The Balfour Album of photographs was originally created in 1893-1895 by the Belfast photographer, Robert John Welch. It was a gift to the former Chief Secretary for Ireland, Arthur J. Balfour in recognition of his support for the building of the Galway-Clifden Railway. The album was presented to Arthur Balfour in the summer of 1896, a year after the railway had opened. It remained in the property of the Balfour family until 1987 when the then Earl of Balfour offered to sell it to the National Library of Ireland. Staff at the National Library felt that it more properly belonged in Galway and it was accordingly offered to the Librarian of the James Hardiman Library who purchased it for the library's collection.
The Midland and Great Western Railway Company had concentrated its efforts from the mid-1840s on developing a rail line to Galway. The line was extended to Athlone and, following the construction of the major bridge over the Shannon, finally reached Galway. The rail link between the East and West of Ireland opened on 1 August 1851.The coming of the railway had a major impact on tourism in the West. Within a few years several guidebooks had been published outlining the glories that visitors could enjoy by travelling to Galway on the new rail-link and then using a variety of conveyances to bring them through Connemara. A notable variation on road transport is that mentioned in Black’s Guide to Galway and Connemara, published in 1877, which suggests taking a steamer from Galway to Oughterard or Cong. The extension of the railway to Westport in 1866 and Ballina in 1873 created further scope for round trips, allowing visitors to arrive at Galway, be conveyed through Connemara to Westport and onwards to North Mayo, from where they could return to Dublin by train.
Further major development in the transportation of tourists in Connemara occurred in 1890 with the decision finally to build a railway line to Clifden. This idea had been mooted earlier and major planning had taken place in the late 1870s and early 1880s but lack of investment capital had prevented the project going ahead. Its construction was one of the causes championed by Arthur Balfour in his role as Chief Secretary for Ireland and funding became available as a result. Balfour had made an extensive tour of Connemara in 1889, which convinced him that this was a necessary project. Work commenced in 1893 and, at its peak, 1,500 men were employed on the Clifden line.
The building of the railway would have been underway when R.J. Welch made his first visit to Connemara in 1894 and it is likely that he took photographs, including that of the construction work at Recess, on that occasion.
The plate 'Construction of the Galway–Clifden railway at Recess' perhaps best illustrates the Balfour Album’s purpose. This image shows approximately fifteen men working on the section of the line close to Recess station. We can deduce from the timescale and evidence from Welch’s diaries that the photograph must have been taken during his first visit to Connemara in 1894 since, by the time he returned in 1895, the line had opened to rail traffic. Other photographs in the Balfour Album portraying the railway are views of the magnificent metal bridge constructed to carry the railway across the Corrib at Woodquay in Galway.
The Album contains fifty plates of Welch's work with their captions in calligraphy. Its superb binding is by the renowned Belfast firm of Marcus Ward, one of the leading decorative bookbinding companies in the United Kingdom at that time. The Album was presented to Arthur Balfour in June 1896 as a tribute from people in Connemara for their railway. Those who contributed to the Album are listed in the illuminated address to Balfour, the fine artwork of which can probably be attributed to John Vinycombe, the Artistic Director at Marcus Ward. Prominent among the contributors are members of the local landed gentry, Poor Law Guardians and local clergy of various denominations.
It seems likely that Welch’s work, as depicted in the Album, comes from both his earlier trip in 1894 and a later trip, in July 1895, which he took with other members of the Irish Field Club Union (IFCU). These annual meetings were meticulously planned and organised beforehand, principally by the leading Irish botanist of the day, Robert L. Praeger. Evidence elsewhere indicates that Praeger and F.J. Biggar was also in this group. Some of the photographs that were later used to illustrate the beauties of Connemara and the activities it had to offer were probably taken at this time or during the IFCU excursion the following year. Notable in this regard are the series of photographs of Ben Lettery and the section of the Twelve Bens known today as the Glen Coaghan horseshoe. There is a particularly fine depiction of a party of ladies and gentlemen ascending Ben an Saighdiúr. The account of the IFCU excursion certainly indicates that some of the party visited this area. Mountain walking was becoming a popular pastime among the middle and upper classes in all parts of Europe, including Ireland, during this period. We know from other accounts that hill and mountain walking were widely enjoyed in Connemara at this time. Indeed, shortly afterwards, in 1905, a Scottish lady is alleged to have fallen to her death from a spot in the Maamturk mountains, an event commemorated in the place name, Áille na Lady.
