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A man with an eye for business

Since independence, the GPO has had a special place in our history. Politicians placed a great importance on being able to say that they, or their ancestors, had been there in 1916. For some, dying in the GPO was the great symbol of national importance. Not too many, however, could claim to have been born in the GPO. One such person was William Lawrence. His father worked there and it seemed that the family lived on the premises. In later years, his name was associated with the Lawrence Collection, possibly the greatest collection of photographs in the country, dating from the late-1800s. 

Surprisingly, William Lawrence himself was not actually a photographer but rather a businessman who recognised potential. His brother, John, was the photographer in the family. William took an interest in his business and handled the sales of the photographs. In the mid-1800s, there was a great interest in portrait photographs and William was determined to cash in. His mother had a toyshop on Sackville Street.

In 1865, at the age of 24, William took over that shop and converted it into a photographic studio, where John took portraits. Of all those he hired, surely the most beneficial was Robert French.  French was a former RIC constable and joined Lawrence as a printer. He worked his way up through the various operations until he eventually became chief photographer. In that capacity, he travelled the country and took over 30,000 photographs of different scenes.

Lawrence published those photographs in collections covering different parts of the country. A sample of 500 were published in Chicago in the late 1890s under the title Ireland in Pictures. He saw another opportunity with the change in the postal regulations, which allowed cards to be sent without being placed in envelopes. When it became possible to have a picture on one side and a message and address on the other, he had a captive market. New technologies inevitably led to a fall-off in business and Lawrence and French had both retired before the 1916 rising, at which stage both men were well into their 70s.

Unfortunately for Lawrence, his shop on Sackville Street was at the centre of the rising. It was burnt during Easter Week and most of his portrait records lost. Luckily, the records of the scenes around the country were at a separate location and survived. When the firm finally closed down, those surviving photographs, 40,000 glass plates, were acquired by the National Library.

Those scenes covered most of the country and quite a lot of Clare. They cover all the west coast from Loop Head to Ballyvaughan, with pictures of Kilkee, Kilrush, Scattery Island, Milltown, Lahinch, Liscannor, Cliffs of Moher, Ennistymon and Lisdoonvarna. There are also numerous photographs of Ennis, Quin and Killaloe. Of particular importance are the photographs of eviction scenes from the Vandeleur estates and Tullycrine and Moyasta and O’Callaghan Westropp estates at Bodyke.  All those photographs are available to view on the National Library website or on the County Library Website. 

William Lawrence, the man who saw the business opportunity presented by photographs and who gave his name to the Lawrence Collection, was born in the GPO in Dublin on July 5, 1840 – 173 years ago this week.

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