Frank Stephens – a life in photographs

TCD MS 10842/1/13 ‘Cottage. Aran Is/ Fish drying on roof/ September 1935’.
[Location on Inis Mór, Oileáin Árann]. Surplus fish were cleaned in fresh water, salted and then left on walls or thatched roofs to dry. The fish had to be retrieved every night, and also if there was a shower of rain, in order to dry them properly for storing.

Frank Stephens (1884-1948) was born in prosperous middle-class Orwell Park, Rathgar, Dublin, eldest son to solicitor Henry (Harry) Francis Colcough Stephens and his wife Annie Isabella Synge, sister of the playwright John Millington Synge. Both the Stephens and Synge families lived side by side until shortly before J M Synge’s death in 1909, a proximity that had a profound effect on Frank’s life and interests. From the age of six Frank was being tutored by his famous Uncle John on a range of subjects, among them natural history, archaeology, folklore and music. It was in the last decade of the nineteenth century that the development of small hand-held cameras changed the nature of photography making it more accessible and affordable but also allowing photographers to move away from posed compositions to more candid and natural images. J M Synge and his nephew, Frank Stephens, embraced this new portable technology as a means of recording the people and places they loved in an intimate and uncontrived way.

Frank spent his working life in education, teaching history and Irish, but he also found time to lecture 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. These slides are now being cleaned and rehoused by Trinity College Library conservator Clodagh Neligan prior to digitization.

Frank was one of the photographers who volunteered for the Irish Folklore Commission in 1939 recording the historic landscape of Poulaphouca in Co Wicklow and its farming community before the area was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water to Dublin city. His talents as a photographer were uniquely suited to such a project as he had a keen eye for the intrinsic beauty and honesty of simple things. His photographs celebrate the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life: the homespun clothes of the Aran islanders, street traders selling their wares in Dublin, a woman and her spinning wheel in Co Wicklow, or a cottage interior in the west of Ireland.

An exhibition Frank Stephens – a life in photographs, co-curated by Felicity O’ Mahony (M&ARL) and Gillian Whelan (DRIS), will be on view in the Long Room, September 2017

Mapping the Past

One of the Library’s contributions to this year’s Trinity Week programme of events was a multi-panel outdoor display in Fellows’ Square, which showcased some of the items from the collections in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.  The theme this year was ‘Memory’, and M&ARL’s exhibit was entitled ‘The Library: Minds and Reminds’.  It presented images from our archives of photographs, paintings, maps and plans of College buildings and structures, some of which still exist, some that have changed, and others that are long gone.  One of the panels, for example, displays a photograph of the Magnetic Observatory, which was built in 1837 in what was then the Provost’s Garden, and which now stands in UCD’s Belfield campus! Continue reading

James Goodman music manuscripts online

Dedicated Goodman homepage on the Irish Traditional Music Archive

Dedicated Goodman homepage on the Irish Traditional Music Archive

Trinity College Library has a wonderful collection of pre-Famine music, saved for posterity by the then Professor of Irish at Trinity, James Goodman. Six  volumes of tunes and texts are now freely available online thanks to a collaboration between the College and the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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Enduring Everest

TCD MS 10484/4/4

TCD MS 10484/4/4

In the aftermath of the First World War, many seasoned soldiers turned to a life of adventure, seeking out new adrenalin-fuelled challenges to replace the heroics of the battlefield, or to suppress the memory of its atrocities, or both. The conquest of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, became an attractive objective, and three attempts were made in the early 1920s by British mountaineering teams. These included the Irishmen Charles Howard Bury (the 1921 ‘Reconnaissance’ Expedition) and Richard William George Hingston (1924). Both had served with distinction in the war (Howard Bury in France, Hingston in the Middle East), and their war diaries form part of the Library’s First World War resource, ‘Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails’.

