Archive of the Month
Digging for Emmet: Ghostly images from Dublin’s past brought back to life through digitization
By Bryan Whelan
In February 2019, the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Dublin met at St Michan’s Church, Dublin, to issue an appeal for the return of the head of an 800–year old mummy which was stolen during a raid at the church’s crypt. At this event, a chance meeting between Colin O’Riordan, a photographer for Independent News Media, and the Diocesan Communications Officer for Dublin & Glendalough, Lynn Glanville, resulted in the identification of some glass slides that had remained a puzzle to him for decades.
Colin was “responsible for re–categorising the remaining glass plate negatives” that were housed in the Irish Press Photographic Department between 1979 and 1987. Colin’s primary role was to prioritise items that were of particular importance for the Irish Press. “I discovered a small square cardboard box containing lantern slides of what appeared to be a Victorian archaeological excavation”, he recounted. As this material was not part of the Irish Press photographic collection, it was not considered of importance to catalogue, let alone keep. Thankfully, however, he had the foresight to realise the historical importance of the collection, and decided to keep the box of slides, with the intention of identifying the location at a later stage.
Although Colin found identifying the church somewhat difficult, he managed to determine that the photographs must have been taken in the late 19th century, primarily due to the clothes that the labourers and the church folk were wearing. Online searches offered little by way of help in terms of identifying the church. However Colin focused on the windows of the side of the church and compared these with old images of Dublin churches from around this time, eventually determining that the church in question was St Peter’s, which was formerly positioned on Aungier Street, in Dublin.
Several years later, Colin then followed up his conversation with Lynn by bringing the slides to the RCB Library, re–telling his story and how his research had progressed. Generously, he donated them for the Church’s permanent safe–keeping at the Library.
Collaborating with Colum O’Riordan, General Manager of the Irish Architectural Archive, where the slides have been digitised according to best–practice guidelines. From his vast experience of images of Dublin, Colum was able to date the slides from at least 1889 due to the presence of an advertisement for Bovril (the Bovril company having been founded in this year). What is particularly interesting and invaluable is how detailed they are, as well as the overall quality. There are 13 images in total, clearly showing an excavation of the cemetery that was attached to the church of St Peter. These are evocative images, capturing life in Dublin during the late 19th century, the interaction between the labourers in the ground, digging and moving burial stones, with the church officials overseeing matters above them.
With 1889 as a starting point, we began to research any leads from parish and other resources in the RCB Library. What kept recurring during the research was the excavation of the graveyard of St Peter’s around the time of Robert Emmet’s anniversary in 1903. Robert Emmet (1778–1803) was executed for high treason on September 20, 1803 and his remains were held at Kilmainham Gaol with an instruction to bury them in Bully’s Acre, the burial grounds of a nearby hospital. When the ground was searched later, no remains were found, and speculation grew that the remains had secretly been interred in one of a number of graveyards around Dublin, including St Michan’s (due to strong associations with the United Irishmen), St Peter’s on Aungier Street (due to the Emmet family having a vault in the graveyard), as well as St Paul’s and Glasnevin Cemetery.
As revealed by the vestry minute books, the Select Vestry of St Peter’s Church met on Thursday, 19 March 1903, to discuss a letter from Dr Thomas Addis Emmet ‘requesting permission to open the ground covering the Emmett [sic] vault in the Church Yard’. Dr Emmet (1826–1919) was the grandson of the elder brother of Robert Emmet, Thomas Addis Emmet, a member of the United Irishmen who was arrested in 1798. Dr Emmet lived in New York as a distinguished physician and medical writer, but spent a considerable amount of time and effort in order to solve the mysterious case of Robert Emmet’s final resting place. Working with a solicitor, David A. Quaid – who published a short book the previous year titled Robert Emmet: His Birth–place and Burial (Dublin: J. Duffy, 1903) – Dr Emmet was keen to have something to show in the year of the 100th anniversary of Robert Emmet’s execution.
While the vestry book minutes show that permission was granted for the proposed excavation, there is no further mention of communication with Dr Emmet. However, Dr Emmet did write an article that was published by the Irish Times on Saturday, 19 September, 1903, which recounted the excavation of St Peter’s that occurred on 6 July of that year. Dr Emmet’s article is wonderfully informative, and gives a detailed account of exactly where they excavated in the graveyard, which broadly matches the places shown in the glass slide, as well as who was present on the dig:
Messrs Quaid, Fuller, the Rev. Mr. Robinson, the assistant curate of St Peter’s Church, Mr. Robert Emmet, my son, and myself
Final confirmation that these glass slides were connected with the attempted excavation of Robert Emmet’s remains was the existence in the National Library of Ireland of a glass slide dated to approximately 1905 showing a man and the excavated grave of a Catherine Emmet (http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000643462). Although this slide does not indicate where the grave is, there is a date (10–7–05) and the name ‘Fuleer J. F.’ This refers in fact to James Franklin Fuller (1835–1924), who was a renowned architect working for the Board of Ecclesiastical Commissioners and later the Representative Church Body and St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, in addition to a number of other institutions. This same person is clearly seen a number of times in the glass slides presented here. Judging from the clothes that Mr Fuller is wearing, as well as the differences in the length of his beard, this photograph was probably not taken on the same day as the glass slides donated to the RCB Library, but it does identify the man and also shows his interest and involvement with regards to the Emmet family burials.
Dr Emmet was unsuccessful in locating Robert Emmet’s remains at St Peter’s, noting that ‘after a search of five days nothing was found in connection with the Emmet family’.
Of course, Dr Emmet did not confine his search solely to this graveyard, and there is evidence that a search of St Michan’s was conducted in August of the same year. Dr Emmet notes that ‘Mr Fuller had also discovered in the receiving vault under St Michan’s Church a skull, having a piece of crape tied around it to hide the eye cavities’. An article in the Irish Times records this event as occurring on Thursday, 6 August, 1903 and specifically mentions photographs being taken. It is possible that the photograph of the skull in this lantern slide collection may come from the visit from St Michan’s Church.
What is striking is how close we were to losing these important and fascinating images – a reminder of the importance of preserving such artefacts. With Colin’s foresight, and the Irish Architectural Archive’s help, the RCB Library is now presenting all 13 lantern slides as part of February’s Archive of the Month for public engagement.
For reproduction requests of any of the photographs, please contact the Library.