Dr. Neassa Doherty (Volunteer NLI Prints & Drawings Dept., 2012 & PhD Graduate, NUIG, 2015) & Louise O’Connor (NLI Conservation Dept.)

In 1742, the Dublin engraver and printseller, John Brooks, advertised that a mezzotint print of Hugh Boulter would be printed on “superfine Royal Irish Paper” (see fig. 1). Brooks’ claim to use Irish paper for this mezzotint was unusual. What prompted his direct reference to an Irish paper source? Can Brooks’ notice be read literally, or was it part of a clever advertising strategy? Intrigued by Brooks’ advertisement, a close examination of one rare example of the Boulter mezzotint print, housed in the NLI Irish Portraits Collection, gives a fascinating insight into the 18th century Dublin mezzotint trade.


Fig. 1. Brooks advertises a mezzotint print of Hugh Boulter in 1742. (The Dublin Mercury, 23 Jan-21/25 Sept 1742)

Mezzotint Technique & the Dublin Group

Mezzotint is a tonal intaglio printmaking process, developed in the 18th century, and mainly used for the reproduction of oil paintings. As a novel and affordable luxury good, the fashionable gentry often framed and decorated their homes with print portraits.

John Brooks (c. 1710-1756) was the leading member of the Dublin Group, a small network of highly skilled mezzotint engravers trained and employed at his workshop (Cork Hill, Dublin c. 1740-1746). These Irish craftsmen are frequently credited for introducing mezzotint portraiture into the Irish market during the 1740s. Brooks’ most successful student, James McArdell (c. 1728-1765), reproduced many high-quality mezzotints in London.

Brooks’ mezzotint print of Hugh Boulter is after an oil painting by Irish artist Francis Bindon (c. 1690-1765), which is housed in Trinity College Dublin. Hugh Boulter (1672-1742) was Primate of Ireland until his death in 1742, just months before this mezzotint was made. Boulter was an important political figure and Brooks would have anticipated much commercial demand for this print. Mezzotint requires a type of paper that absorbs as much ink as possible to capture the sitter’s likeness. The reference to the use of Irish paper for a mezzotint was therefore intriguing.

The NLI print is an off-white laid sheet and measures 531 x 397 mm (see fig. 2). The print matches Brooks’ advertised plate of 21 x 16 inches (or 530 x 400 mm). By identifying a watermark in the NLI print, could we reveal for the first time if Brooks did indeed use Irish paper?

Hugh Boulter in mezzotint by John Brooks

 Fig. 2. Hugh Boulter in mezzotint by John Brooks after Francis Bindon c. 1742      (NLI Call no. PD BOUL-HU (4) III)

What is a Watermark?

A paper sheet is formed when a cotton and linen pulp solution is drained through a sieve distributing a layer of pulp fibres behind. Up until the mid-18th century, paper was mostly made on a ‘laid’ metal-wire sieve, called a mould.  On commissioning his moulds from the mould-maker, the papermaker may include a watermark or countermark design twisted into the metal wires. This watermark identifies the papermaker, and so it was used as a hallmark of quality. The papermaker may also include his initials or his countermark in the sheet. Hundreds of watermarks are recorded. Watermark identification is usually of great importance for dating paper and determining the location of the paper mill.


A paper sheet will transmit light (i.e. light shines though it) so using a light source, the fibre distribution of a paper sheet can be examined. The visual identification of watermarks in mezzotint prints can be challenging, as the sheet is usually covered in a dense layer of black ink. Examination of Brooks’ mezzotint print using transmitted light showed a shield with three diagonal lines (a bend) surmounted by a lily (see figs. 3 and 4). This watermark is known as a Strasburg bend and lily. Another Dublin Group mezzotint within the NLI’s collection, James McArdell’s portrait of John Armstrong (c. 1748) also has a Strasburg bend and lily watermark.


Fig.3 Detail of the Boulter print in transmitted light, showing a Strasburg bend and lily watermark.

Watermarks were often characteristic of a certain size sheet. The Strasburg bend and lily watermark is often linked with royal paper sheets (the term royal refers to a standard size of paper measuring 25 x 20 inches). In the 1740s, the watermark is associated with Dutch papermaking firms, including Gerrevink and Villedary, Honig and Honig & Zoonen.  A countermark, which sometimes gives the papermaker’s name or initials and also the year of production, is not visible in these prints.


