The Glass Album

Declan Sheehan

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In any case history isn't a spiral it's a fractal duh[1]

I found this phrase on my Twitter feed recently, and I’ve been relating it to The Glass Album, an archive of photographs of Gweedore in West Donegal taken in the late nineteenth-century. I’ve been trying to unpack that distinction of spiral/fractal and to use it as a kind of prism through which I can engage with research into The Glass Album that I’ve been leading, at NCAD and through partnerships with galleries and institutions. My approach to date for The Glass Album project has been primarily curatorial, curating projects which have featured The Glass Album and associated archives and commissioning responses by artists - but it has also to some degree has been a de facto history research project.


The Glass Album in the collection of the National Museums of Northern Ireland (NMNI) is, as outlined in the description on their website, a Red cloth album of photographs of Gweedore, Co. Donegal, and environs by James Glass, photographer, Londonderry, relating to notorious Land War murder in 1889. A label inside reads Zaehnsdorf Self-binding Mounts Patent No 15936, tied with ribbon. This type of album was introduced to the market in 1888.

The provenance  - institutional and private  - of The Glass Album currently in the NMNI can be traced back from its place as an selected archive object in the collection there, to its prior place in the Derry City Council Heritage and Museum Services collection, where it arrived in 1992, donated by the family of its previous custodian Mabel Colhoun, who was a local historian of some renown who specialized in research into the North West and Inishowen. How it came into the possession of Mabel Colhoun is one of the many strands that seem unknown in any current research – although it was most likely through both her renown within the context of local history research and perhaps also through her roots within the local Presbyterian community in the North West that the Colhoun family shared with the family of the photographer James Glass.

In 1970, in an earlier act of curatorial and historical research into The Glass Album, the historian Estyn Evans made a request to Mabel Colhoun that she loaned him The Glass Album from her collection. This was part of his research towards his 1973 book, The Personality of Ireland, and three of the photographs from The Glass Album appear in that final text, with The Glass Album undoubtedly playing a role in the extended focus by Evans specifically into the history of the Gweedore area in what became a seminal modern text on Irish culture, history and landscape, The Personality of Ireland.

In The Personality of Ireland, written in the early 1970s remember, Evans writes provocatively of recurring elements of the nineteenth-century Irish history that manifested in the Gweedore area:

The techniques of resistance to authority and ‘reform’, the withholding of rents, the appeals for American support, the stone-throwing and other acts of violence, the war of words, the two views of Ireland and the differing interpretations of truth: all this transferred to an urban setting, is with us in Ulster today.

Three photographs from The Glass Album appear in The Personality of Ireland. They are mediated by Evans as being somehow indicative of what he describes as this apparently irresolvable clash of cultures. This was a divergence in ideologies: one being an ideology associated with the landlord class, of private land ownership by landlords and their superior status over tenants, and its attendant registers of economic order and hierarchies that should be enacted in business and social relations and which also should be visible within the structures of agricultural production and its appearance and trace left upon landscapes and rural settlements; the other being an ideology that was made visible in photographs from The Glass Album, of settlements in which, Evans writes:

The occupants were inter-related kin groups, held together by the ties of kinship and of mutual help.

This was an ideology made apparent through the specifically communal elements of agricultural settlements known as clachans, in an agricultural system known as rundale, featuring elements of land held in common and an equal distribution of land across its various agricultural worth.

This apparently irresolvable clash of cultures was for Evans visible in the material culture of Gweedore in this era seen in The Glass Album, with the non-identity of the rundale and landlord systems made visible through clothing, buildings and the appearance of individuals, families and groups seen in The Glass Album photographs.


Elsewhere, the NMNI describe The Glass Album as follows:

James Glass was a commercial photographer from Derry City. His album of photographs of Gweedore was commissioned to inform the defence in a landmark murder trial during the Irish Land Wars. Its graphic images of the bleak conditions endured by poor rural tenants was instrumental in swaying a potentially hostile jury to sympathy.

