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  • The View from Mrs. Kelly’s Window: Reframing Agency and Land in the Congested Districts Board Photographs
  • Katherine M. Huber (bio)

The village of Cappagh did not meet the expectations of the Congested Districts Board (CDB) members for what modernity should look like.1 That is, it was missing the slate-roof houses maintained by women’s domestic labor while men worked the surrounding parceled-out squares of land. Expectations of what was recognizably modern coincided with the evolving field of photography, which by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had come to play a complex role as a conveyer of historical and scientific truth, an artistic medium, and a distrusted new technology. Photographs commissioned by the CDB, like the example produced by Robert John Welch (1859–1936) and captioned “View of Cappagh Village, Castlerea District, Co. Galway,” documented its projects to modernize land and fisheries in the west of Ireland (see figure 1).2 [End Page 95]

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Figure 1.

“View of Cappagh Village, Castlerea District, Co. Galway” (CDB19,, CDBPC). Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Taken from behind an uneven stone wall that forms a line across the bottom third of the image, the photograph of Cappagh divides the modernity implied by the camera on one side of the stone wall from the village with its supposedly outdated forms of agriculture and ways of life, on the other. This temporal division between the diegesis in the photograph and the camera technology indicates, in the words of Mieke Bal, “a double focalization, hinging between internal and external and thus connecting the two worlds this work brings together” (163). The double focalization “hinges” between the material realities that the photo seeks to represent and the external world in which the photograph is viewed and interpreted. This external world is emphasized by a note on the back of the photo that explains that “the village of Cappagh . . . [was] one of the worst the Congested Districts Board had to deal with in Mayo or Galway.” While this note underscores the materiality of the photograph, it also promotes the [End Page 96] external focalization from the point of view of the CDB, the photographer, and its unknown author. The note’s interpretation establishes an implicit hierarchy within the double focalization that favors the more omniscient narrative of the external focalizer and obscures complex discursive elements that internal perspectives might reveal. In doing so, the note tells the implied viewer how to read Cappagh not only in relation to other photographs in the CDB’s collection but also in relation to other places in the west of Ireland. By reading this image in terms of a developmental teleology, ranging from “the worst” to an implied better and best, the note positions the photograph and the actual village within a comparative interpretative framework that separates the viewer from the viewed. Such comparative interpretations allow the implied viewer to monitor the progress that modernization projects are making to draw supposedly outdated ways of life into the CDB’s vision of modernity. These visual expectations for premodernity and modernity indicate how photographic realism shaped perceptions of the material realities captured in the photographs and existing in the west of Ireland.

Victorian-era understandings of realism provided a basis for this recognition of the “worst” forms of poverty and underdevelopment in Cappagh. The “larger culture of realism,” Jennifer Green-Lewis explains, was structurally dependent upon divisions between the periphery and the imperial center: “Photography’s contribution to instrumental realism was largely to preserve the horizon of bourgeois subjectivity by populating its nethermost regions with groups of persons whose very existence appeared to threaten the boundaries of culture beyond which they were perceived as living” (25, 223). By framing the “boundaries of culture” through a technology that had the “moral purpose . . . to relate the truth,” the photo of Cappagh juxtaposes modernity with premodernity to justify the social and cultural implications of the CDB’s modernization projects (223, 4). This implicit temporal division between the premodern and the modern reinforces comparative interpretive practices through which realist aesthetic conventions materially influence lived realities and actual...


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