17 Sep 2019

A fantastic photographic find: Countess de Markievicz

Third place post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. This post is by Saoirse Reynolds, working as a Library Assistant at the National Library of Ireland.

“Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” Countess de Markievicz

Late last year I joined the Special Collections team in the National Library of Ireland. The team is responsible for developing and managing the library’s collections of manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, maps, prints and rare and antiquarian books. It is also responsible for onsite access to special collections via the reading rooms in Manuscripts in 2/3 Kildare Street and the National Photographic Archive (NPA) in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar. Luckily for me I was placed to work between the Manuscripts department and Photographic Archive so I have exposure to a wide range of interesting material.

One of my favourite parts of being a library assistant is the hands-on experience working with collections. There is often some mystery to solve or special find to make. One such instance happened to me a few weeks ago.
Among my other duties, I am working on a project rehousing and listing a recent donation to the National Library. This collection is vast, and it includes glass plate negatives and positives, prints, albums and lantern slides.

After an initial appraisal of the collection and report, it was decided to rehouse and list the glass plate negatives and positives. While carefully rehousing the glass plates, I came across three glass plate negatives of Countess de Markievicz and her dog Poppet: two 17 x 22 cm and one 17 x 12 cm. They were housed in original envelopes from the Poole Collection. See images below:

Original Poole envelopes: ‘2732 Countess de Markievicz’, ‘2733 Countess de Markievicz’, ‘D 4843 Countess de Markievicz’
I thought it was unusual that they were in their original envelopes and felt that I had never seen the images before. So, in consultation with the NPA team, I checked the catalogue to find that the plates had been recorded on the NLI catalogue but were designated as not currently available.

Digitally produced positive image (on the left) from glass plate negative (right) using a smartphone. Countess Markievicz with dog Poppet - standing
So far I have only been able to find a full match online for one of the glass plates which is unattributed. For the other two I have only found partial matches sitting down and standing.

Digitally produced positive image (on the left) from glass plate negative (right) using a smartphone. Countess Markievicz with dog Poppet - sitting
My research into the Poole Index Books shows that the photos were commissioned around the 3rd of November 1917. You can see in the images below ‘Countess de Markievicz’ written into the book on the top right hand page along with the date.

Creation date based on date photographic order was placed; recorded in Index Book of the A. H. Poole Studio as: 3 November 1917.

Countess Markievicz was born Constance Georgine Gore Booth and was a revolutionary and a politician. She was famous for her role in the Easter Rising in 1916, and was involved in the planning of the rising. She became a commissioned officer in the Irish Citizen’s Army and was a founding member of Fianna Eireann and Cumann na mBan. Markievicz commanded Irish Citizen Army volunteers in St. Stephens Green along with Michael Mallin during the rising.

Upon surrender, Markievicz was arrested and sentenced to death but instead got life in prison because of her sex. She was first brought to Mountjoy Prison and then to Aylesbury Prison in England in July 1916. She was released from prison in June 1917.

Markievicz was a trained visual artist and was very aware of the impact of the visual on political discourse. Her earlier portraits captured her privileged upbringing and lifestyle. In later portraits she presented herself as Joan of Arc, an icon of the suffrage movement and as a militant republican. These images created her identity in the public eye.

“Countess Markievicz, her dog ‘Poppett’, Theo Fitzgerald and Thomas McDonald, members of Na Fianna Eireann, photographed at Waterford in 1917.”
In these photographs Markievicz is wearing military style clothes but not the Irish Citizens Army uniform she has worn in previous photographs. She is in a long skirt and military top - it may have been her uniform for training na Fianna.

My background and interest in Irish history was essential in initially identifying the glass plate negatives and bringing them to the attention of the NPA team. Finding them was also very exciting and reminded me that the work I do as a library assistant is a great privilege. I hope I go on to make many more discoveries!

It has been established that these were part of the Poole Photographic Collection and can now be made available and digitised. They will fill in gaps in the collection and in the life of one of Ireland’s most iconic women.

The images will be available in the coming weeks at:

  • Catalogue.nli.ie. (2019). Holdings: Countess de Markievicz. [online] Available at: http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000593241 [Accessed 13 May 2019].
  • Catalogue.nli.ie. (2019). Holdings: Countess de Markievicz. [online] Available at: http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000593242 [Accessed 13 May 2019].
  • Catalogue.nli.ie. (2019). Holdings: Cabinet commissioned by Countess, 143 Leinster Rd,.... [online] Available at: http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000684094 [Accessed 13 May 2019].
  • Lissadellhouse.com. (2019). Countess Markievicz | Lissadell House Online. [online] Available at: http://lissadellhouse.com/countess-markievicz/ [Accessed 13 May 2019].
  • Poole, A.H. (n.d.). Index Books.
Images taken by myself, all images reproduced with permission from the NLI.