While the version of The Glass Album which is connected to Mabel Colhoun and Estyn Evans, Derry City Council and NMNI, carries no physical trace of a link to a tale of murder, trial, and justice there is another version of The Glass Album which the research project has worked with, which does so. The provenance of this second extant Glass Albumprovides in fact a more direct link. This second version of The Glass Album is currently in a private collection in Donegal, having previously been in the family collection of James E. O’Doherty, the solicitor who defended Father McFadden and many other tenant farmers in Gweedore who were put on trial for the killing of Detective Inspector Martin in 1889. An indication that this album was presented as evidence in court is visible on its closing page, with the handwritten phrase reading the trial date, and other details such as The Queen v John Gallagher. In this album there are only fourteen photographs, thirteen of the vicinity around the Derrybeg church in Gweedore where the killing of Detective Inspector Martin took place and one of an interior of the court used in the preliminary court hearings, crucial for a point regarding disputed testimony in a later court hearing; each page is identified by a letter, which we can presume matches details outlined within the court testimonies and legal statements. Within this album, there was also a folded map, also with tags identifying locations around Derrybeg Chapel where the murder was committed, where constables were posted etc.

This Glass Album has been held in a larger private collection of photographs which is also linked to James E. O’Doherty, the solicitor who defended Father McFadden and many other tenant farmers in Gweedore. This is a collection of cabinet cards of nationalist figures, alongside family portraits, including some studio portraits by James Glass made in his Derry studio.


To return to and further unpack that corrective at the start of this text, history isn't a spiral it's a fractal: perhaps behind this corrective a particular distinction can be outlined - that whereas a spiral engages with continuity, a fractal engages with difference and repetition.

How do the two Glass Albums discussed above vary and differ in their relation and engagement with elements of their contemporary photographic culture?

Could these variances and similarities between the two Glass Albums discussed above be indicative of how multiple functions and meanings are generated within a photographic collection?


The NMNI version of The Glass Album features thirty-eight photographs, with a clear thematic and technical distinction between two groups of photographs. One group of twenty-four photographs is made up of close studies of the people living in the Gweedore area, standing amidst their stone and thatched dwellings, at work in the fields, standing in family and communal groups in their Clachan style settlements. These are the images that facilitate that reading by Estyn Evans, a century later, of an ideology inscribed in the images and the scenes, of inter-related kin groups, held together by the ties of kinship and of mutual help; and which he equally relates to telling signs of ‘distress’ and poverty in the dress and appearance, which Evans links to the many observations by parliamentary commissions or those many ‘reforming’ tourist visitors and friends staying at the landlord George Hill’s hotel in Gweedore; signs read as distress and degradation which was deserving and demanding some kind of agrarian and societal reform in the region. This group of images is also technically distinct, being wet collodion prints, a technique that has dated this part of The Glass Album to the 1870s.

And the commissioning or commercial or practical rationale of these photographs is problematic – we have no existing documentary proof as to why James Glass, a Derry Presbyterian commercial photographer known mainly for studio portraits, made the journey to Irish speaking Gweedore to take such images in the 1870s - a difficult journey on horse and cart with a darkroom on a cart carrying fragile photographic glass plates and chemicals in glass bottles over bad or non-existent roads and routes. The unusual journey and these photographic studies however can be read as indicative of the role that Gweedore played in the mid to late 1800s as a near laboratory of recurring episodes of external official observation, studies aimed at what was identified by external forces as improvements to the agricultural patterns and structures in place. Over this period, Gweedore was a place that saw several government commissions into land use, food shortages, threatened famine, agrarian campaigns of resistance, and saw the visits of political commentators and writers to reflect upon the degradation of the region and to consider the measures that landlord George Hill identified as improvements, and that saw opposition from his tenant farmers at his attempts to ‘improve them off their land’: visitors such as Charles Kingsley and others, who wrote letters to the press, or who like George Hill himself would write a pamphlet on the issue, or who campaigned in philanthropic bodies for or against calls for elements of agricultural improvements to be imposed on the area. This ‘improving’ narrative of course neatly segued into the long standing colonial myth already in place for generations, of Irish barbarians requiring external authority as a civilizing force, a myth that goes all the way back to the description of Ireland as 'That moste barbarous Nacion’ in John Derricke’s 1581 book The Image of Irelande, with a Discoverie of Woodkarne, describing the campaigns in Ireland by Sir Philip Sidney.

