Ireland in the 1950s – Through the Lens of Robert Cresswell

This post complements last week’s overview of the work of Dorothea Lange, who spent several weeks in County Clare in 1954, documenting the rural way of life she observed there in over 2,400 monochrome photographs. That’s a monumental collection which can only be fully accessed by visiting the Oakland Museum of California. We are fortunate to have a book of some of her Irish work – Dorothea Lange’s Ireland – published by Eliott & Clark, Washington, 1996 and a current exhibition which includes some of her images at Dublin’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks. That same exhibition features the work of two further documentary photographers, one of whom is our subject today: Robert Cresswell (below):

The Paris-based American anthropologist Robert Cresswell (1922-2016) remained on in France after WWII, having served in the US army there for four years. Following the completion of his studies in anthropology in Paris, he arrived in Ireland in 1955 with the ambition of carrying out an anthropological analysis of an Irish rural community. Taking the advice of the Irish Folklore Commission he chose Kinvara, County Galway. The small rural town of Kinvara and its agricultural hinterland would become the base for his study, published in 1969 as ‘Une Communauté Rurale de l’Irlande’ . . .

Header – Kinvara on Fair Day, 1955 by Robert Cresswell. Above – Kinvara, Co Galway, streetscape; compare these to Dorothea Lange’s views of Ennis and Tulla, Co Clare (in last week’s post), taken in the same period

While the photographic essays by Dorothea Lange and Robert Cresswell bear close comparison – and how hugely interesting it is for us to see Irish rural life through those lenses nearly 70 years ago – it’s fascinating to consider that both came from very different backgrounds and disciplines, but were equally absorbed by the iconic images each of them was capturing – giving us a visual ‘time capsule’ of Ireland as it was apparent a few generations ago.

Above – examples from the Dublin exhibition showing the work of Cresswell taken from his colour slides

Robert Cresswell was a pioneer in some respects, in that he used Kodachrome film to produce colour slides, in the days when monochrome documentary photography was the norm. Some professional photographers could not cope with the idea of using colour, partly because they considered the images were not realistic. Ansell Adams felt that ‘. . . color could be distracting, and could therefore divert the artist’s attention away from creating a photograph to its full potential . . .’ while Henri Cartier-Bresson famously uttered his opinion that ‘. . . color is bullshit . . .’ – which was all he ever said about it, allegedly! My own (humble) opinion is that there is something about monochrome photographs which seems to draw the eye and enhance the atmosphere, particularly with historic images. I can’t explain this – there is no logic: it’s just a personal response which I am always aware of.

Above – monochrome Kinvara: the Forge, and Corpus Christie procession

Robert Cresswell lived in the Kinvara community for fifteen months between 1955 and 1956, returning for short periods in 1957 and 1958. The quotations in this post are from the exhibition text panels:

Capturing more than five hundred images . . . Cresswell photographed the people of Kinvara, their countryside, their work on sea, shore and land, the daily lives, religious processions, and fairs and markets. Documenting the changes that were occurring in the shift from a traditional farming community to a wider market-led economy, he was motivated to emphasise a community in transition over one operating in the continuity or stagnation of tradition. His photographs generally portray a well-functioning society, but his interpretation of emigration as the ultimate destructive agent in community and country profoundly influenced his understanding of rural life in a small community in 1950s Ireland . . . The population of the parish of Kinvara sustained a net loss of 80% between 1841 and 1956 . . .

Above: a community in transition – contrasting pictures of family life in Kinvara recorded by Cresswell in the mid 1950s

Tempting though it is to show you much more of Cresswell’s work here, I really want you to go and see for yourselves. The exhibition at Collins Barracks, Dublin continues until April this year, and is well worth making the effort to visit. Robert Cresswell lived a long life; in 2010, then aged 88, he donated his entire collection of documentary photographs and cine film of Kinvara to the Irish nation. He waived his own copyright to this unique work in favour of all persons who wish to use any of it for educational or heritage purposes (but not for commercial gain without prior permission). Copyright now rests with Kinvara Community Council, who have published an excellent website here. I have used a small number of images from the collection to supplement those we found at the exhibition, in order to give you a fair cross-section of the entirety of Cresswell’s opus.

In a mirror of present-day events in Ireland, here’s a shot by Cresswell of the Sinn Fein candidate Murchadh Mac Ualtair canvassing in Kinvara for the 1957 General Election with Peggy Linnane. In that election Fianna Fáil, under Éamon de Valera, took 78 seats with 48.3% of first preference votes, and Sinn Féin took 4 seats with 5.3% of first preference votes. In our 2020 election, just passed, Sinn Féin, under Mary-Lou McDonald, took 37 seats with 24.5% of first preference votes in a thoroughly divided result, leaving us all in a bit of a dilemma! But I digress . . .

Another of Cresswell’s colour images, showing the killing of the pig – a family affair

There is one more photographer in this exhibition, who I will feature in a future post – watch this space! One last image from Robert Cresswell, possibly another view of the Corpus Christie parade:

Time Warp

Stained Glass Wall in All Saints Church, Drimoleague

Stained Glass Wall in All Saints Church, Drimoleague

It was the early 1960s and I was sitting in class in my convent school while Mother Francisca explained the purpose of our education and gave us a glimpse of our futures. “What we want for you, girls,” she said, “is to be Good Wives or Nuns.” This week, I landed back in that classroom with a bang. Did I visit my old school? No – I strayed into a time warp. In doing so I rediscovered part of my heritage I had almost forgotten and I met a brilliant young scholar who helped me access those dim memories again.

