Clonmel is one of my favorite towns in County Tipperary – a place rich of history, and surrounded by beautiful landscapes. If you travel Ireland and are interested in photography, it is a place to visit for many reasons.
In 1840 an instruction manual in the use of the daguerreotype was offered by the Dublin Mechanical Institute and the natural Philosophy Committee of the Royal Dublin Society purchased a camera for taking daguerreotypes in the same year. Photography started its journey in Ireland.
Photography was quickly taken up by Ireland’s professional and landowning classes and the residents of Ireland’s big country houses. One of Ireland’s pioneering photographers, William Despard Hemphill was a native of Clonmel
William Despard Hemphill (1816–1902) was born into a large professional middle class Church of Ireland Tipperary family in 1816. After graduating University of St Andrews, he returned to Clonmel and had a successful medical practice, being doctor to both the Lunatic Asylum and the Prison.
Dr Hemphill composed and played music, was an avid orchid grower, turned ivory ornaments and was interested in archaeology, geology, and Waterford glass. He experimented with the latest photographic techniques, won several prestigious awards, and left a vast historical photography record of the 19the century scenes and people. He won fourteen prizes in Dublin, London and Paris. His photographs were praised for excellence of composition and artistic taste.
William Despard Hemphill is best known for his book ‘Stereoscopic illustrations of Clonmel and surrounding country, including Abbeys, Castles and Scenery. With descriptive Letterpress’, which was printed in Dublin, in 1860.
Stereoscopic photography recreates the illusion of depth by utilizing the binocularity of human vision. Stereoscopic photographs, or stereographs, consist of two nearly identical photographs – one for the left eye, one for the right. Viewing the side-by-side images through a special lens arrangement called a stereoscope helps our brain combine the two flat images and see the illusion of depth. Stereoscopic photographs became very popular after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert received the gift of a stereoscopic viewer at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851.
Dr Hemphill’s “Stereoscopic Illustrations” book comprises two volumes – one is the stereoscopic photographs themselves, the other – the descriptive text. The work is extremely rare; it was never available to the general public, and possibly only distributed by Hemphill to his aristocratic friends in South Tipperary. Each known copy is unique and differs from the others. The National Library lacks all the photographs. Clonmel County Museum has two full copies containing the photographs, however, they are not on display for the general public .
Clonmel Library has a copy of the volume containing the descriptions to the photographs (no illustrations). If you ask, they will give you the book and you can read it all – 102 pages. It is printed in red & black, with the decorative red border vignettes. A sonnet written by a well-known, or anonymous author, or by William Despard Hemphill himself, opens each chapter. The volume opens with two quotes written in Greek and Latin – by Lucian and John Dryden respectively.
I went around the town to recreate some of Dr Hemphill’s photographs. The bits of information about the scenes I took from that famous book.
In 1857 Dr Hemphill photographed St Mary’s, Clonmel, his parish church shortly before the reconstruction and alteration works. The Western Wing was not altered and looks the same today.
This image depicts a part of the Eastern Wing that was altered during the reconstruction works and no longer exists.
This image of the Quay is taken from a boat. Commercial barges like this one were used before the railway was built in 1854. Some buildings along the Quay are still there, but the Manor Mills in the background have been demolished.
Quay, Thro’ The Arch Of The Bridge, Clonmel ( 1857-58)
Scot’s Church, Anglesea St, Clonmel (1857-58) with its pretty little Ionic portico
“Clonmel, the assize town and capital of the County of Tipperary, is situated on the River Suir, which here separates the Counties of Tipperary and Waterford, and is built principally on the north side, and partly on some islands in the river, which are connected with each other and the town by bridges of considerable antiquity.” (Descriptive text by William Hemphill)
In the street, you can see a car. It is a Bianconi long car. Bianconi was an Italian man who settled in Clonmel and became a Father of Public Transportation in Ireland. The headquarters of Bianconi’s Transport was in Parnell St nearby.
Otherwise the street hasn’t changed.
Another beautiful place that still exists is The Patrick’s Well and Church.
An old lady selling some religious souvenirs used to sit at the tree every day.
This is what the Patrick Well site looks these days. No one is selling souvenirs any more, but an old man, David, is there almost every day ready to answer your every question about the site and its history.
There are some changes inside the Church. The altar had to be removed because of the repeated acts of vandalism, and only the base of it remained intact. David showed me some carvings I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise: a figure of Jesus with the fields and buildings of Jerusalem in background.
And here are a few more pictures of Clonmel taken over the years. Different seasons, different vantage points, different moods. Lovely town that has a tiny Tourist office in the Mary’s church premises, because there are very little tourists. A gem that is not hidden, just overlooked.
So, back to Dr Hemphill again. His home was demolished and a shopping center was built where a beautiful garden used to be.
I went to the parking lot and asked random people if they knew who William Despard Hemphill is. Two elderly gentlemen knew to tell me about the Hemphills’ estate. Not that he is completely forgotten – in 2013, Clonmel County Museum presented a stunning exhibition of the photographs of William Despard Hemphill – Silent Exposure. It was my first experience viewing stereoscopic photographs.
I went to his parish church graveyard and found his grave. There is a beautiful Celtic cross with the inscription that says: The memory of the just is blessed.
Thank you for walking the streets of Clonmel with me!