Irish-American writer Frank McCourt once wrote, “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Today, many Americans will celebrate all things Irish, unaware that, as one article discovered, “Everything You Know About St. Patrick’s Day Is Wrong.” Typically we associate the traditional holiday with drinking, more drinking, and later maybe a bit more drinking. Oh, and being Irish.
Stephen Colbert celebrates at the Irish House during the 2010 Olympics.. by reading James Joyce.
Our family is no exception. As a kid, I remember walking through the rooms of my grandparent’s house and discovering a small wooden plaque with our family coat-of-arms neatly painted on it, while in the other room hung a framed ancestral history. To me, those items were not just souvenirs, they are reminders of Mimi and Papa’s curiosity and desire to discover more. Both are no longer with us, but the same inquisitiveness continues today.
This past weekend, my uncles (their sons) came down from Boston to visit. After dinner, I asked my father about two small photographs which I recently was intrigued by:
No one seemed certain who the sitters were, but the emblazoned-guilt addresses of both studios where unmistakably sharp. We decided to look them up.
The city of Cork had swelled into an overcrowded place by the late-Nineteenth century. Terrible poverty had swept through the countryside during the Great Famine of 1845-52, forcing rural farming communities into relocate to urban areas or face starvation. Nearly 80,000 people resided in Cork, although thousands had left in search of better living conditions (namely Britain or N. America). Still, many did not leave and brought rise to several important industries, such as brewing, distilling, wool and shipbuilding.
Amidst the din of commerce on St. Patrick’s Street (sometimes just referred to as “Patrick Street”), one of the main roads through Cork, were two far quieter settings. Francis Guy, a stationer and photographer, ran one photographic studio at No. 70, while his collaborator Richard Williamson & Co. occupied a second, later known as Berlin Photographic Studio.
Early records show that the Guy family initially operated a grocery store on Patrick Street in 1842. They had mastered their paper-making skills which later was mastered by Francis Guy and turned into a full-time trade. Those same processes were introduced into the field of photography, whereby Guy became well-know for enlarging prints and setting them onto portrait cardboard. “It is no unmerited praise to say that nothing superior to them could be produced in the best lithographic establishments in the kingdom,” the Cork Herald reviewed in 1884. He continued to publish, print, and photograph for over forty years.
It’s unknown when Berlin Photographic Studio operated at No. 33, but from 1884 onward it was run by R. Williamson & Co. Like Francis Guy, Richard Williamson began with a different trade. As a letterpress printer, he circulated books and other periodicals at No. 61. The building later became the primary home for Berlin Studio and like Guy’s business, its address was proudly engraved on hundreds of cabinet cards.
We cannot find the answer to all of our questions. Like, when did my ancestors (whose identity isn’t even verified) walk into two of Cork’s photographic studios to meet with Guy or Williamson? Were they even directly related to me? But it begins with questioning what we don’t know in the first place. Once we do that, we can discover a wealth of background information and at the very least, draw conclusion about what that day in Cork probably was like. If we do not, heritage only becomes a holiday only know for green beer, shamrocks, and erroneous icons.
 Guy first appears in the 1863 (Laing’s) Cork Mercantile Directory as an independent stationer.
 “Lithography–Commercial and Artistic,” xx.
- “Cork (city),” Wikipedia, accessed March 17, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cork_(city)
- Francis Guy, Francis Guy’s City and County Cork Almanac and Directory for 1884.