Regardless then of the lack of any existing evidence of a commissioning or commercial or practical rationale for these photographic studies of living conditions in Gweedore in the 1870s by James Glass, they can be read as attempts by the photographer to indicate a truth, to act as kind of ‘documentary’ proof. And the later set of photographs of Gweedore taken in May 1889 were intended to act as legal evidence, to indicate the setting of the killing of Detective Inspector Martin, and were compiled in one or more albums presented to court in October 1889.  In court during the trial these were presented alongside other objects indicative of an evidential value, such as a map of the location, or a model of the church outside which the killing took place.

Alongside their documentary value, and evidential value, both the 1870’s and 1889 photographs in The Glass Album had a commercial value. The climate in the late 1800’s of a broad press interest and campaigning interest in agrarian conditions in Ireland, and food shortages, threatened famine, and agrarian campaigns of resistance, saw commercial value accrue to these photographic studies of agrarian conditions. They were sold as sets in albums, or as sets of slides for magic lanterns, with catalogue texts outlining details of the scenes and events depicted. Several other writers on Irish photography of this period[2] have highlighted instances of commercial sales of such photographs of agrarian conditions, evictions and agrarian campaigns of resistance.  It is striking also that it is not merely the scenes of the most overwrought instances of eviction, or poor agrarian conditions, which carried a commercial value. In March 1889, while the preliminary trials of Father McFadden and others from Gweedore were being prepared amongst much national and international press interest, an advertisement was in the local press offering:

SCENE OF THE MURDER OF DISTRICT INSPECTOR MARTIN SHOWING THE IDENTICAL SPOT WHERE THE TRAGEDY TOOK PLACE / Photographs can be sent to any address at the following prices, viz: / Gweedore Roman Catholic Chapel..1s / Rev. James M. Fadden, P.P.. 1s / Late District Inspector Martin .. 1s / ALL CABINET SIZE / Address – WILLIAM WATSON PHOTOGRAPHIC ART GALLERY, DONEGAL

In the nineteenth-century private collection of the solicitor James E Doherty which holds a version of The Glass Album, the album of photographs of the Gweedore location which was used in court was kept within a broader personal collection of photographs of nationalist figures, collected in albums, presumably to display affiliation, promote discussion and allegiances to the cause of agrarian reform and broader nationalism.

This context should be understood then as accruing another value to The Glass Album photographs, a value of affiliation or allegiance. This is not to indicate that the photographs are indicative necessarily of the values or affiliations or allegiances of the photographer. Perhaps the photographs are indicative more of a facility by the photographer to recognize the space for an assumed reading by another to be projected onto the scene represented in a photograph. Within this context, the production of The Glass Album by James Glass, as a fine upstanding member of the Presbyterian community in the city of Londonderry, a Superintendent of the Sabbath School and Senior Elder at his Presbyterian Church, is particularly striking.

A further range of values have accrued to The Glass Album since its era of production in the late 1800s, through its function and place within institutional collections, presentations, exhibitions and contemporary private collections: values that can be identified as aesthetic, academic, archival, institutional, historic and many more. Through the curatorial presentation of The Glass Album in Gweedore across 2013 and 2014, the photographs have accrued a further value of familial and communal affiliation, as the collection was observed and drawn and sketched by family members of the community and the families visible in the scenes depicted in the photographs of The Glass Album.

The Glass Album is a work of evolving values – aesthetic, documentary, legal, commercial, affiliation, academic, archival, institutional, historic, familial - and many more. The processes of exhuming The Glass Album from the institutional archives and of considering and curating The Glass Album for the complexities of public view, have been indicative of the potential that lies dormant within the many other institutional archives yet to be exhumed and brought into a broader public realm - and perhaps a call for similar processes in the future with other archival collections.

[1] Tweet from @Fuck Theory 8:31 AM - 7 Feb 2015

[2] Such as Gail Baylis, Fintan Cullen, Sarah Edge, L Perry Curtis.