The First ‘Famine’ Photograph? Poverty, Philanthropy and Resistance in 19th century Ireland

Emily Mark-FitzGerald

Keywords: Philanthropy; Photography; Illustrated journalism; Famine; Ireland

Participation: presential

Ireland occupies a dual position with respect to colonised legacies, as both a colonised territory under the control of the British metropole, and a participant in the expansion and administration of the British empire overseas. Undeniably, however, the impact of British colonial control (and mismanagement) found its most devastating expression during the Great Famine of 1845-52, when more than one million died, and more than a million emigrated to the nations of its diaspora. Yet the visualisation of the Famine is a strange and uneven history, dominated by sentimental genre painting and carefully calibrated newspaper wood engravings – nearly all of which were intended for audiences outside the island. This was a visual culture curated for the colonial gaze, which did not (and arguably could not) accommodate the realities of starvation, disease, and mass death. Perhaps even more remarkably – given the availability of photography and the extent of its known usage on the island – there are no known direct photographs of the Famine, a subject that has been addressed at length in existing scholarship.

This paper, however, will discuss new research which has recently identified what is the earliest (and possibly first) photograph whose date and Famine-related subject can be verified. A small salt print, it depicts the workers of an industrial school in rural Co Waterford set up as a Famine relief project by an English evangelical minister, which operated between 1851-1856. It is also very likely the earliest photographic image of an industrial school in Ireland – one that produced a short-lived (but internationally-circulated) illustrated newspaper hand-composed and printed by the young boys employed at the school. Yet the presence of this relief works formed a continuous source of friction and conflict with its local community over the five years of its existence, leading to death threats and the eventual hasty departure of the minister who was its founder and champion.

This paper will examine this extremely rare early photograph, including its historical context, its production and reception, and its relationship to the colonial welfare system in Ireland. What does it reveal about the use of photography and print cultures during this critical period of crisis and conflict, during the waning years of the Great Famine in Ireland? How and why did the recipients of this form of charity and benevolence resist its imposition? I will argue that this image is an important addition to our understanding of how visual and print media were mobilised in the service of 19th century colonial philanthropy, predicated on the spectacle of staging poverty and reform for mass consumption in Ireland, Britain, and the diaspora.


Baylis, Gail, and Sarah Edge. "The Great Famine: Absence, Memory and Photography." Cultural Studies 24, no. 6 (2010): 778-800.
Carville, Justin. Photography and Ireland. London: Reaktion, 2011.
Corporaal, Marguerite, Oona Frawley, and Emily Mark-FitzGerald (eds). The Great Irish Famine: Visual and Material Cultures. Liverpool University Press, 2018.
Mark-FitzGerald, Emily. "Photography and the Visual Legacy of Famine." In Memory Ireland, Vol. 3: The Famine and the Troubles, edited by Oona Frawley, 121-37. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014


Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald is Associate Professor and Head of the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at University College Dublin, where her research concerns the art history and visual culture of Irish famine, poverty, and migration. The primary expert on the visual history of the Irish Famine, her previous monographs include Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument (Liverpool UP, 2013), co-editor of The Great Irish Famine: Visual and Material Culture (Liverpool UP, 2018); and co-editor of the forthcoming Dublin and the Irish Famine (UCD Press, 2022). Dr Mark-FitzGerald is a frequent contributor to radio, television and print/online media, including BBC, RTE television and radio, Newstalk FM, Irish Times, Sunday Times, The Conversation, Source Photography Magazine, and History Ireland, as well as international media in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, etc. In 2020 she featured in the award-winning two-part documentary 'The Hunger' (Tyrone Productions) broadcast on RTE and ARTE (European Culture Channel).