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Commissioners of Irish Lights Collection

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

by Mike Bors (National Photographic Archive / Dublin Institute of Technology Archival Internship 2014)

The National Photographic Archive (NPA) and Dublin Institute of Technology’s (DIT) annual collaborative partnership provides a number of Photography students with the chance to gain practical experience of working with a photographic collection. This gives students an opportunity to benefit from experiencing the practicalities and functioning of an archive as an empirical extension to the theoretical Archives, Images, History module of DIT’s Photography BA programme. The practical project work is managed and supervised by the NPA’s curator Elizabeth Kirwan, who directs and assesses the progress of the work in the NPA, in collaboration with Ann Curran, BAS programme Director.  In the NPA, students receive training and practical guidance in preservation from National Library of Ireland’s conservator Matthew Cains, and invaluable help and support from Reading Room Manager Keith Murphy.

To begin, Elizabeth addressed the social and historical context of the existence of the NPA and having received some training from Mathew in preservation methodologies for photographic collections and working in a photographic archive, the year’s projects were introduced and assigned. A portion of the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CIL) Photographic Collection was assigned to me.


The Commissioners of Irish Lights oversees the costal lights and navigation marks and is funded by light dues paid by ships calling at ports in Ireland. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the time period when the photographs in this collection were taken, the responsibility for lighthouses, lightships, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland was vested in the Commissioners of Irish Lights. In 2000, CIL donated its collection of 23 boxes of prints, glass and plastic slides, negatives and positives totalling around 1,000 items, to the National Library of Ireland.


My responsibility was to rehouse the 85 black and white prints, list them in a specifically designed Excel template for methodological recording of the content of the collection. These prints are housed in three archival boxes, and document the work of the CIL in various locations around the Irish coast between 1897 and 1911. While each of the photographs bears a CIL inventory number on the verso, each can also belong to a number of categories, differing in age, state of preservation, print type (some black and white prints, while others tinted brown) and mounting type. After much research it appears that all photographs in this collection are albumen prints. The mounting of the photographs suggest that they were prepared for display at some stage. Some of the mounts showed visible signs of fading from being exposed to the light for prolonged period of time.


The collection presented multiple possibilities for investigation. My research focused on why the photographs were taken and collected and who took them. I was trying to establish a reason why photographs of lighthouses, inspectors, livestock, building sites, vessels, and shipwrecks and army ships were gathered into one collection.


I wrote to the CIL in the hope that there would be someone in the Commissioners office who had knowledge of the collection. I was referred to Frank Pelly, a retired Lights Engineer, who is now the part-time Consultant Curator and Archivist at the museum at the Baily Lighthouse in Dublin, who kindly shared his expertise. He confirmed that the authorship of the photographs is attributed to Sir Robert Ball.

Astronomer, mathematician, and writer of popular science books, Robert Ball, was appointed Scientific Adviser to the Irish Lights Board in 1882. “It was his duty to advise the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the efficiency of the apparatus used in the Irish lighthouses”. (Ball, 1915, p. 246). Even though he was not obliged to accompany the Commissioners on their annual inspections, he was said to rarely miss the annual trip always accompanied by his camera. The collection is thus ultimately created by an amateur, even though Ball was a scientist and a member of the Dublin Photographic Society. There is no evidence to suggest he received any formal photographic training. This led me to believe, along with no evidence of receipts of payments from CIL that his archive was created of his own accord and possibly later donated by him to the Commissioners.


I checked the 85 photographs against the existing information about the CIL archive. The physical integrity of an archive must be understood before any work on re-ordering or re-housing can be done. After a discussion with Elizabeth, and being unable to find any reason otherwise, all of the photographs were returned to the CIL’s original numerical order. The numbers (CIL 353 to CIL 430) were already recorded on the back of the the prints and changing the numbering system would only make it more difficult to access the collection. The contents of each print were recorded onto the spreadsheet and this now forms a new and crucial part of this archive.


The final part of the work was the re-housing and preservation of the collection, done to best international practice. After consultation with Matthew it was decided that every item would be housed in an acid-free paper sleeve and than placed into an envelope. Each item was measured and the new housing was designed and made accordingly. The most damaged items were housed with an additional card backing to prevent potential degradation and decomposition. The collection was then rehoused into five large new acid-free boxes and two items were housed separately in smaller boxes, all marked with stickers with the individual reference numbers recorded in the bottom left hand side corner consistently throughout the collection.


The CIL collection is a window into the historical past; as not only did it capture historical machinery, maritime culture and ways of travel but also people from over 100 years ago and their contribution to the safety of others. Ball’s photographs started their lives as just ‘snaps’, captured memories from his travels with the Commissioners, but they became documents not only of the lighthouses and their keepers, but also the inspections and inspectors themselves. Ball himself called his photographs ‘snaps’ but today they are much more than that, being “a mechanism through which we return to the past” (Enwezor, 2008: 13).  The CIL’s collection is a time machine that takes the viewer back to the 1900s. The recreational use of photography is often overlooked, but it is this kind of recording of everyday life that often tells us more than the professional, arranged or staged formal portraits and picturesque landscapes. It can reveal the untold stories and different, non-mainstream points of view.

by Mike Bors

National Photographic Archive / Dublin Institute of Technology Archival Internship 2014



Ball, W. V. (1915): Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Richard Ball, Boston: Little, Brown and Company

Enwezor, O (2008): ‘Archive Fever: Photography Between History and Monument’ in Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art; Steidl