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Spike Island to host major Old Cork in Colour exhibition



From left, Dorota Gubbins curator and John Crotty, general manager, both Spike Island and authors Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley and Professor John Breslin, both NUIG, at the official opening of the ‘Old Cork in Colour’ exhibition at the Mitchell Hall on Spike Island, Co Cork. The exhibition runs from March-November 2022. Picture: David Keane. 12.04.2022

Spike Island has teamed up with the authors of the hugely popular Old Ireland in Colour books to create an exhibition entitled ‘Old Cork in Colour’.  The exhibition will feature a total of 30 old black and white images from the city and county that have been professionally restored and colourised by the authors.   Many of the images are being colourised for the first time, and they include ten images that were taken on Spike Island, showcasing its rich past as a military, penal and social space.  The remaining twenty images include areas of the county like Cork City, Cobh, Bandon, Bantry, Kinsale and Cork Harbour.  Included in the exhibition are images of well-known Irish characters,  with a colourisation of the last known image of Michael Collins, which was taken shortly before his shooting at Béal na Bláth.  Also included are images of John Mitchel and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.  Visitors will be able to see a small print of the original black and white image alongside a larger colourised version of the photograph, all of which will be on display in Spike Island’s Mitchel Hall. 

Spike Island curator Dorota Gubbins chatting with volunteers Michael O’Connor and Eric Curtis, during the official opening of the ‘Old Cork in Colour’ exhibition at the Mitchell Hall on Spike Island, Co Cork. The exhibition runs from March-November 2022. Picture: David Keane. 12.04.2022

The books Old Ireland in Colour, written by authors Professor John Breslin and Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, have been a huge success since they were first published.  The first book was named Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2020, while both books have topped the Irish book bestseller charts.  The social media accounts showcasing the restored images are also very active and engaged, with the authors earning significant praise for bringing a renewed interest to many aspects of Irish history.

Both authors said they were overwhelmed with the positive response to the colourisation project, never expecting it to become the hugely popular theme it has become.   The pair have made numerous TV and radio appearances as a result.  John was able to make use of a computer-based “artificial intelligence” system called DeOldify that does an initial colourisation of a black and white photograph in a short period of time. After that, he manually colourises various aspects of the photograph in Photoshop to correct any incorrect colours – such as uniforms, eyes, hair, etc. – based on any records or research he or Sarah-Anne can find. The Spike Island project presented its own challenges, with images of social and military life common in the islands archives.  For uniforms, John and Sarah-Anne contacted several uniform specialists in Ireland and the UK to find out about various shades of khaki, green, etc. for those British/Irish uniforms that he had colourised from around the WWI period.  They also involved former residents of Spike Island to get information on details about colours from structures on the island, and for other details like eyes or hair, they consulted portrait paintings, Ellis Island travel records, biographies, prison records, family members and any other relevant records where available.

Conor Nelligan, Cork County Council heritage officer chatting with Sean O Loinsigh, chair of Cobh Museum, at the official opening of the ‘Old Cork in Colour’ exhibition at the Mitchell Hall on Spike Island, Co Cork. The exhibition runs from March-November 2022. Picture: David Keane. 12.04.2022

Author John Breslin explained the challenges.  “Often the details are unknown so you must choose a colour that looks right or that seems to match the shade of grey in the original photo – there is a certain amount of interpretation here, but it is usually based on commonly worn colours, building materials, etc., from the time period, statistics on eye colours in certain countries, and so on”.

Author Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley is a Lecturer and Head of the Department of History at the National University of Ireland Galway. A past Chair of the Irish History Students’ Association, co-PI of the Tuam Oral History Project and Senior Research Fellow at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, she has authored and edited eight books and over fifty other publications. She was born in and grew up in Cobh.

Her co-author John Breslin is a Personal Professor in Electronic Engineering at the National University of Ireland Galway, where he is director of the TechInnovate entrepreneurship programmes. He is co-PI of the Insight and Confirm SFI Research Centres.  John is a co-founder of, and the PorterShed. He hails from the Burren and lives in Connemara. Speaking about the upcoming launch, Island Manager John Crotty said “we are delighted to host an exhibition that will stir the imagination of all who visit it, and hopefully appeal to a wide section of the Cork community.  We proudly showcase our rich Irish history on Spike Island, and share our Cork connections, so this is a perfect opportunity to incorporate the wider Cork story.  The ten colourised images of Spike Island are particularly exciting for us, as they bring our history to life so vividly, and show us details we would not have identified without this kind of updating.  But no doubt many visitors will be fascinated by the last ever image taken of Michael Collins being on display, in this the centenary year of his death”.

The exhibition was opened on 12th April and will run until November 2022 in the island’s Mitchell Hall gallery space.  This beautiful former church has showcased art and heritage exhibitions, crafts and talks over the last 5 years.

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