All Saints, Drimoleague - 1950s modernist architecture

All Saints, Drimoleague – 1950s modernist architecture

All Saints Catholic Church in Drimoleague is one of the most extraordinary buildings in West Cork. First of all, it’s a fine example of mid-century modern architecture (and there aren’t a lot of those in West Cork) and an engineering triumph. Built in the 1950s of concrete and limestone, its cavernous interior has no need for pillars: nothing intrudes between worshippers and altar. It’s like stepping into an enormous, curiously bright, almost empty box. Secondly, it has extraordinary artwork in the form of a giant mural behind the altar and a panel of stained glass windows above the balcony on the south wall. It was the stained glass that stopped me in my tracks.

All Saints, the interior

All Saints, the interior

The glass is laid out in a series of frames that takes the viewer from birth to death – no, beyond death, to heaven. The church was built in the 1950s and each frame represents the values of rural Catholic Ireland of that time. In a strange way it reminded me of a High Cross, in that the illustrations that we see on High Crosses were meant to tell a story – a biblical one in that case – and to instruct the viewer in the tenets of the religion. The purpose of this wall of glass was also educational – to provide a primer to mass-goers on the aspirations and actions that should guide their lives.

The Stained Glass panel, image © Richard James Butler

The Stained Glass panel, image © Richard James Butler

My parents, imbued with the message that the family that prays together stays together, developed an intermittent enthusiasm for saying the rosary. We would gather in the kitchen after dinner, each with our beads, and kneeling on the hard tiles we would tell off the Sorrowful or the Glorious Mysteries. The second frame shows just such a family, and I particularly love the toys on the floor and the statue of Mary on the mantlepiece. There’s a grandmother and a baby in a cot, and a little girl being inducted into the Mysteries by her older sister.

The next frame shows First Communion, with the girls in miniature bride outfits (as they are to this day) and the boys in their Communion suits with the short trousers and knee socks that all boys wore at that time. Since my godson in Dublin is about to make his First Communion I have been hearing about the process and I understand that apart from the length of the boy’s trousers not a lot has changed in 60 years.

First Communion

First Communion

The one that brought me back to Mother Francisca shows earnest young men and women gazing at a directional sign which shows them their choices – marriage or the religious life. That was it! To hammer home the point the top of the panel shows a wedding, a priest and a nun. I’m casting my mind over the group of girls I went to school with – we didn’t produce any nuns and while most of us married I can’t think of a single one who hasn’t worked – we count among us an ambassador, teachers and principals, a town planner, an artist, a college dean, office administrators, a medical doctor, an international expert on child protection, a veterinary nurse, a parliamentary reporter, a lawyer…the list goes on. But none of this was discussed at school: we had no career guidance, no aptitude tests, no encouragement of any kind to think of ourselves as people who would work for a living. What’s curious is that we developed those careers in the complete absence of any kind of conscious preparation for them at the secondary school level.

Choices

Choices

Choices made

Choices made

The sixth frame might be my favourite. It’s the ‘work, rest and play’ lesson. At the bottom of the frame a happy family sits around the tea table. Above them men work on the fields and on top those men are playing Gaelic football while their wives sit on a bench on the sidelines and chat to each other. Men were to head the family, work and play hard, and women were to provide the supportive role. I doubt if anyone foresaw when that glass was designed in the 1950s that in the next century (only a few days ago in fact) two Irish rugby squads – the men AND the women – would bring home the Six Nations Cup for Ireland.

The last three frames deal with end of life, including Last Rights, death, and reception into heaven – the reward for living the exemplary life presented in the stained glass wall.

Last Rites

Last Rites

If you grew up like I did in 1950s Ireland, or if you are interested in the art and architecture or the social history of this period, the Church of All Saints in Drimoleague tells a fascinating story. There is little available online about this church – I couldn’t even find out who designed the windows. But my research revealed that one other person was as struck as I was by this church, although in a more scholarly way. Richard James Butler is a gifted young art historian from Bantry who is completing doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge. We were lucky to hear him speak at the Bantry Historical Society recently on the subject of the courthouses of West Cork – a topic we had no idea could be as interesting until we heard his erudite and engaging presentation. He has written a paper, All Saints, Drimoleague, and Catholic visual culture under Bishop Cornelius Lucey in Cork, 1952-9, which will be published in the next issue of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve had a sneak peak, thanks to Richard’s generosity in sharing his findings with a fellow enthusiast. His paper deals with the Catholic ethos within which that era of church construction operated, with the role of the local community in commissioning such an unusual edifice, with the enormous mural, and with the windows. It was only after communicating with Richard that I learned that the windows were the work of the Harry Clarke Studios* and how unusual they were for their day in not being concerned solely with images of saints, the life of Christ, or Mary. If you get a chance to read his paper when it’s published, do so – it may make you take a fresh look at the legacies of 1950s Ireland by which we are still surrounded.

Devotion in 1950s West Cork

Devotion in 1950s West Cork

* For a discussion of the difference between Harry Clarke windows and Harry Clarke Studio windows, see this post.