Date of Award


Document Type

Master Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (Research)


Institute of Technology, Tralee


This study considers how visual images became central to the folk imagination of Irishness between 1849 and 1949. It begins with contrasting representations in photography of the Irish in the 1890s. The political/cultural contexts of images of Irishness is established and developed with reference to the juxtaposition of contemporary visual arts, folk song and nationalism in Kilmainham Gaol in 1991. It considers whether distinct cultural systems have historically competed for legitimacy and whether, specifically, art and tradition are incompatible in terms of a nationalist construction of Irishness. The Irishness of Irish art in the nineteenth century, the role of the visual arts in the revivals of the 1890s, the institutional record of Saorstat Éireann and the career of Paul Henry are each examined with reference to a disconnection between art and tradition as defined by Irish Ireland. The nature of tradition is scrutinised in this context. The music of Sean O’Riada is considered as a case study in the degree of alienation between tradition and art in modem Ireland. A distinction is drawn between tradition, folk and popular culture as a pretext for an exploration of the capacity for art in Irish Ireland. The evidence of Synge, Henry, and the Tory Island painters is considered. Evidence of visuality in folk strategies devised by the Young Irelanders and George Petrie in particular is also considered. The focus shifts from restrictive notions of art to a more inclusive concept of visual culture and the emphasis shifts to popular culture in the age of mechanical reproduction. The work of photographer Robert J. Welch illustrates how the transfer of images of ‘the real Ireland’ from ethnography to popular culture facilitated the construction of folk images of Irishness at the end of empire. The study concludes with a photographic essay on the emergence of a folk ‘image’nation.’

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