Photography and Irish Children: A Window into Childhood Fashion

By Mary Hatfield (

Photographs provide a rich and detailed source for exploring children’s lives and their place and role in Irish society. Even a brief glance through historic photograph collections indicates the many ways Irish childhood was constructed and experienced across different periods, classes, and localities.

Since the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, professionals and amateurs have utilised commercial and artistic photography to preserve images of children. In the early phase of photography children were posed in settings that echoed the artistic style of painted portraiture; presented in a formal pose with carefully chosen aesthetic details. As the technology of photography became more mobile, cheaper, and widely accessible during the twentieth century images of Irish children began to take on a more informal, unposed style.

The photographic collections of the National Library of Ireland offer a wealth of images of children, at school, at home, in the street, or posed in a photography studio. One of the ways I have been using these collections is to track changes and trends in boys and girls clothing. This post highlights some of my favourite images and how even small details can be indicative of wider cultural ideas.

Boys and girls were dressed in very similar styles in the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century. Until the age of 4 or 5 boys and girls wore the same type of long gown. Because of this it can be difficult to distinguish girls and boys in portraits or photographs. An example is this image of Baby Cox, from Tramore in Waterford. Taken in 1899 the image shows the young child in a Tam O’Shanter cap, very popular around the turn of the century for both boys and girls. Accompanying the baby in the pram is small pet dog dressed as a very fluffy rabbit, with a fur muff (easily mistaken for another dog) lying between them!

Baby Cox, Tramore, in cart. Poole Collection, Date: Circa 1899,  NLI, POOLEWP 0789. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

When boys were ready to go to school, usually between the ages of five and eight, they were ‘breeched’, meaning they were given their first pair of trousers. Parents marked out breeching as a momentous occasion. In 1866 John Paul Lawless Pyne, rector of the Church of Ireland in Cloyne recorded in his diary how his wife’s friend stopped in with a pattern of clothes for his son who was to have his first pair of trousers. For him to make note of this in his diary suggests that it was an event in his son’s life worth remembering.

Older boys outside the school, Connemara. 1892. Tuke Collection, Tuke 37. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

In rural Ireland many boys continued to wear petticoats until they were much older than school age, and the practise persisted until the early twentieth century. In 1892, this image was taken of older boys outside their school in Connemara in traditional petticoats and no shoes. This practise has been attributed to the common belief at the time, that fairies had a preference for abducting boy children. Parents dressed their boys in petticoats to confuse the fairies and protect their sons from otherworldly spirits. It may also simply have been far easier to produce handmade petticoats, rather than individual sets of trousers, for families with many children.

Dermot Walshe, 5, Manorhamilton, Model Housekeeping, Jan. 1930.
Eric Geoghegan, two years old, Co. Sligo, Model Housekeeping, Jan. 1930

By the 1930s petticoats for boys were less common, instead boys given playsuits and shorts instead of petticoats for their toddler years, like Dermot Walshe, aged 5, or Eric Geoghegan age 2.  

While many families had limited resources for buying new clothes, people of all classes often spent extra time and money to dress their children for momentous religious occasions. Christening gowns were passed on from generation to generation, adorned with lace and ribbons, and made of high-quality silk and linens. During the late nineteenth century it became common to dress young girls in white for their first communions. Females were required to cover their heads when attending Catholic mass, so young communicants were also given veils. This image depicts a Corpus Christi Procession in Cahir, Tipperary where all the first communicants of the parish were dressed in their best and processed through the streets.

Richard Tilbrook, Communicants and altar boys, Corpus Christi Procession, Cahir, Co.Tipperary, NLI, TIL716. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Because christening gowns and first communion outfits were such valued garments, we have lots of surviving examples of their design at the National Museum of Ireland. When it comes to everyday clothing, there are fewer artifacts to look at, because these garments were likely worn until they were threadbare. Would you save a cloth diaper or shirt that your children had used many times? Probably not. However, this means that it can be hard to know what children wore on a daily basis, because in many photographs children were clearly dressed in their very best!


The family photography firm of A.H. Poole produced portraits of families and individuals in Waterford from 1884 to 1954. Infants, children and families were usually depicted in formally posed scenes. In this image, Violet Poole, the daughter of the photographer, is posed with a large china doll while sitting amidst the grandeur of an ornate chair, potted palm and carpeted floor. This backdrop and set of props appears in many of Poole’s studio portraits. Her dress is at a mid-length appropriate for girlhood. Early childhood petticoats were usually shorter, coming to the knee. Longer dresses, which covered the ankle, would be worn by older, adolescent girls and signalled their transition to womanhood.

Miss Violet Poole, The Mall, full length portrait. Poole Collection, NLI, POOLEWP 0711. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Besides individual family portraits, the Poole firm was contracted to take photographs of local schools and community organizations. In this image, the girls of Rosbercon parish school are featured with Father Coghlan. The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary features prominently and would have been an important religious figure for Catholic girls in this period. The Virgin Mary also had local importance as the patron saint of the Rosbercon Church of the Assumption which Father Coghlan was instrumental in founding. Four young boys are in the front row of the photograph, they may have been part of an infant class for both boys and girls.

Group of girls: commissioned by Father Coghlan P.P., Rosbercon, New Ross, NLI, POOLEWP 3236b. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Clarke Collection

J. J. Clarke was a medical student in Dublin from 1897 to 1904 and during that period he captured images of the city and surrounding areas. Due to improvements in processing technology and the increasing portability of the camera, J.J. Clarke’s images captured Dubliners in spontaneous settings. Accompanied by their parents, these girls and boys are dressed for a stroll down the seaside promenade in Bray, Co. Dublin. The young boy wears a sailor suit, a very fashionable item at the turn of the twentieth century, and the young girls’ hair is done in ringlets.

J.J. Clarke, Group of children standing on Bray promenade with two women and one man, NLI, CLAR28. Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

If we look closely enough, photographs of children depict monumental changes in the photographic medium as well fundamentally divergent experiences of childhood across historical periods, genders and classes. As cameras and film processing became commercialized and more accessible to the public, representations of children and childhood became correspondingly more diverse, since cameras no longer required a professional to operate them, instead parents could take photos of their children whenever they liked. The visual imagery of childhood is a rich resource for accessing neglected or mundane aspects of Irish life, and the collections at the National Library of Ireland are certainly to be treasured as an irreplaceable record of Irish life.

Further reading

Noel Kissane, ed., Ex Camera 1860-1960: Photographs from the Collections of the National Library of Ireland (Dublin: National Library of Ireland, with assistance from Kodak Ireland Limited, 1990).

Aoife O’Connor, Small Lives: Photographs of Irish Childhood, 1860-1970 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012).

Elinor Wiltshire, If Ever You Go to Dublin Town (Dublin, National Library of Ireland: 1999).