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Digging for Emmet: Ghostly Images From Dublin’s Past

On February 2019, the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Dublin met at St Michan’s Church, Dublin, to issue an appeal for the return of the head of an 800-year old mummy which was stolen during a raid at the church’s crypt. At this event, a chance meeting between Colin O’Riordan, a photographer for Independent News and Media, and the Diocesan Communications Officer for Dublin and Glendalough, Lynn Glanville, resulted in the identification of some glass slides that had remained a puzzle for decades.

Although Colin found identifying the church somewhat difficult, he focused on the windows of the side of the church and compared these with old images of Dublin churches from around this time, determining that the church in question was St Peter’s, which was formally positioned on Aungier Street. Colin then followed up his conversation with Lynn by bringing the slides (which he had rescued years before) to the RCB Library, re-telling his story and how his research had progressed. Generously, he donated them for the Church’s permanent safe-keeping at the Library.

Lantern image from St Peter’s, Dublin, in 1903, from the collection rescued by photographer Colin O’Riordan and donated by him to the RCB Library (from l-r: Dr Thomas Addis Emmet, James Franklin Fuller, and two unidentified gentleman) 

In a collaboration with Colum O’Riordan, General Manager of the Irish Architectural Archive, where the slides were digitised, the slides were dated to at least 1889 due to the presence of an advertisement for Bovril (the Bovril Company having been founded in this year). With 1889 as a starting point, we began to research any leads from parish and other resources in the RCB Library. What kept recurring during the research was the excavation of the graveyard of St Peter’s around the time of Robert Emmet’s anniversary in 1903. As revealed by the vestry minute books, the Select Vestry of St Peter’s Church met on Thursday, 19th March 1903, to discuss a letter from Dr Thomas Addis Emmet ‘requesting permission to open the ground covering the Emmett [sic] vault in the Church Yard’. Dr Emmet (1826-1919) was the grandson of the elder brother of Robert Emmet, Thomas Addis Emmet, a member of the United Irishmen who was arrested in 1798. Newspaper reports from the time – written by Dr Emmet himself – confirm that an excavation of the grave yard of St Peter’s occurred on 6th July 1903. Other photographic evidence from the National Library of Ireland allowed for the RCB Library to identify many of the people in the glass slides.

Labourer in the ground, digging and moving burial stones

What is particularly interesting and invaluable is how detailed they are, and the quality. There are 13 images in total, clearly showing an excavation of the cemetery that was attached to the church of St Peter. These are evocative images, capturing life in Dublin during the late 19th century, the interaction between the labourers on the ground, digging and moving burial stones, with the church officials overseeing matters. It is striking how close we were to losing these important and fascinating images – a reminder of the importance of preserving such artefacts. With Colin’s foresight, and the Irish Architectural Archive’s help, the RCB Library is now presenting all thirteen lantern slides.