• Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave’s photographs of Dublin

    Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave was born in Dublin on 17th July, 1853. He took his name and subsequent profession from his mother’s father, Dr Ephraim MacDowel, founder of the Richmond Hospital. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1875. He subsequently lectured in biology in the Carmichael Medical School, and on its closure was elevated to professor at the Royal College of Surgeon’s of Ireland from 1889 to 1895, where he also served as President from 1914-15.

    Apart from his career in medicine, Cosgrave had a particular interest in the history of Dublin, and compiled a comprehensive catalogue of 18th and 19th century engravings of Dublin, which formed several articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Together with Leonard R. Strangways he was co-author of The Illustrated Dictionary of Dublin, published in 1895. This book was arguably the first guidebook to Dublin which was heavily illustrated using photographs taken by the authors themselves. An updated edition was published together with a Supplemental Guide to the Irish International Exhibition of 1907. Further to his interest in Dublin’s architecture, Cosgrave was one of the founders of the Georgian Society in 1909, and served as the Society’s Honorary Secretary. He oversaw the publication of the fine volumes published by that Society between 1909 and 1913.

    In order to compliment his interest in the architecture of Dublin, Cosgrave actively photographed public buildings and the different forms of houses found throughout the city centre, as well as details such as doorways, ironwork balconies and ironwork lamp brackets. Cosgrave also had an interest in Dublin’s pre-Georgian buildings that survived in the Coombe and the Liberties. Today his photographs are a very important record of a once common house type that has virtually disappeared in Dublin. Thankfully Cosgrave’s interest in Dublin did not stop at its architecture. Some of his most interesting photographs are of a social or economic nature, such as Dublin’s street traders and dockers. Perhaps his most valuable photographs are those of children – invariably the children of Dublin’s tenements.

    Cosgrave was not a professional photographer and his photographs were not the result of commissions. Instead, the collection entirely represents the interests of the photographer himself. The main purpose of his photography was architectural and social documentary rather than artistic. Yet they also provide a colourful and lively portrait of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century.

    Cosgrave died in February 1925. Shortly later, his collection of lantern slides, as well as some negatives and prints, were presented to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, where they continue to be cared for as part of the Society’s extensive photographic collection.

    For more information, see my paper in the latest edition of the Irish Arts Review (Spring 2013).

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