“Mother and son.” 1890.

These rare photographs from the National Library of Ireland capture gorgeous portraits of the people of old Ireland in magnificent detail. The last decades of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th were a period of colossal change that ended up with Ireland seceding from the United Kingdom.

Ireland’s population had plummeted by more than three and a half million since the Famine and was still in decline. There were some 250,000 fewer people on the island in 1901 than there had been in 1891.

Late-nineteenth century Ireland was a country of tiny farmsteads and nasty urban tenements. It was an era when some Irish people still lived in mud cabins. Partial failure of the potato crop, which happened a number of times during the 1890s, was still capable of generating what late-Victorian administrators coyly called ‘distress’.

This was a time before the introduction of old age pensions and social welfare arrangements when the workhouse, however harsh its conditions might be, was often the only place of refuge for the aged, the infirm and the indigent. To many, emigration offered the only prospect of a better life.

More than 32,000 people left in 1899 alone, giving Ireland a higher emigration rate than any other part of Europe. There were thousands of others who migrated for part of the year in search of seasonal labor whose proceeds could help sustain their families at home.

Infant death was still commonplace. Almost one in every four children born in Dublin died before their first birthday. In Belfast, during one four-week period in 1900, there were as many deaths of children less than one year old as there were of adults over sixty years of age.

At a time when medicine was far less advanced than it is today, one-third of all deaths resulted from chest infections. Although average life expectancy had climbed significantly from its pre-Famine level of under forty years, at the turn of the century a normal life span was still some twenty years shorter than it is today.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a vigorous campaign for Irish Home Rule. While legislation enabling Irish Home Rule was eventually passed, militant and armed opposition from Irish unionists, particularly in Ulster, opposed it. Proclamation was shelved for the duration following the outbreak of World War I.

By 1918, however, moderate Irish nationalism had been eclipsed by militant republican separatism. In 1919, war broke out between republican separatists and British Government forces. Subsequent negotiations between Sinn Féin, the major Irish party, and the UK government led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which resulted in five-sixths of Ireland seceding from the United Kingdom.

Four boys at the

Four boys at the “Rocking Stone” at Islandmagee, County Antrim. 1870.

Moll's Gap, Kerry. 1910.

Moll’s Gap, Kerry. 1910.

Lifeboat men. 1914.

Lifeboat men. 1914.

Girls of the Ursuline Convent in Waterford pose in their gymnasium. 1908.

Girls of the Ursuline Convent in Waterford pose in their gymnasium. 1908.

The McCoy family of Waterford. 1901.

The McCoy family of Waterford. 1901.

Ireland, 1900.

Ireland, 1900.

The Fannings of Waterford. 1885.

The Fannings of Waterford. 1885.

Ireland, 1899.

Ireland, 1899.

A family cuts turf near Ballymena. 1885.

A family cuts turf near Ballymena. 1885.

Ireland, 1885.

Ireland, 1885.

A young member of the Irish Guards at Waterford Barracks with the regiment's mascot, an Irish Wolfhound. 1917.

A young member of the Irish Guards at Waterford Barracks with the regiment’s mascot, an Irish Wolfhound. 1917.

Workers at a mine in Knockmahon, County Waterford. 1906.

Workers at a mine in Knockmahon, County Waterford. 1906.

Cricket players. 1902.

Cricket players. 1902.

Medical student John Joseph Clarke. 1900.

Medical student John Joseph Clarke. 1900.

J. Morgan's butcher shop on Broad Street, Waterford. 1916.

J. Morgan’s butcher shop on Broad Street, Waterford. 1916.

Crew members of the Norwegian vessel The Mexican, which ran aground on the Keragh Islands. The Fethard Lifeboat Helen Blake attempted to rescue them during a storm, but was destroyed with the loss of 9 of the 14 lifeboat men. 1914.

Crew members of the Norwegian vessel The Mexican, which ran aground on the Keragh Islands. The Fethard Lifeboat Helen Blake attempted to rescue them during a storm, but was destroyed with the loss of 9 of the 14 lifeboat men. 1914.

Men on horseback in front of Kate Kearney's Cottage in Kerry. 1900.

Men on horseback in front of Kate Kearney’s Cottage in Kerry. 1900.

A weigh station in Clifden, County Galway. 1908.

A weigh station in Clifden, County Galway. 1908.

Three generations of a family pose beside their home at Alexander Street, Waterford. 1924.

Three generations of a family pose beside their home at Alexander Street, Waterford. 1924.

People in costume at the Theatre Royal in Waterford. 1914.

People in costume at the Theatre Royal in Waterford. 1914.

Ireland, 1908.

Ireland, 1908.

Women sell tourist trinkets and books on Fionn Mac Cumhaill's Wishing Chair at the Giant's Causeway, County Antrim. 1900.

Women sell tourist trinkets and books on Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s Wishing Chair at the Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim. 1900.

The Glencar Tea House in County Leitrim. 1900.

The Glencar Tea House in County Leitrim. 1900.

A Royal Welsh Fusilier with the Regimental Goat, and his strap-on crest. 1887.

A Royal Welsh Fusilier with the Regimental Goat, and his strap-on crest. 1887.

Inside the Bonmahon Mines. 1906.

Inside the Bonmahon Mines. 1906.

The Waterford Bicycle Club. 1897.

The Waterford Bicycle Club. 1897.

Sir Hercules Robert Langrishe, 5th Baronet Langrishe and his dog. 1913.

Sir Hercules Robert Langrishe, 5th Baronet Langrishe and his dog. 1913.

A wool operation in Leenane, County Galway. 1910.

A wool operation in Leenane, County Galway. 1910.

Fisher folk of Ardglass, County Down. 1910.

Fisher folk of Ardglass, County Down. 1910.

Glencar Tea House, County Leitrim. 1890.

Glencar Tea House, County Leitrim. 1890.

Sailors on the Sarah McDonald at Waterford. 1913.

Sailors on the Sarah McDonald at Waterford. 1913.

Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station, Malin Head, County Donegal. 1902.

Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station, Malin Head, County Donegal. 1902.

Field hockey players. 1904.

Field hockey players. 1904.

The Riley family, survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania, in Cobh, County Cork. 1915.

The Riley family, survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania, in Cobh, County Cork. 1915.

The Cloghvorra Stone, near Kenmare. 1890.

The Cloghvorra Stone, near Kenmare. 1890.

(Photo credit: National library of Ireland / Daniel Mulhall History Ireland).