Stunning new photos show old Ireland colorized using AI software

Old Ireland is brought back to life by artificial intelligence software that colorizes black and white photos by learning from every one it processes

  • The photos are part of a project called ‘Old Ireland in Colour,’ with a book scheduled to be released this week
  • Collection shows off the spectrum of life in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries, from the 1840s to 1960s
  • People who were impoverished walking around barefoot were featured, as were more wealthy people
  • Colorization occurred with DeOldify, an AI tool that applies color to grayscale images with ‘deep learning’

Old photos of Ireland have been newly colorized with the help of artificial intelligence, shedding new light on what life was like in the country during the 1800s and 1900s.

The photos are part of a project called ‘Old Ireland in Colour,’ which has social media accounts and a book scheduled to be released in North America in the coming week.

The photos span over a century of life in Ireland, from the 1840s up into the 1960s. 

Éamon de Valera addressing Sinn Féin supporters from Ennis Courthouse during the East Clare by-election in July 1917

Irish suffragette and nationalist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (right) arriving to a court martial in 1916

A group of workers knitting wool in Ireland in one of the many colorized photos of the country’s working class people

An explosion took place at the Four Courts on June 30, 1922, which could be seen from the bridge over the Liffey

‘We’re being bombarded with so much information, knowledge, bite-sized media and content, so, for the younger generation particularly, it can be hard for history to compete,’ National University of Ireland, Galway professor John Breslin told CNN of the colorized photos.

‘It’s important to be able to relate more to our history, and colorization definitely makes things more relatable.’

The black-and-white photos were colorized using an AI tool called DeOldify, an open-source model that can utilize deep learning to spark color in photos that were once grayscale.


The photos were colorized using DeOldify, an artificial intelligence tool that can add color to grayscale images

Mary Barlow works at the spinning wheel, which was commonly used for spinning flax before it was woven into linen

Pictured: George’s Street in Limerick, circa 1900. The street is now known as O’Connell Street in modern-day Ireland

The software tool is trained in how to colorize various images by learning from color photos and black-and-white photos of the same image.

It can then be used to colorize other black-and-white photos, using the knowledge of what objects and people should look like in color based on the previous photos the tool has seen.

But because the software was developed in the United States – and therefore likely used mostly American pictures – more nuance was needed to apply it to the old Ireland photos.

Silence was requested in the National Library of Ireland, where the Reading Room is pictured in the late 19th century

Politics were alive and well in Ireland in 1937, with citizens canvassing for different causes in the country

Pictured: Kathleen Lynn, a politician, activist, and the first female doctor at Royal Victoria Hospital (pictured 1919)

The photos are part of a project called ‘Old Ireland in Colour,’ which has social media accounts and a forthcoming book

Breslin’s fellow professor, Sarah-Anne Buckley, helped in this regard, researching social history along with Breslin, then manually adjusting shades and colors as they saw fit.

The end result was eye-popping color added to photos of history, as well as photos of the day-to-day lives of the Irish people.

These photos include the working class herding pigs, spinning wool, or riding around on the back of horse-drawn carts.

The Burning of Cork during the RTE War of Independence left 40 businesses and 300 residential homes in rubble 

A unit of anti-treaty IRA men are seen patrolling Grafton Street in Dublin in 1922, as Ireland is on the brink of civil war

This photo from the War of Independence shows the Cairo Gang, a group of British intelligence agents

Workers make a bog road in Seeoran in 1935. Life wasn’t easy for Ireland’s working class at this time

The photos also show the depths of poverty in Ireland at the time, such as tenement buildings in Dublin and barefoot villagers. 

‘There were many different social classes in Ireland, as in many countries, so I think it’s important to show the full range,’ Breslin sold of the photos, which also include shots of the more wealthy class in Ireland. 

‘We have a mixture of the wealthier classes and the gentry, and then you’ve got people who are just trying to survive and gather water and turf [peat] to burn on their fires.’

Members of the Armed Royal Irish Constabulary stand outside of a shoe shop in Cork City in 1921

This 1946 photo shows a family that lived in a one bedroom cottage, showing the depths of poverty at the time

A nurse visits a family on Arranmore Island, located in the Co. Donegall, some time in the early 20th century

Breslin also pushed back against criticism of the colorizing of the photos, saying they’re ‘not vandalizing the negatives.’

‘You can always go back and find the original photograph, and throughout the book we provide pointers to the original collection,’ Breslin added.

Breslin and Buckley’s book, which was the winner of Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the Post Irish Book Awards in 2020, was published in Ireland in October 2020.

The book is set to be published in the United States on April 5. 

Pictured is Patrick Byrne, who is often considered to be one of the last great harp players in Ireland

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