9 Sep 2019

On the Road: The Maynooth University Ken Saro-Wiwa Travelling Exhibition.

Fourth place post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. This post is by Louise Walsworth Bell, working as a Conservator at Maynooth University Library.

Personal photograph of Ken Saro-Wiwa
By kind permission of Noo Saro-Wiwa
I’m a conservator at Maynooth University. I’ve worked here for 18 years and continue to be amazed and inspired by the sheer breadth of the collections held in the Library and their relevance to the issues of today.

It is both an honour and a challenge to work preparing travelling exhibitions. These allow us to bring our unique materials to the public. I was thrilled to be involved in the Ken Saro-Wiwa Travelling Exhibition: ‘Ringing the Ogoni Bells’, which went on its first national tour in January, first stop: Athy Community Library.

The Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive is an incredibly inspiring and varied collection. At its core are the personal letters from Saro-Wiwa to Sister Majella McCarron (OLA).

These letters and poems are available on open access as Silence Would be Treason.

Letter from Ken Saro -Wiwa to Sister Majella Mc Carron dated 35/7/1994
Copyright Maynooth University Library
Ken Saro-Wiwa was an author, poet, playwright, and environmentalist from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Concerned about the environmental destruction of his homeland Ogoni, he established MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People).

Sister Majella McCarron
Copyright Maynooth University Library
Sister Majella McCarron, originally from Fermanagh, worked as a missionary in Nigeria. She provided invaluable support to the Ogoni people and Ken Saro-Wiwa in the struggle to highlight the environmental destruction of their homeland. The then Nigerian military government arrested Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues and placed them in military detention. From there Saro-Wiwa wrote to Sister Majella, his letters smuggled out in breadbaskets. Sadly, despite Sister Majella’s effort and international outcry Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues were executed in November 1995. In November 2011, Sister Majella donated the archive to Maynooth University. The correspondence is further enriched by photographs, poems, and audio recordings.

Photographs showing destruction of Ogoni Lands in the Niger Delta 1990’s
Copyright Maynooth University Library
Photographs showing Irish protests: Afri Famine Walk and Sister Majella speaking at the Afri Walk
Copyright Maynooth University Library
I find the letters particularly poignant in that they are one-sided. While Sister Majella retained the correspondence she received, her letters to him are sadly lost… yet the 28 letters in our archive capture a real sense of the man, his true literary talent and the issues for which he campaigned.

With travelling exhibitions, we don’t send the originals. The Special Collections and Archives Team reproduce these items to scale for loan. We are not pretending that the items are original, but it is important that we harness the power of the visual in drawing readers into the contents of a collection. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s talent is as identifiable as his handwriting.

Excerpt from one of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last letters to Sister Majella McCarron. Undated.
Copyright Maynooth University Library
As a conservator I am regularly asked to work on items; stabilising them for access or exhibition, rehousing collections that are compromised by their current condition and preparing works for digitisation. It is key in this work to maintain a sense of the item itself, not to remove the character that an object’s life has imprinted upon it… to maintain the authenticity of what the collection offers: uninterrupted and intact. However, I rarely get to read the items that I am working on. I could tell you what damage they have suffered in minute detail and what treatments I undertook to counter this, but the content itself may pass me by entirely.

As I worked on the facsimiles, trimming each reproduction to the edge of its page or support I was drawn into the depth of this collection. At the time of writing, Saro-Wiwa was on death row and yet his words reach beyond the page and his lifespan and speak to us directly. Whatever demons he faced in that time of uncertainty, he believed in peaceful protest, he believed in the Ogoni people and the importance of their culture and beyond all, he believed that the struggle for environmental justice is wholly worthwhile.

Equally, the sense I have of Sister Majella through her recordings on the Maynooth University Library Ken Saro-Wiwa Audio Archive helps place the plight of the Ogoni against an Irish backdrop, adding such a rich relevance to the collection as a whole. Creating public awareness of the collection is an honour and in this time of environmental challenges remains as relevant today as it was at the time of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life.

The exhibition ran for six weeks in Athy. It was opened by the Lord Mayor of Kildare, Seán Power, with Sister Majella McCarron as guest of honour.