Fig 4. Diagram highlighting a Strasburg bend and lily watermark found in Brooks’ mezzotint print (chain lines 28mm apart)

Comparative research of all available impressions is necessary in order to complete this study. According to Sheila O’Connell (Prints and Drawings curator, British Museum) two impressions of this print within the BM collection also have “lily and bend” watermarks. So, despite his public claim, there is no evidence at this point that Brooks used an Irish paper source.

Eighteenth-century Irish paper-making

Samuel Madden, co-founder of the Royal Dublin Society, actively campaigned in a pamphlet entitled Reflections and Resolutions Proper for the Gentlemen of Ireland as to Their Conduct for the Service of Their Country (1738) for direct support to the Irish paper industry:

“Paper is another Manufacture that we might easily nurse up here, not only to the saving us several thousand pounds every year, which we send to Holland for it, but if our merchants wou’d [sic] heartily engage in it, we might make enough of it for the market in England.”

Thanks to Madden, Irish papermakers received financial encouragement in the form of annual awards granted for the best domestically produced paper. In 1737, for example, Thomas Slator was granted five-hundred pounds to establish a new paper-mill specialising in high quality paper “in the best Dutch manner”. By the 1740s, about nineteen paper mills existed in or around Dublin alone. The success and longevity of three family-run mills such as Slator’s (Rathfarnham), Michael McDonnell (Tallaght) and Robert Randall (Newbridge) is notable.

Despite these developments, Dutch papermakers continued to make huge quantities of paper, having mastered a faster process using the Hollander beater. For over forty years (1740-80), imported Dutch and French printing paper was sold at two shillings and four pence per ream (500 sheets) and so dominated 18th century Irish paper trade.

Brooks’s paper source?

The outcome of this investigation inspires some interesting speculation regarding Brooks’ advertisement and many unanswered questions awaiting research in the future! Why did Brooks go to the trouble of promising to use Irish paper and evidently not do so? It could be that there was simply a lack of high quality Irish paper at the time of publishing. Or, Brooks may have used Irish paper in an earlier version of the print. It is also possible that Brooks made an entirely false claim to use Irish paper; the practice of puffery was common in newspaper advertising. Moreover, the promotion of the Irish papermaking industry – especially for producing high quality white paper – may have influenced Brooks’ claim to use Irish paper. His reference to “superfine Royal Irish paper” might have been designed to attract the attention of the reader, the Dublin mezzotint-buying clientele. Brooks may therefore have been pursuing a clever marketing strategy to ensure the sale of his mezzotints.

Find out more:

Churchill, W.A. Watermarks in paper in Holland, England, France, etc., in the XVII and XVIII centuries and their interconnection. Amsterdam, 1965.

Alexander, David. “The Dublin Group: Irish Mezzotint Engravers in London, 1750-1775.” Quarterly Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society. XVI. July-Sept. (1973): 72-93.

Phillips, James W. Printing and Bookselling in Dublin, 1670-1800: A Bibliographical Enquiry. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998.

Pollard, Mary. Dublin’s Trade in Books 1550-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Institut D’histoire du Livre http://ihl.enssib.fr/en/paper-and-watermarks-as-bibliographical-evidence/bibliographical-annotations-and-orientations

Viola da Gamba Society’s interesting report of watermark in music manuscripts http://www.vdgs.org.uk/files/indexmss/08%20Watermarks.pdf

Papermaking by hand at Hayle Mill, England in 1976 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs3PfwOItto

A short film describing all the processes in making fine paper including a section devoted to making and fitting a watermark to a mould.

www.memoryofpaper.eu European integrated digital environment for paper history and expertise.







by Sam McGrath, Cataloguer, Joseph Holloway Collection

While cataloguing 19th century books, you can occasionally come across a little hand-written inscription that will make you pause for a moment and reflect on life’s journey. This was certainly the case when I opened the non-descript ‘Fireside tales for the young – Vol. 3′ by Sarah Stickney Ellis (NLI Call No. 15A 629) and was met by two poignant messages.

The first one read :

“Thomas Kenny is my name
and on this book I write the same
and when I am dead and in my grave
this little book will tell my name
when I am quite forgotten”.

Thomas Kenny Inscription (1) Thomas Kenny Inscription (1)


A very sobering verse to read on a Monday morning. Thomas Kenny is certainly dead and buried but it’s nice to think that by virtue of this blog post and the fact that you are reading this means that he hasn’t been quite forgotten.