In view of the fact that the Album was a gift to Arthur Balfour it is somewhat surprising that these photographs are the only depictions of the line that are featured in the Album. Other collections of Welch’s photographs held in various repositories, however, appear to include other photographs of the line. Six were stations constructed during the building of the line: at Moycullen, Ross, Oughterard, Recess, Ballyinahinch and Clifden. All of the buildings, with the exception of Maam Cross station which is derelict, still survive, being used either as private dwellings or business premises. The illuminated address at the beginning of the Balfour Album gives us some idea of the expectations of people in Galway and Connemara regarding the economic improvements the railway would produce. It states:
'Differ as we may among ourselves as to political creeds we all cordially unite in offering to you our best thanks for the great service that you have done for us. You have put this country on the high road to prosperity and contentment, if its people will devote their best energies to practical industry and the development of its natural resources which have too long laid waste'.
The image captioned 'A Connemara long car' is a fine example of Welch’s sense of context, a depiction of the means of transport as well as the spectacular scenery through which it travelled. The ‘long car’ was a ubiquitous vehicle in the West of Ireland until the advent of motor transport. A regular service operated between Galway and Clifden before the coming of the railway. The entry in the 1856 edition of Slater’s Commercial Directory indicates that Bianconi’s car travelled to Galway every day except Sunday, starting from Carr’s Hotel in Clifden at 9 a.m. A car also went in the opposite direction, departing Galway at 9.30 a.m. A mail car left Galway at 1.30 a.m. every morning, while one went to Oughterard from Clifden every afternoon at 4 p.m.
Natural phenomena fascinated Welch, especially the seashore and its myriad life forms, from biographical information we know that this one of Welch’s life long interests. The image captioned 'The Limpet shell midden, Dog’s Bay'. Welch’s own scientific preoccupations are very successfully demonstrated in a significant number of pictures in the Balfour Album highlighting either natural history or archaeological subjects. This photograph of a prehistoric kitchen midden of limpet shells exemplifies how Connemara was regarded as a rich source for the study of both subjects. Welch's photographs, as well as providing accurate depictions of monuments and sites, encouraged like-minded tourists to travel to see them. The photographs of archaeological remains on the island of Inchagoill in Lough Corrib are of special importance as the earliest photographic depictions of these monuments. Inchogoill was a favourite destination of visitors interested in archaeology or natural history. The appeal of sites like Dog’s Bay to naturalists is evident from the accounts of trips to the West of Ireland organised by groups such as the IFCU, which have been documented by Timothy Collins. The caption to the Balfour Album photograph of the IFCU landing at Arranmore specifically mentions that this excursion was to take advantage of the new railway. Trips organised by such learned societies provided safe opportunities for travel to hitherto remote regions, especially for women. Rosamund Praeger, sister of R.L. Praeger, was one of the party visiting Connemara in the mid-1890s, as is evidenced by her sketch of Welch attempting to cope with the Connemara climate in his photographic endeavours Organisations such as the IFCU and the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club provided Welch and others with opportunities for publishing. The latter society, for example, produced a comprehensive handbook entitled Belfast and the Counties of Antrim and Down in 1902, on the occasion of the visit to Belfast of the British Association for Advancement of Science. This latter publication contains twenty-three plates by Welch illustrating chapters on antiquities, botany and geology. There is also much evidence for the photography of antiquarian remains in Welch’s work. Since the publication of the Earl of Dunraven’s Notes on Irish Architecture in 1875, the use of photography in the study of what were essentially archaeological monuments had been developing.
As W.A. Maguire has pointed out, Welch’s excursions with his father as a boy gave him an unusually wide knowledge of the topography and antiquities of Ireland, particu larly Ulster. He was later to assert that he had travelled 80,000 miles in Ireland to photograph antiquities alone This continued to be a lifelong interest and he published several pieces on archaeological sites, including a shell midden at Cranfield Point, Co. Down. Shell middens were clearly one of Welch’s favourite subjects and he photographed several of the famous examples at Dog's Bay on the Connemara coast in the 1890s. Inchagoill Island in Lough Corrib was a popular destination for those wishing to study the remains of early Christianity in the area. Contemporary Irish antiquarians who studied the remains on Inchagoill included Jerome Fahey, Patrick Weston Joyce and R.A.S. Macalister. It is likely that all three would have been familiar with the work of R.J. Welch.
It is clear that Welch derived enjoyment as well as professional advancement from his visits to Connemara and the West. Perhaps the most important and far-reaching commission he was to undertake there was his involvement, between 1909 and 1911, with the Clare Island Survey, sponsored by the Royal Irish Academy, of which he was a member. This has been described as the most ambitious natural history project ever undertaken in Ireland. Welch was part of a team of experts in the fields of archaeology, botany, geology and zoology, who carried out the first comprehensive survey of a specific land area. The monumental three-volume work published as a result remains one of the great achievements of early twentieth-century scientific publishing. As with the Balfour Album, the many photographs in the Clare Island Survey publication contributed by R.J. Welch are a testament to his dedication and his appreciation of the unique natural surroundings to be found in Connemara and the West.