The exhibition will travel to Wexford, proposed dates are:

  • Gorey: 25 May – 4 June
  • Wexford: 10 – 30 June
  • New Ross: 1- 13 July
  • Bunclody: 15-31 July
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s cap
Copyright Maynooth University Library

2 Sep 2019

Emergency Response: Learning from Disaster.

Highly Commended post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. This post is by Sarah Graham, working as a Library Assistant Maynooth University Library

                  "Every Disaster holds evidence of the human capacity to do better" (Ripley.2008.153)
The incredible images of the Notre Dame ablaze less than a month ago were moving and considered by E.C.C.O. ‘a cultural trauma for France’ It is shocking to see the result of over 800 years of continuous human creativity and expression disappear so quickly. Yet these scenes are not unique. The Glasgow School of Art has twice caught fire, to devastating effect and the National Museum of Brazil’s collection of 20 million items was almost entirely lost. Our main defence in these circumstances is a robust emergency response plan and trained staff. This is in all our minds as we go through our own review of the Emergency Response Plan in Maynooth University Library as part of the new Library Strategic Plan.

What can we learn from this catastrophe? The fire started at 6.30 in the evening, burnt for almost 15 hours and took c. 400 firefighters to extinguish. The organist Johann Vexo described the moment the alarm sounded to NBC News, ‘everybody was really surprised because it was the first time we had heard the alarm, so we didn’t really know what to do.’ He then went to the sacristy to look at the alarm system. An indecisive phase is very common in disasters. In The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes – and why, Ripley refers to the normalcy bias. ‘The human brain works by identifying patterns. It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the future’.(Ripley.2008.9) In exceptional circumstances, the brain is looking for new data. Speeding this up comes through clear fire safety instruction and drills. Following events at Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey responded to questions about their provisions on twitter. These include working closely with the London fire service, having regular exercises, architectural briefings and (a beautiful phrase) they ‘have a comprehensive and regularly-tested salvage plan’.

The fire in Notre Dame however, took hold. France’s Deputy Interior Minister said to the BBC that the building was within 30 minutes of total loss. As the fire developed, American firefighter Gregg Favre gave some insight as to the likely situation inside.

He continues; ‘Inside is a whole other problem, the primary option is a large 2.5” fire hose ... this option also means placing responders on the inside as the roof is falling down around them.’ The work of the Paris firefighters was phenomenal. It appears they quickly realised that the roof was lost and focused their attention on the most iconic and valuable areas; the west towers, the rose windows and salvaging portable items. This can be factored into our emergency plan, by establishing a priority of collections with plans indicating their location and access.

The first fire at the Glasgow School of Art happened about six months before I moved to the city. There was real effort to try to learn from this incident. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service did a thorough investigation and put together a video showing how quickly the blaze was able to spread through a system of vents vertically, from the basement to the upper floors. Similarly, sketches provided by the draftsman as the Notre Dame was on fire, proved informative in assessing and documenting the progress of the fire within the spaces of the cathedral.

The following morning when I walked into work, I passed the crane carrying out work on the roof of St Patrick’s College and opened up the Russell library with its beautiful wooden hammerbeam roof. Thankfully, the University safety officer assured me of his robust fire provisions. This is a matter taken very seriously at Maynooth as we are not strangers to fire ourselves. Probably the most renowned fire was on the historic south campus. In 1940, New House caught fire and was gutted. “The timber roof, a hundred and thirty years old, burnt like tinder.”(Corish.1995.325) Fire-fighting equipment onsite proved ineffective and help was called out from Dublin. The salvage was carried out by students who “worked through a building blazing above them, throwing anything that they could out the windows … ignoring calls from understandably anxious deans below.”(Corish.1995.326)

'Philisophers analysing fire-fighting equipment" (Corish. 1995. Plate 67) Photo from the 1940 House Fire

Hammbream roof in the Russell Library © Maynooth University Library

We must consider all of this when we approach our Emergency Response Plan. It can be daunting to assess potential risks and consider the various ways our collections could be threatened. However, protecting our heritage is a proactive challenge, emergency response is a cornerstone of collection care and a duty to the safety of our valuable material. I see it as empowering because in emergencies some people freeze, panic or procrastinate. Our best chance, is to prepare for these incidents in advance with cool heads. With such examples of disaster around us, we can’t afford not to.

Corish, P.J. (1995) Maynooth College 1795 - 1995. Gill and McMillan
Ripley, A. (2008). The Unthinkable: Who Survives when disaster strikes and why. London: Harmony