecture and street scenes and, perhaps most effectively, the often strenuous reality of life on the Aran Islands and the west of Ireland

The Slides

This intimate family scene, photographed by Frank Stephens, of his wife Maude (1882-1936) and their infant daughter Una (1913-1966) at bath-time, captures the minutiae of everyday life.

Frank Stephens panning for gold in a Wicklow river. In 1795 gold was discovered in the Ballinvalley (since called the Gold Mines River), a tributary of the river Aughrim, Co Wicklow. This find triggered a gold rush which yielded approximately 80kg of gold over a six-week period, including a 628g nugget.

Cáit Ní Fháthartha (Ceata Bheag) weaving a traditional colourful Aran Island crios or belt. The warp thread was stretched between one hand and one foot, tying the end to the shoe allowing the weaver to work in any location. The choice of colours in a crios could be attributed to an individual weaver and the recipes for the dyes passed from one generation to the next. Both Ceata and her husband Ruairí, are wearing pampooties, the soft calf-skin moccasins traditionally worn by fishermen to avoid puncturing the light-weight canvas boats (currachs). These islanders were identified by their granddaughter Teresa Ní Fháthartha of Inis Meáin in 2016.

This elderly woman from Lough Dan, Co Wicklow is posed behind her great wheel which was used to produce woollen thread from prepared sheep fleece. The half door visible behind her allowed light into the interior of the cottage while keeping the hens in the yard.

This figure, made by an Aran Island man, from horsehair and felted wool, represents King Finvarra, the high king of the fairies in Irish folklore. He was seen as a largely benevolent figure who ensured good harvests and riches to those who assisted him.

‘Hunting the wren’ is an ancient tradition celebrated in Ireland on 26 December, St Stephen’s Day. The wren has been revered as the king of the birds since druidic times.
Frank Stephens photographed these Wren Boys in Naas, co Kildare in the mid-1930s.

One of these Wren Boys holds a furze (gorse) bough and the other an accordion, 1930s.

Clay pipes, or dúidíns, played an important role in Irish funerary traditions. Pipes filled with a twist of tobacco were smoked by both male and female mourners, then broken while saying ‘Lord have mercy’. This custom was often repeated at the graveside and the broken pipes laid on the grave.

This is one of the pilgrim sites associated with the fifth-century St Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford. Tradition claims that the saint's bell had been left behind in Wales but the sacred object was miraculously conveyed back to Ardmore floating on this rock. On the saint’s feast day, 24 July, pilgrims seek a cure for arthritis by creeping under the stone.

Coracle building
Michael O’ Brien (b. 1853) was the last of generations of coracle builders based at Oldbridge, Co Meath, a townland at the furthest tidal reach on the River Boyne near Drogheda. O’ Brien built a specimen coracle, traditionally used for salmon fishing, at the behest of Dr Adolf Mahr, keeper of antiquities at the National Museum, and his work was photographed, filmed and recorded by Frank Stephens.

Michael O’ Brien measures out the stakes for the shape of the craft.

Weaving willow stems through the upright hazel wands to create the wickerwork frame of the coracle.

Michael O’ Brien standing beside steep-sided oval coracle frames prior to covering them with tarred cowhide. Coracle fishing was performed in pairs, with one fisherman in each boat.

Marking the placement of the wooden seat for the fisherman. The flat-bottomed, lightweight design made it an ideal craft for rivers even in very shallow waters.

The finished coracle measured 5’8” in length and 4’2” at the widest part (172.7x127cm). Each boatman rowed single-handedly with the short broad-bladed larch paddle while the other hand was free to handle the salmon net. The fishing net was stretched between two coracles and drawn downstream before finally the two boats were brought back together to secure the salmon.

The traditional Irish cloak, also known as the Kinsale or West Cork cloak, has been worn in Ireland for hundreds of years. This serviceable garment was large enough to envelope the whole person, protecting the wearer from all weather. By the twentieth century West Cork alone upheld the tradition of the Irish cloak with local towns in the area – Macroom, Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry – producing their own ornamental variations.

Cáit Ní Fhátharta (Ceata Bheag) wearing a cloak (possibly a re-purposed petticoat) trimmed with a woven crios (belt) around the head. The impact of colour is of course absent in these lantern slides. J M Synge describes the islanders’ clothes in his book The Aran Islands (1907): ’The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted round their chests and tied at their back.'

This young woman is sitting on an upturned creel traditionally used for carrying turf which had to be transported from the mainland across the shallow waters of Galway Bay on sailboats known as hookers. The cargo of fuel had to be loaded and offloaded by hand. Island cattle, lowered by ropes into the empty hold, and also limestone to neutralise the acid soils of Connemara and Mayo, filled the boats for the return journey.

