Cosgrave’s Dublin

Cosgrave’s Dublin

Christiaan Corlett looks at a valuable, but little-known portfolio of photographs taken by Victorian doctor Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave, now in the collection of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

There are still some very significant collections of historical photographs that remain relatively unknown in both private collections as well as those held in public institutions. These frequently have an artistic quality apart altogether from their historic value when ressurected from the dust of over a century ago. Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave’s photographs of Dublin, now held in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, are a perfect example of this.

Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave (1853-1925) was born in Dublin, the son of William Alexander Cosgrave (a solicitor) and Anna Maria (nee MacDowel), who then lived at 20 Belvedere Place. He took his name and subsequent profession from his maternal grandfather, Dr Ephraim MacDowel, founder of the Richmond Hospital. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, he subsequently lectured in biology in the Carmichael Medical School, and on its closure was elevated to professor at the Royal College of Surgeon’s of Ireland from 1889 to 1895, where he also served as President from 1914-15. In 1884 he married Anna, daughter of Rev Crofts-Billen of Ballythomas, Mallow Co Cork. From 1882 Cosgrave worked as a physician at Drumcondra Hospital (in 1893 it changed its name from Whitworth General Hospital), of which he wrote a brief history.1 From 1900 he was physician at Cork Street Fever Hospital in Dublin.

Cosgrave was a man of many parts, physician, author, antiquarian, photographer and bibliophile. Apart from his career in medicine, he served as President of the Dublin Total Abstinence Society.2 He also edited the monthly Common Sense from 1893 to 1901.

He became a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI) in 1894, and was elected a Fellow in 1908. He also served as president of the Amateur Photographic Society, and as well as the City Chess Club. His wife Anna was President of the Dublin Club of Living Chess, founded in April 1891 for giving living chess displays for suitable charities. In 1885 Cosgrave published A Textbook of Botany for Students.

Cosgrave had a particular interest in the history of Dublin, and compiled a comprehensive catalogue of 18th and 19th- century engravings of Dublin, which formed several articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Together with Leonard R Strangways he was coauthor of The Illustrated Dictionary of Dublin, published in 1895. Like his friend Strangways was an avid photographer and the greater number of the photographs published in The Illustrated Dictionary of Dublin appear to have been Strangways. Unfortunately, it is not clear if any of his photographs survive today. The Illustrated Dictionary of Dublin has rarely been given the attention it deserves. It was arguably the first guidebook to Dublin, or indeed any part of Ireland, that was heavily illustrated using photographs taken by the authors themselves. An updated edition was published together with a Supplemental Guide to the Irish International Exhibition of 1907. There are significant differences between the two editions, both in terms of the format of the dictionary style entries, but most particularly in the selection of photographs reproduced.

Further to his interest in Dublin’s architecture, Cosgrave was a founder of the original Georgian Society in 1909, and served as the Society’s Honorary Secretary. He oversaw the publication of the fine volumes published by that Society between 1909 and 1913, and he was widely credited for overseeing their publication. On the publication of the final volume, the editor of The Irish Builder & Engineer wrote that the Georgian Society had achieved; ‘such a brilliant success, a success in no small measure due to the untiring zeal and energy of Dr McDowell Cosgrave, to whose labour of love these five stately volumes, will always constitute an enduring monument, for it is safe to say that without his enthusiasm this success would not have been achieved’.3

Notably his earliest photographs from the 1890s and early 1900s indicate that his interest in documenting Georgian Dublin predated the forming of the Georgian Society in 1909. He was elected membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1918.

Cosgrave died at his home in February 1925. Shortly later, his collection of lantern slides, as well as some negatives and prints, were presented to the RSAI. Some of these are dated, and were taken between 1890 and 1910. The majority of Cosgrave’s photographs held in the RSAI are lantern slides, which he used for lecturing purposes, such as one to the Architectural Association of Ireland on 19 November 1912, on ‘Eighteenth Century Architecture in Dublin’. Cosgrave’s lantern slides were assimilated into the wider collection of lantern slides held by the Society and compiled for the use of its members for lecturing purposes (until these became redundant with the widespread use of 35mm slides, which are now also largely redundant).

In order to complement his interest in the architecture of Dublin, Cosgrave actively photographed public buildings and the different forms of houses found throughout the city centre, as well as details such as doorways, ironwork balconies and ironwork lamp brackets. Cosgrave also had an interest in Dublin’s pre-Georgian buildings that survived in the Coombe and the Liberties (Fig 7). Today his photographs are a very important record of a once common house type that has virtually disappeared in Dublin.

Thankfully Cosgrave’s interest in Dublin did not stop at its architecture. Some of his most interesting photographs are of a social or economic nature, such as Dublin’s street traders (Pl. 4) and dockers. The photograph entitled Tired Out (Fig 4) appeared at the very end of Cosgrave and Strangway’s The Illustrated Dictionary of Dublin. While today we might see the tragedy in the image, this photograph is an example of middleclass Victorian humour that often made light of the working classes. The photograph was intended to convey the exhaustion that the reader might feel having toured the city with the aid of their guidebook. The man appears to be sleeping against a crate of cabbages, and may have been located in the docklands.

Perhaps his most valuable photographs are those of children – invariably the children of Dublin’s tenements. Indeed, his photograph of children on Henrietta Street (Fig 5) is one of the most evocative images of the children of the slums, capturing a wide range of faces and expressions of a group of children who are curious and suspicious, in equal measure, about the photographer and his camera. The photograph entitled An Attractive Window (Fig 3) is identified as Chamber Street. In this case the children have their backs to the photographer and seem oblivious to the camera. Instead, the curiosity of the viewer is excited as we ponder, what are they looking at? Finally, the image for me that quite literally flies in the face of conventional wisdom is that of a barefoot boy flying a kite (Fig 6). For a long time I looked at this photograph without realising that the boy in the foreground was actually flying a kite, which can be seen on the roof of the white-washed building. The location of the photograph is not recorded, but it almost certainly in the Coombe area of the city, perhaps Newmarket. The image of a young boy from the tenements flying a kite on the city streets almost jars with our preconceived ideas of life in Dublin at this time.

Cosgrave was not a professional photographer and his photographs were not the result of commissions. Instead, the collection entirely represents the interests of the photographer himself. The main purpose of his photography was architectural and social documentary rather than artistic. Yet they also provide a colourful and lively portrait of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century.

Christiaan Corlett is an archaeologist, author and photographer working for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 30, No 1, 2013

1 A Short History of the Drumcondra Hospital (1917)
2 E. MacDowel Cosgrave, Incorporated Dublin Total Abstinence Society, Diamond Jubilee Celebration (1897).
3 The Irish Builder & Engineer 11 April 1914, 224.E. MacDowel


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