His message is an example of a book rhyme. These short poems were written inside the front cover of a book to discourage theft or in this case, to acknowledge ownership. They were particularly common during the 18th and 19th centuries before the advent of book plates.

One of the most popular variants of the book rhyme was included by James Joyce in his debut novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. A boy called Fleming, a classmate of Stephen Dedalus, took a book belonging to Dedalus and “for a cod”  wrote:

“Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwelling place
And heaven my expectation.”

Back to the book in my hand and it would seem that Thomas Kenny wasn’t too keen on his first description as he decided to write a similar one on the next page.

“Thomas Kenny is my name

Browns cott. my dwelling place and on this book I write the same

When I am dead and in my grave

this little book will tell my name when I am quite forgotten.

T Kenny 19/15(sic)/10”.

Thomas Kenny Inscription (2)


Thomas reveals that he lives on a street called Browns Cottages and that he wrote this message in 1910. I expect he meant to write 19/05 (19th of May) and not 19/15 but I am open to other interpretation.

Up to this point, there was no proof to suggest Thomas Kenny was living in Dublin but luckily for us he wrote his full address on a following page:

“1 Browns Cotts

 off Pembroke Street, Dublin”

Browns Cottages, now demolished, was a small street of about 11 houses located off present day Laverty Court and Quinns Lane. They are in turn situated off Pembroke Street and Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin 2. A less than ten minute walk from the National Library.

Thanks to the 1911 census, it only took a couple of seconds to find out that there were 423 men with the name Thomas Kenny in the island of Ireland in that year. Of these, 64 lived in Dublin. Focusing in on Browns Cottages, there were three Thomas Kenny’s living on the street in 1911. The census was taken only a year after the messages were written so you’d expect the corresponding details to be reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, it’s not clear exactly which Thomas Kenny in the Census was the author.

There is an infant Thomas Kenny living at 1 Brown’s Cottages which matches the address written inside the book. At number 1.2 [See http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Dublin/Mansion_House/Brown_s_Cottages/87409/]

Thomas (age 2)  was living with his three siblings and his parents Elizabeth (30) and James (36) who had been married for nine years. Elizabeth worked as a Laundress while her husband James was a General Labourer. Both were from Dublin and the family were all Catholic.

While the address and name matches, this Thomas Kenny would have been only a year old at the time the book rhyme was written. This would rule him out.

A few doors down at no. 3.1 Browns Cottages [ See - http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Dublin/Mansion_House/Brown_s_Cottages/87439/] lived a schoolboy Thomas Kenny (7) with his father also called Thomas (44), a carpenter, and his mother Deborah (38) who worked as a laundress. The Dublin-born couple had been married nine years and were Catholic.

Within the whole family, Thomas Sr. was the only one able to read and write according to the census. Thus making him the only literate Thomas Kenny living in Brown’s Cottages. He would be the most likely candidate but the address does not match.

It’s certainly not a straightforward case and the little mystery has not been solved. Your guess is as good as mine. One possibility is that patriarch James Kenny at no.1 wrote the messages on behalf of his son Thomas. The book would have been a significant present for the young boy and father James wanted to inscribe the book accordingly.

Another prospect is that another family member by the name of Thomas Kenny had been living at no. 1 Browns Cottages in 1910 but had moved out or passed away by the time the census was taken in April 1911.

Regardless of which Thomas Kenny it was, nothing should be taken away from the messages or what we can read into them. I’d imagine he would be pleased with the idea that he and his words are being talked about 95 years later.

Without wanting to read too deeply into a little message that half rhymes, I’d argue that the thought behind Thomas Kenny’s first message was : “Life is short. We are all going to die eventually. Try to do something, even if it’s writing a few lines in a book, so your legacy is not forgotten”.

This all-important communiqué from beyond the grave reminded me of the memorable scene in the film Dead Poet’s Society (1989) when English teacher John Keating (played by the late, great Robin Williams) takes his class over to a cabinet full of old photographs of former students and school athletes. He beckons them to examine the aging portraits : “Listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you”.  As the boys lean in closer and stare intently into the eyes of the dead and forgotten faces, Keating begins to whisper: “Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Thomas Kenny may not have led an extraordinary life. He probably didn’t change the world. But he did manage to carve out a small legacy for himself by writing those words. So while there may not be a statue or a street or a plaque dedicated to the memory of Thomas Kenny, he did leave us with a memorable note in a dusty book and because of this and a little bit of luck – we’re still talking about him today.

