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

Singing his praises

Haugerring, the street near the train station where Synge lived (Photo credit Stadtarchiv Würzburg)

Haugerring, the street near the train station where Synge lived (Photo credit Stadtarchiv Würzburg)

The German-Irish Association of Würzburg has, as a special project, curated an exhibition with the title ‘John Millington Synge: The Wicklow Photographs – Seine Bilder aus Wicklow’ which will be on show for the whole month of September in Würzburg town hall. On display will be twenty photographs of the Wicklow and Dublin area, taken by Synge, and an additional small biographic section showing Synge’s links with Würzburg. The originals of these photographs are in M&ARL.

The exhibition will officially open on 3 September 2014 with the Lord Mayor of Würzburg, Christian Schuchardt, and the Irish Ambassador to Germany, Michael Collins, attending. This project aims to raise awareness in Germany about Synge, who represents a link between the city of Würzburg and its ‘twin’ region of Wicklow where Synge lived; it also marks fifteen years of partnership between Würzburg and Bray.

Royal School of Music  beside the cathedral (Photo credit Stadtarchiv Würzburg)

Royal School of Music beside the cathedral (Photo credit Stadtarchiv Würzburg)

Even in Ireland many may be unaware that it was Synge’s original intention to become a professional musician when he graduated from Trinity College. Synge’s mother was very sceptical about her son’s commitment to music; he only succeeded in continuing his studies in Europe with the support of a relative, Mary Synge, who was a concert pianist and who was able to persuade John’s mother to give up her resistance to her son’s plans. Mary accompanied Synge on his trip to Europe in 1893; the Royal School of Music in Würzburg, under its director Karl Kliebert, had a very good reputation in the late-nineteenth century, which attracted Synge to the city.

(L-R) Irish Ambassador Michael Collins; Lord Mayor of Wurzburg Christian Schuchardt and Matthias Fleckenstein, Chairman of the German-Irish Associatipn of Würzburg (Photo credit Stadt Würzburg)

(L-R) Irish Ambassador Michael Collins; Lord Mayor of Wurzburg Christian Schuchardt and Matthias Fleckenstein, Chairman of the German-Irish Association of Würzburg (Photo credit Stadt Würzburg)

The original house where Synge lived in Würzburg was destroyed in WWII, but in 2014 – 120 years after his stay – the German-Irish Association put up a memorial plaque on the building which now stands on the original site.

During his time at the Royal School of Music, Synge realized that he was not cut out to be a musician. Thus it was in Würzburg that he took the important decision turn away from music as a career. Synge subsequently travelled to Rome and to Paris, where he met William Butler Yeats, who encouraged him to write about the life of the people on the Aran Islands, a subject which was unrepresented in Irish literature.

Matthias Fleckenstein
Chairman of the German-Irish Association in Würzburg