Exchanging Images: Irish-American Photographic Albums in the Early Twentieth Century

 Orla Fitzpatrick

 These two images appear in an Irish-American snapshot album compiled in the years following the Easter Rising of 1916. Although depicting America, the album’s content and narrative echoes the political upheaval and changes that were taking place in Ireland. Its ninety-two photographs replicate a journey across seven American states (Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia). Sites associated with the formation of the American nation and gatherings organised by Irish-American groups are displayed alongside portraits of friends and family. In addition, it includes a photograph of Seán Nunan: one of the key players in Éamon de Valera’s trip to the United States which took place between June 1919 and December 1920. de Valera was a surviving leader of the Easter Rising who had been elected President or Príomh Aire of the Irish Republic. Nunan was his personal secretary during this trip and was by his side at the mass meetings and rallies where de Valera addressed the Irish-American community.

 The image above appears towards the end of the album and it shows an unnamed young girl wearing a cream or white Irish linen or poplin dress and a cloak embroidered with Celtic symbols. The outfit is completed with a metallic headdress/crown. In another photograph, her younger brother wears a variation of the brat (mantle) and léine (kilt) made from an Irish homespun.[1] O’Kelly notes that ‘in the re-imagining of Irishness that flourished up to 1916, Celtic Rival dress played a visible and significant role in embodying idealistic hopes of a lost identity.’ The adoption of such clothing was, however, a minority interest even in Ireland although recent scholarship reveals it was more prevalent than previously estimated. As other images in the album demonstrate, Irish-Americans generally adopted the latest fashions and trends, for example, one is struck by the preponderance of straw boaters in the crowd scenes at the Irish games. A phenomenon which is matched in the Pathé news footage of De Valera’s mass meeting in Boston in 1919.[2] The adoption of neo-Celtic dress coupled with references to Irish-American groups points to a family who were deeply committed to Irish cultural nationalism. According to Ward ‘for the women who wore Celtic revival dress abroad, it was dress as a political statement and propaganda for the Irish cause.’[3]

The wearing of a neo-Celtic outfit by this young girl presents a strong signal that the family self-identify as Irish and that they move in a social circle which fully recognises the cultural significance of this mode of dress. In all likelihood the child was American-born and her parents may also have been naturalized citizens, however, their inclusion in this album betrays other allegiances and an adherence to a cultural code outside that of mainstream America. This binary existence was often part of the immigrant experience. Pasternak, in reference to the role played by family photography within Israel states that:

The institution of the family must not be perceived as an indication of unconditional and unreserved subordination to state ideology or sovereignty, nor that family photographs may serve only the nation state’s ideological stance.

 The United States had just participated in the First World War and that between April 1917 and the end of war in November 1918, they were allies and fought alongside England. Therefore those critical of English policy in Ireland were often considered pro-German and subject to scrutiny and possible prosecution. During this period, the American President, Woodrow Wilson, condemned hyphenism that refers to the hyphenated national identity of immigrants and their descendants such as Irish-Americans. 

The second photograph, appears three-quarters into the album is captioned as follows: ‘St Francis Band, MacSwiney Protest Parade Sept. 1920.’ It shows a marching band on a cobbled street with a row of houses and storefronts in the background. In the foreground, an African-American youth cycles by. The protest relates to the plight of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who was on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, London, having been arrested for sedition. His cause generated much worldwide publicity and several large-scale protests were held in American cities. A strike by longshoremen, in sympathy with MacSwiney, caused widespread disruption at the Chelsea Pier in Manhattan and also spread to Brooklyn, New Jersey and Boston. It has not been possible to identify with any certainty the location of the protest pictured here although it appears to be a smaller concern than those recorded in the larger cities. When MacSwiney died in October after 74 days of fasting his laying in state in London and funeral in Cork were mass spectacles. The inclusion of this image again highlights that the album’s creator was acutely aware of the political situation both at ‘home’ in Ireland and in the United States.


 D. Hannigan, Terence MacSwiney: the hunger strike that rocked an empire, Dublin: O’Brien, 2010.

 H. O’Kelly, ‘Dressing rebellion: national revival dress and 1916,’ in Godson, Lisa and Joanna Brück (eds.) Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the Easter Rising, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015.

G. Pasternak, ‘ “The Brownies in Palestina”: Politicizing Geographies in Family Photographs’, Photography and Culture, 6:1, March 2013.

 P. Reynolds, Modernism, Drama, and the Audience for Irish Spectacle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

 A. Ward, ‘Dress and National Identity: Woman’s Clothing and the Celtic Revival’, Costume, Volume 48, Issue 2, June 2014, pp. 193-212

[1] The re-introduction of the brat and léine combination is ascribed sources in Eugene O’Curry’s Handbook of Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873). There are some differences of opinion as to whether or not the léine in question was a long shirt or a kilt. Indeed, there were many variations on neo-Celtic attire during the period.

[2] British Pathé newsreel, ‘Éamon de Valera in Boston 1919’, Film ID: 196:26, accessed on 07/11/2015 at http://www.britishpathe.com/video/eamon-de-valera-in-boston

 [3] Ward, Alex, June 2014, p. 210.