Browns Cottages (c. 1887-1913) Browns Cottages (c. 1887-1913)


by Fiona Hughes, NLI Archival Student

Annie O’Farrelly (or Áine Ní Fhaircheallaigh) is typical of many figures in Irish history and the revolutionary period.  Neither a household name nor a familiar face, she was, nevertheless, immersed in Republican activity in the early twentieth century.  This is demonstrable in her papers which can be accessed at the National Library here: http://catalogue.nli.ie/Collection/vtls000610501#

Born in Dublin in 1901, O’Farrelly came from a Republican background.  Her grandfather Peter Boylan was a Fenian and her mother opened the family home to members of the IRA.  A member of Cumann na mBan along with her sisters, O’Farrelly collected on behalf of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents Fund in the War of Independence, 1919-1921, and, during the Irish Civil War, 1922-1923, she worked in the office of the Adjutant General, IRA.

Photograph of Annie O'Farrelly (MS 47,647/1/6) Photograph of Annie O’Farrelly (MS 47,647/1/6)


Following the outbreak of Civil War in June 1922, Annie was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison, Kilmainham Jail and North Dublin Union with her sister, Rita.  Her involvement with the Republican movement continued after release and she worked at Republican newspaper ‘An Phoblacht’ and was a member of the Cumann na mBan Executive and Clan na Gael in the 1930s.

Previously available on microfilm only, the Annie O’Farrelly Papers is a single-box, paper-based collection that includes news cuttings, letters and photographs. Dating approximately from 1915 to the 1950s, the collection largely relates to O’Farrelly’s involvement with Cumann na mBan and the IRA.

One of the collection’s most remarkable features is a unique series of letters by O’Farrelly to family members while she was imprisoned during the Civil War. This personal correspondence brims with enquiry about family, friends and the ‘outside world’ and is permeated with humour and defiance.  Written from a female prisoner’s perspective, the letters counter-balance male voices, such as Peadar O’Donnell and Ernie O’Malley, that have formed the dominant Civil War narrative.

O’Farrelly’s letters convey the tumult of prison life.  She refers to the refusal by the Catholic clergy to grant women prisoners absolution, to escape attempts and discovery of tunnels, to hunger strikes, to the stoppage of parcels and to the dire conditions in prison.  According to Annie, ‘B’ wing in Kilmainham Gaol was “a dreadful part of the prison which has been condemned”.  Indeed, the harsh reality of prison life is apparent.  On 22 April 1923, she wrote simply that “Some of the men were shot in our exercise yard”.

Letter to her mother, Annie Farrelly, dated 2nd July 1923 (MS 47,640/22)


Despite imprisonment, the good-humouredness evident in O’Farrelly’s letters would probably have consoled her mother, who was named Annie Farrelly (she did not use the ‘O’Farrelly’ adopted by her daughters).  O’Farrelly wrote reassuringly that she and Rita “are both feeling splendid in spite of our splendid isolation from the outside world” and they were “taking [our] holidays as best we can”.  Letters signed “Your loving child” highlight O’Farrelly’s tender age: by 1923, she was only 22 years of age.

Annie’s demands from the outside world were simple: stamps, toothpaste, tea and sugar, for example.  She mentions prisoner activities, such as making clothes and various amusements, that would have tempered the ennui of prison life.  “We were at a party to-night in ‘Blarney Castle’ with some of the Cork girls and had great fun”, she informed her mother.

O’Farrelly’s stalwart Republican convictions transpire through the letters.  In early 1923, Annie and Rita undertook a seven-day hunger strike and, upon commencement, she wrote, “Both Rita and I are feeling very fit after it but indeed we were hungry for 7 days”.  She proudly informed her mother, “The Staters have done everything they can to try and break us but no use”.

In another letter, O’Farrelly provided an in-depth account of a conflict between female prisoners and prison and military authorities in Kilmainham Gaol.  Her aversion to these authority figures caused her to declare “such awful looking creatures you never saw in your life”.  Indeed, Annie appears to have relished being somewhat of a burden to the fledgling Free State.  “Its [sic] some satisfaction to know we are being kept at the expense of the “Free” State…288 women is costing them a good penny not to talk of 16,000 men throughout jails in Ireland”, she remarked.  Letters written later in life shows her Republican beliefs were undiminished.  In the 1940s, she encouraged others in what she considered was “obviously their duty if they still hold on to old Republican faith”.

