Things No. 2-3: Portraits from the Old Country

Today, many Americans will celebrate all things Irish, unaware that, as one article discovered, “Everything You Know About St. Patrick’s Day Is Wrong.” Typically we associate the traditional holiday with drinking, more drinking, and later maybe a bit more drinking. Oh, and being Irish.

201403_stpats1

Reality is a b****.

Our family is no exception. As a kid, I remember walking through the rooms of my grandparent’s house and discovering a small wooden plaque with our family coat-of-arms neatly painted on it, while in the other room hung a framed ancestral history. To me, those items were not just souvenirs, they are reminders of Mimi and Papa’s curiosity and desire to discover more. Both are no longer with us, but the same inquisitiveness continues today.

This past weekend, my uncles (their sons) came down from Boston to visit. After dinner, I asked my father about two small photographs which I recently was intrigued by:

No one seemed certain who the sitters were, but the emblazoned-guilt addresses of both studios where unmistakably sharp. We decided to look them up.

Cork had swelled into an overcrowded place by the late-Nineteenth century. Terrible poverty had swept through the countryside during the Great Famine of 1845-52, forcing rural farming communities into relocate to urban areas or face starvation. Nearly 80,000 people resided in the city, though thousands had left in search of better living conditions (namely Britain or N. America). Still, many did not leave and brought rise to several important industries, such as brewing, distilling, wool and shipbuilding.

LC-DIG-ppmsc-09851

[St.] Patrick Street, Cork. County Cork, Ireland.
(Library of Congress)

Amidst the din of commerce on St. Patrick’s Street (sometimes just referred to as “Patrick Street”), one of the main roads through Cork, were two far quieter settings. Francis Guy, a stationer and photographer, ran one photographic studio at No. 70, while his collaborator Richard Williamson & Co. occupied a second, later known as Berlin Photographic Studio.

City directory listing for both photographic studios in 1884. Note the larger advertisement for Guy's Cork Exhibition the year prior.

City directory listing for both photographic studios in 1884. Note the larger advertisement for Guy’s Cork Exhibition the year prior.

Early records show that the Guy family initially operated a grocery store on Patrick Street in 1842. They learned the craft of paper-making which later was mastered by Francis Guy and turned into a full-time trade.[1] Those same processes were introduced into the field of photography, whereby Guy became well-known for enlarging prints and setting them onto portrait cardboard. “It is no unmerited praise to say that nothing superior to them could be produced in the best lithographic establishments in the kingdom,” the Cork Herald reviewed in 1884.[2] He continued publishing, printing, and photographing for over forty years.

guy4

Guy’s business (so-called “Stationary Hall”) on 70 Patrick Street, ca 1867. Small portraits can been seen hanging in the front window.
(National Library of Ireland)

It’s unknown when the Berlin Photographic Studio operated at No. 33, but from 1884 onward it was run by R. Williamson & Co.[3] Like Francis Guy, Richard Williamson began with a different trade. As a letterpress printer, he circulated books and other periodicals at No. 61. The building later became the primary home for Berlin Studio and like Guy’s business, its address was proudly engraved on hundreds of cabinet cards.

Backmark for a Berlin Photographic Studio card. (flickr)

Backmark for a Berlin Photographic Studio card.
(Flickr)

We will never find the answer to all of our questions. Like, when did my ancestors walk into the photographic studios to meet with Guy and Williamson? How are they even related to me? But it begins with questioning what we don’t know in the first place. Once we do that, we can discover a wealth of contextual information and at the very least, make conclusions about what that day in Cork probably was like. If we do not, heritage only becomes a holiday known only for green beer, shamrocks, and four-leaf clovers.

Notes:

[1] Guy first appears in Laing’s Cork Mercantile Directory working as an independent stationer in 1863. Before then, he managed a shop at 94 Old George’s Street in the 1856 Slater’s Directory.

[2] Francis Guy, Francis Guy’s City and County Cork Almanac and Directory for 1884, in the Cork Past and Present.ie, accessed March 17, 2014, http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/places/streetandtradedirectories/.

[3] Ibid.

Sources:

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