A history beyond words

A nineteen year-long labour of archival love has resulted in an impressive pictorial history of An Garda Síochána writes Ian Redican.

What started out as a simple project of going through a couple of boxes of glass plate negatives, almost destroyed forever by flooding in the basement of the Technical Bureau building in October 2002, and to try to ‘root out’ any images of Garda historical importance led to a 19- year-old labour of archival love.
“See if there’s any good photos of gardaí and digitise what you think is of interest,” was the way it was put to me. As I searched through the boxes, I got a sense of what archaeologists might have experienced in an Egyptian tomb as they looked through artefacts never seen before. I was literally seeing the entire history of the job, and Ireland for the past 80 years (at that stage), reveal itself to me in pictorial form. And it was right there all along under our noses, boxed away, with no way for anyone to view it. With each delicate piece of glass plate negative that I took out and held up to the light, I saw old cars, old uniforms, buildings long since gone or changed in appearance; streets that we know but look so different back in the day. It quickly dawned on me that this was an ‘all or nothing project.’ As the first six months of digitising the plates passed by, I realised that I had only scratched the surface of this mammoth project. “It’ll take two to three years maybe… I thought!”

Life in the Technical Bureau back then was all go. For us, in the Photographic Section, we were regularly heading away to murders, suspicious deaths and serious crime scenes; and when I was back in the office, apart from trying to get on top of my casework, we were printing albums for every court case in the country. Not much has changed, except there’s less of us, and we still look after all of the above. Digital cameras and digital workflows may have sped up our turnaround but time between jobs and providing photographic training is precious. So, finding the time to get going at the archives throughout the years meant that I must have had some love for them to wanting to see them finished. They really have made my time in the Bureau fly by… never an idle moment! Many have cursed the last year that has been the Covid-19 pandemic; but if I’m to look at the best thing that it offered me… then it’s the opportunity to place the finish line within my sights.

Are they finished? No. I don’t think they ever will be because I’ll always find new images to archive. And I haven’t done all this work alone; I am grateful that my colleague D/Sergeant Dave Conway has supported and engaged in the process with boundless enthusiasm. But the glass plates, that always risked the possibility of being dropped and smashed and lost forever, are now safely digitised and look fantastic. The film negatives that followed on from the 1950s to the 1980s, likewise, are done. Then there are more images we’ve gathered from the 1970s onwards, when colour started appearing in Garda photography work. This is a huge collection also, and covers the likes of the Pope’s visit in 1979 to Ronald Reagan; right up to and beyond the visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Obama. It was around this period in 2011, when I realised that we also need to archive events that would, and will, form part of Garda history in the future.

Nowadays, I’m working on what I call the ‘bells and whistles’ part of the archives. I recently got my hands on the Garda College negatives from the 1990s to early 2000s period and I’m busy digitising and archiving that. I’ve also moved on a little to develop the slow skill of hand colourising images and I’ve targeted some nice Garda images. There are a few apps out there that give a hit and miss automated effect on a black and white image but there’s no comparison to colourising by hand with specialised software and adding the right colour bit by bit. It’s a long process, sometimes taking a couple of hours to finish one image, but the end result is fantastic. Seeing colour on what you accept to be a very old photo, and what you would assume should be in black and white, can breathe new life into an image. It brings the Gardaí in the images back to colourful life and bridges the years between ‘back then’ and ‘now’; and gives us a new angle on Garda history.
It’s funny when I think that Garda Review did a small article on the archives about a year or two after I began.

Now, so many years later, once again here in the Review, we can say we’re nearly finished. Well, it may be better to say that there’s certainly a lot done. As a fresh- faced member with five and a half years’ service; I’m now at the other side of 19 years’ work, with five and a half to go. At last count there were 29,241 images comprised from plates, negatives and images digitised and/or restored/archived. They cover a period starting with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), to the early years of An Garda Síochána, and right up to date. I have some plates going back as far as pre-1900.

So, now with the Centenary of An Garda Síochána fast approaching, it’s fitting, timely and fortunate that such a body of work exists to document the pictorial history of the job. Flicking through 100 years of images, and watching the uniform change, the vehicles change, the Garda stations and the technology change is amazing. Equally amazing, is that there in the background we can witness old Ireland transform in the modern diverse Ireland that we see today. And let us not forget ‘the member’… if the Garda photographer’s camera was pointed at them at any stage in our 100 years, then the chances are that they live on in our archive forevermore.
So, I think back to the way the archives were pitched to me… “try to root out any images of Garda historical importance.” Sure, it only took infinite hours to complete and the archiving will probably go on for a bit more yet. My parting gift to the job when the time comes around. GR

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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