When the Civil War concluded in May 1923, O’Farrelly remained a prisoner.  Surviving letters in the collection confirm that her imprisonment began in at least November 1922 (an autographed letter from Mountjoy Jail Military Governor Philip Cosgrave to O’Farrelly’s mother evinces this).  She was eventually released by October 1923.

Other Civil War items in the collection include a notice for missing jewellery lost during the “Big Battle”, a set of rules governing prisoner conduct at North Dublin Union and a small prison diary dated August 1922.

Civil War material aside, the collection happily boasts a substantial amount of O’Farrelly’s correspondence.  A plethora of recognisable names including Richard Mulcahy (one of his letters is addressed ‘Fernside’, a War of Independence Republican haunt), Ernie O’Malley, Sighle Humphreys, Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan are featured and indicate the level of O’Farrelly’s Republican connection.

Letter from Ernie O'Malley (MS 47,640/41) Letter from Ernie O’Malley (MS 47,640/41)


Letters concerning ‘An Phoblacht’ and a large number of IRA communiqués and Cumann na mBan documents dating from the 1920s and 1930s also feature.  Some documents are cryptically signed with initials or amusing aliases such as “Mr. Lightside” and “Mr. Heaviside”.  Indeed, touches of light-hearted humour contrast with official documentation present in the papers.  An unsigned letter to O’Farrelly regarding her “celery” (salary) and containing a rhyme with words ending in “-ski” illustrates this.  Personal effects in the collection also contrast with official documents; for example, an intimate letter expressing sorrow on the death of O’Farrelly’s sister Mollie in 1921.

Other personal paraphernalia in the papers adds to our picture of O’Farrelly.  Minutes of meetings for Irish language group, An Grágaire, of which she was a member, as well as an Irish-German Society membership card dated 1951 – 52 are included.  O’Farrelly’s Defence of the Realm Permit Book (1918) is a fascinating item situated within the wider political framework that contains Annie’s personal details as well as her photograph (always good to put a face to the name!)  It is one of two photographs of O’Farrelly in the collection: the other shows her standing outside the office of ‘An Phoblacht’.

Indeed, photographs add an absorbing dimension to the collection.  An abundant visual black and white feast, they document the Republican movement and commemorations in the 1930s.  This includes photographs of the annual Bodenstown pilgrimage featuring Cumann na mBan, IRA and Fianna Éireann.  Also featured is a profound and poignant photograph of the body of Tony D’Arcy, who died on hunger strike in 1940.  These items confirm that Republican activity continued post-Civil War.  Further illustrating this point are agenda for Cumann na mBan conventions in 1925 and 1927, an IRA Constitution for 1925 and two beautifully coloured cards from IRA detainees at the Curragh internment camp in 1944 that are contained in the collection.

1930's commemoration photo /Cumann na mban-graveside (MS 47,547/3/6 1930′s commemoration photo, Cumann na mBan graveside (MS 47,647/3/6)


Biographical accounts and contemporary newspaper cuttings concerning IRA Chief of Staff Seán Russell, who died in 1940, feature heavily.  A close friend of O’Farrelly, the collection contains a wedding invitation addressed to both as guests as well as a cheque signed by Russell.  Also in the collection is typed evidence provided at the inquest in to the death of Harry Boland and a confession by former IRA Chief of Staff and alleged informer Stephen Hayes.

An enthralling and pertinent collection since we are in the throes of celebrating the Decade of Centenaries, the Annie O’Farrelly Papers offer a tangible glimpse into recent Irish history, with particular focus on the Republican movement.  The collection demonstrates how diverse and wonderful archival material can be and the papers threw up items as varied as an IRA timesheet to a glove pattern.  Furthermore, it highlights the often neglected, yet pivotal, role played by women in the Irish revolutionary period and reference made throughout the papers to various known and unknown individuals shows how the fabric of Irish history was woven by ordinary men and women as well as more celebrated figures.  The Annie O’Farrelly Papers are a must-see for students of twentieth-century Ireland and are a valuable asset to the National Library of Ireland’s collections.