The last few years have seen an explosion of public interest in historical photographs. There is a profusion of social media sites dedicated to the past, and cultural institutions such as the National Library and the National Museum now regularly host historical photo exhibitions.
Public enterprises have also recognized the importance of photographic archives. One Irish company that is now leaning on its heritage is the Dublin Port Company, with records dating back 300 years. He recently appointed a full-time heritage officer to oversee the company’s archives of photographs, technical drawings, maps, graphics and corporate records dating back 300 years.
A significant amount of the Dublin Port Company archives consists of photographs from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, including black and white glass plate negatives and color transparencies. The majority are glass plates depicting site reports of engineering projects undertaken by the Dublin Port and Docks Board, such as the construction of Butt Bridge, completed for the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.
In these archives is a small collection of color slides from the 1950s and 1960s. These are mainly maritime and port operations just before the modernization of the maritime industry. Soon after, the sea container, invented by American transport entrepreneur Malcolm McLean in 1956, would change both the lives of dockworkers and the environment in which they worked. Over the next two decades, much of Dublin’s docks became brownfields; container transport required new ports and less manpower.
Dublin Port’s footprint has shrunk since its heyday in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, the docks ran down both sides of the River Liffey, from Custom House to Alexandra Basin, employing thousands of casual dockworkers.
Today the port employs only a handful of dockworkers compared to its peak but handles significantly more freight. The quays, once a landscape of warehouses, are now dominated by offices, apartments and commercial spaces. Many photographs show dockers loading or unloading ships at the dock. Work at the wharf was manual and physically tiring. The photographs contain clues to Ireland’s economy at the time. A large freighter named the Duquesa (Duchess) is pictured in the Alexandra Basin during a visit on May 10 and 12, 1960.
The ship – which had the largest refrigerated capacity in the world – had arrived from Buenos Aires via London with a cargo of apples and general cargo. It left empty for Buenos Aires two days later, suggesting that no exports of Irish goods were shipped to Argentina.
Aidan Crawley, whose photographs appear regularly in The Irish Times, examined the photographic archives of the Dublin Port Company for his Master of Arts thesis in Collections and Conservation at the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at University College Dublin