Primary Source Images & Editing: A Case for Caution!

As I approach the end of my first semester as a Masters student in Digital Humanities, it is possible to reflect on many technologies, tools and resources, which can form a significant part of the Digital Humanist’s toolkit. Many of these are later 20th century developments in computing and coding such as XML, CSS, TEI and Dublin Core which assist in the coding, structuring and presenting of Digital Scholarly Editions. Yet it was perhaps my experience of the modern digital methods of handling an older technology which reminded me of the importance and responsibility of Digital Humanists for presenting source material in a digital format which is true to the original.

In October of this year a tour of the imaging laboratory of An Foras Feasa in Maynooth University was given, where a demonstration was given on the use of high-end digital imaging equipment. Great care and importance was placed on creating a digital image that would represent as close as possible the original document, its content and presentation. This was followed on by a workshop held by Karolina Badzmierowska of the Letters 1916 project on the use of technologies such as Photoshop and Gimp, which included the photography and post processing of letters selected for inclusion in the Letters 1916 project. Again this workshop demonstrated the importance placed on creating a high quality, authentic digital images of fragile source materials.

Alongside these demonstrations there was also a lecture held in the National Archives of Ireland wherein archivists described the amazing conservation and preservation work which could be carried out on damaged materials; bringing back to life primary sources for use in humanities research which may have been lost through age, damage or neglect of the materials.

The work of those responsible Digital Humanists at An Forsa Feasa and Letters 1916 demonstrated the ability and commitment to producing authentic digital images to enhance access, and preservation to fragile sources, while those in the National Archives demonstrated what modern techniques can do in restoring materials. It is with this in mind that I was reminded of an instance, contrary to this best practice, whereby a now historic photograph pertaining to the Easter Rising of 1916 was originally edited, an action which altered the accuracy of the image, event and source material.

On Saturday the 29th of April 1916, the Eater Rising was coming to an end. The rebel leaders, having retreated from the GPO to a terrace of houses on nearby Moore Street had decided to surrender. By that afternoon, Padraig Pearse would meet General Lowe to present his sword in an unconditional surrender that brought the Easter Rising to an end. This significant moment in Irish history was captured, or perhaps staged, by a photographer at the time and appeared in what has been described as ‘Britain’s oldest tabloid’ The Daily Sketch.


In the photograph can be seen Padraig Pearse, standing alone wearing what appears to be a long coat, surrendering to General Lowe and Lowes’s son, who served under him at the time. It might suggest looking at this photo that Pearse walked forward alone to meet and surrender to the British Army, it may suggest that the Rising was a male dominated affair. Yet subsequent versions of this photograph have shown that it was in fact altered before publication and that Pearse was not alone when he met General Lowe to surrender.


The un-altered photograph which later emerged, clearly shows that the first published image was altered to produce an all-round tidier image, one centred on what the publisher may have perceived as the central figures in the narrative.

The first image is very clean showing very clean lines in the path, buildings to the left, and three central figures. Yet the second image, although grainy by todays standards, still shows a more realistic image of a path with items on the ground behind General Lowe, depth to the buildings on the left, and most significantly a second pair of feet below Pearse’s coat.


The obscured figure standing next to Pearse was not one of the rebel leaders of 1916 but was someone highly involved with the independence movement before, during and after the Rising. She was identified as a 32 year-old Dubliner named Elizabeth O’Farrell, who plays a significant role in events surrounding the surrender, not just of Pearse, but all the rebel leaders. It was O’Farrell who left the house on Moore Street waving a white flag to approach the British garrison with talk of surrender. It was O’Farrell who escorted Pearse back to meet Lowe, and it was O’Farrell who was sent to the remaining rebel outposts to inform them to lay down their arms.

Furthermore while her presence is pivotal due to her involvement in facilitating the surrender, with her presence she may also represent not just the many rank and file men, who are acknowledged as having took up arms, but the significant and less celebrated role women played in the revolutionary movement in this period (Mac Curtain 46-7). Yet without the emergence of the original photograph, her role in this event and her status as a representative of the many unknown participants of the Rising at the time of surrender may not be acknowledged.

Further examination of this photograph, revealed in episode four of an RTÉ documentary series titled Réabhlóid, shows even further evidence that our visual perception of the surrender may be inaccurate. In the earlier images it may be understandable to suggest Pearse is wearing a ‘long coat’, however this triangle shape is in fact the outline from Elizabeth O’Farrells coat in the background.


The intention however, of The Daily Sketch in altering this photo, may not have been to purposely omit Elizabeth O’Farrell, the volunteers, or womens participation from the events of Easter 1916. In the documentary Réabhlóid it is explained that a technology known as photo-montage was used to ‘tidy-up’ photographs at this time. This involved placing a sheet of paper around what was deemed important in the image and re-drawing a clean version of the background. Yet in altering this image and not recognising the importance which seemingly small details may have to later research and perceptions of an event, The Daily Sketch, using technologies to alter an original document, may very nearly have lost evidence of an important figure in the history of the 1916 surrender.

In the modern technologies and laboratories of Digital Humanists and Archives we possess great digital and scientific resources to document, preserve, restore and present physical source material. Fragile or inaccessible material can be digitally documented for easier research, damaged or altered material can be restored or read by new science and technology. This is work which is vital and performed to the highest standard by An Foras Feasa, Letters 1916 and the National Archives. Yet in the example shown regarding Elizabeth O’Farrell’s omission from a source document by those using, what were modern technologies, we must always be aware how editing in any form has the potential to cut away an invaluable part of history.


BBC News Online. ‘Britain’s oldest tabloid closes’. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Dictionary of Irish Biography: Elizabeth O’Farrell. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Letters of 1916: Creating History. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

Mac Curtain, Margaret. ‘Women, The Vote and Revolution’, in Margaret Mac Curtain, & Donncha Ó’Corráin (eds.), Women in Irish Society: The historical dimension, (Dublin, 1978).

Réabhlóid Episode 4: Elizabeth O’Farrell. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

The National Archives of Ireland: Conservation and Preservation. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014.

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