This elderly woman is posed beside the stump of the West Cross at Temple Brecan, at the monastic site of Na Seacht Tempaill (Seven Churches), Inis Mór, Aran Islands.

Seán Mac Donnchadha (MacDonagh), Inis Meáin, Aran Islands (identified by his granddaughter Teresa Ní Fhátharta) wearing the traditional homespun waistcoat and báinin (white woollen) collarless jacket over a white shirt. Almost all clothing was made from wool spun, woven and dyed on the islands. The Mac Donnchadha family were hosts to the playwright J M Synge from the time of his first visit to the island in 1898 and their cottage, Teach Synge, is now a museum dedicated to their famous visitor.

Frank Stephens cast an unsentimental eye on typical street scenes in his native city. This young fruit seller had her stall on the capital’s main thoroughfare, O’ Connell St, close to the landmark shop Noblett’s Confectioners.

The village placename, Sallynoggin, the location of this premises, derives from the ‘sallynoggins’, old timber-framed houses which were still standing in the nineteenth century. This area was extensively developed with local authority housing in the late 1940s-50s becoming part of the Dublin suburbs.

Up until the early 1900s street traders plied their wares on the cobbled streets in the vicinity of St Patrick’s Cathedral. John Millington Synge took a very similar photograph of this market so either this image is one of his (possibly developed by his nephew Frank Stephens) or both men photographed the Fish Market around the same time.

The Great Balbriggan Bake-off! Starched aprons and iced cakes captured in all their glory. Any information on this image would be welcomed: email

Livestock had to be transported to and from the Aran islands using boats. These currachs were light-weight boats made from canvas stretched over a skeleton of wooden lathes, and then covered in tar. Large animals such as cattle or horses, being brought to market or moved for summer grazing on the mainland, had to be hoisted on board a hooker (a larger sailing boat) using rope slings to lower them from the edge of the pier. If the tide was too low the animals were tethered to the back of a currach and towed, swimming, out to the hooker.

Aran islanders had to combine a number of occupations to eke out a living on the western islands: fishing, farming, kelp-making (extracting iodine from seaweed), tourism, knitting sweaters and making fishing nets. Census returns for the Aran islands plot a steady population decline from 3521 residents in 1841 to 1251 in 2011 as people left in pursuit of better prospects in Britain or America.

The traditional method of creating soil on the bare limestone landscape of the three Aran Islands was to layer seaweed and sand on the rock surface and then finish with a layer of topsoil. Small areas were reclaimed at a time, first clearing the loose stones which were then used to build walls. The result is a mosaic of tiny fields and several hundred miles of stone walls protecting the hard-won soil from wind erosion. This young woman is presumably bringing hay to feed cattle and the tin can may have been used for milking. Cattle were not housed over winter but moved from field to field.

A clachán, or village of up to fifteen houses, was typical of Aran Island settlement. In the post-Famine period many of the clacháns shrank to just two occupied houses. House sizes varied from one to three rooms, with thick stone walls which were whitewashed annually. The roof was thatched with rye straw secured by ropes and pegs. This row of cottages was deemed substantial enough to be known locally as 'Baile Átha Cliath' (the Irish for the capital city Dublin).

Students attending an Irish language summer school in Tully, Co Galway, a small village in the Irish-speaking region of north-west Connemara, photographed preparing for an exam. Frank Stephens was a life-long advocate and teacher of the Irish language.

This rudimentary interior encompasses the bare necessities of life – a sleeping alcove, a long bench-seat and four-legged stool, and an iron cooking pot hanging from a crane which could be suspended over the open fire. Smoke escaped through a hole in the roof which accounts for the dim interior.

Preserved cod and ling were vital provisions for the winter months. In Spring the fish catch was abundant and the surplus was washed in fresh water, salted and then left on walls or on thatched roofs to dry. The fish had to be brought indoors each night, or when it rained, to achieve the complete dryness required for successful storage.

Felicity O'Mahony and Gillian Whelan
Credits: Story

The Frank Stephens archive (TCD MS 10842) was generously donated to the Library by Margaret and Lanto Synge. The Library would also like to acknowledge Anne Louise Moore and Gerry Cantan for copyright permission to reproduce their grandfather's photographs.

We are indebted to Teresa Ní Fháthartha of Inis Meáin, Aran islands for her identification of people and places on the islands.

Clodagh Neligan (TCD Preservation and Conservation Department) has cleaned and conserved this collection of glass plate slides.

This exhibition was co-curated by Felicity O' Mahony (M&ARL) and Gillian Whelan (DRIS) with Estelle Gittins (M&ARL) and technical support provided by Greg Sheaf.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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