The Congested Country

The term ‘congested’ can mean overcrowded or full, to the point that movement is made difficult. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century it was used to describe areas in the west of Ireland, where “inhabitants were confined to small, uneconomic holdings, with inadequate and insanitary housing accommodation for either man or beast”1. Although the population of these rural areas was low, the districts that stretched from County Donegal in the north, through Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, and Cork in the south were congested, or surrounded by poor quality land. The ‘Congested Districts Board’ was established in 1891 by the government to alleviate poverty in these regions. Reports were made of the conditions before, during and after the Board’s work. Photographs 2 were also made of their work in a manner that was emulated a generation later by the Farm Security Administration and their images of the Depression in America.

This new, on-going photographic work, shot on 5" x 4" large format film and accompanied by a PhD thesis researching the photographs taken for the Congested Districts Board, seeks to recontextualise the west of Ireland, in particular County Donegal. It is now a place where ‘congested’ seems only appropriate when areas are full of summer holiday traffic. At other times, it is possible to photograph the land and not see a soul.

Using a large format camera similar to the one that was originally used over a century ago, I have revisited and rephotographed these former ‘congested’ areas. I want to see how the later generations have continued to use the land, how they have adapted to a changing economy and how rural life has both changed, and stayed the same.

1. Ó Conchubhair, S.M. 1941, "The Congested Districts Board", The Irish Monthly, vol. 69, no. 820, pp. 477
2. National Library of Ireland, Congested Districts Board Collection,