10484/4/11 members of the 1924 expedition, Hingston is standing second from left

10484/4/11 members of the 1924 expedition, Hingston is standing second from left

The 1924 expedition, which Hingston joined as a medical officer and naturalist, is famous for resulting in Everest’s greatest mystery: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine broke off from the group to make a final attempt on the summit on 8 June 1924, and were spotted near to the summit only to then disappear into the cloud cover, never to return. Mallory’s body was only recovered in 1999 at 26,755 ft (8,155 m) – what caused their deaths, or whether they actually made it to the summit remains a matter of conjecture, despite the fact that this attempt was the best documented of its time.

TCD MS 10484/4/1 member of the climbing team with oxygen tanks

TCD MS 10484/4/1 member of the climbing team with oxygen tanks

The official photographer, John Noel, devoted himself to recording a filmed record of the expedition. The result, The Epic of Everest, is one of the most remarkable pieces of documentary film-making of the early 20th century. With Noel preoccupied with filming (as well as the logistical nightmare of transporting bulky equipment up the slopes alongside its own team of mules and porters), the remainder of the group dutifully compiled still photographs with their ‘tourist variety’ cameras. Their published report, The Fight for Everest, details the travails of the Himalayan photographer: the tendency to ‘under-expose in tropical Sikkim and over-expose in arctic Tibet’; the unwelcome effects of the lack of oxygen on development times and their ingenious solution to the problem of drying negatives in sub-zero conditions:

10484/4/15 Everest Base Camp

10484/4/15 Everest Base Camp

‘We threaded as many as 50-60 [negatives] on cotton as soon as they were washed and suspended them in rows in the apex of Noel’s double-walled tent. Then we brought in great glowing trays of smouldering Yak dung and set those on the floor so that the heat might rise and circulate about the films and prevent them from freezing … Noel complained that he had to sleep in the tent; we complained that he was the only man to have a fire in his bedroom.’

TCD MS 10484/4/2

TCD MS 10484/4/2

Given such challenges, it is remarkable that so many enduring images made it back, including those taken by Hingston and now housed in M&ARL. Hingston not only took images of his fellow mountaineers, sherpas, and the region itself, but also birds and insects as part of his work as a naturalist. M&ARL also holds Hingston’s annotated maps of the area, correspondence with colleagues at Camp II, and letters he sent to the Natural History Museum on his return. These include taxonomical lists of the specimens he collected, including a species of Black Attid spider. He discovered this creature living at 22,000 feet – the highest known habitat for any animal.

TCD MS 10473 f 36 recto Hingston's journal for 7 to 10 June 1924 describing the tragic summit attempt

TCD MS 10473 f 36 recto Hingston’s journal for 7-10 June 1924 describing the tragic summit attempt

One of the most emotive items in the collection is the notebook Hingston took with him to record the expedition, TCD MS 10473, which was then worked up into a more legible copy, TCD MS 10474. With echoes of the diary of Scott of the Antarctic, this is both a record-keeping exercise and a personal notebook, with each entry written in pencil commencing with location and height in feet, but betraying little of the extreme conditions. A single page 36 recto, datable to 8 June, describes the final ascent by Mallory and Irvine: ‘eyes glued to the mountain. There is just a chance of Mallory and Irvine getting to the summit’, but finishes sombrely on 10 June, ‘there can be no doubt; the worst has happened.’

A full list of the Hingston papers is available on the M&ARL online catalogue. The Hingston papers were fully digitised in 2010 as part of the EuropeanaTravel project funded under European Commission’s eContentplus programme, and are available via the Library’s Digital Collections site.

Estelle Gittins

WW1 diaries and letters online publication

Lieutenant Arthur Nickson Callaghan (1893-1917). (Private collection)

Lieutenant Arthur Nickson Callaghan (1893-1917). (Private collection).

In 2014 President Micheal D Higgins suggested that the Irish commemoration of the First World War should include ‘the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. He was alluding to the fact that the voices of the Irish soldiers in the British army have been subdued in Irish history. Some of their stories may be found among Trinity College Library’s collection of wartime diaries and letters and a major project has just been launched to make this fascinating and moving material freely available online.

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