Northern Ireland

Mystery Holy Land slides linked to Coleraine minister

Arriving in Jerusalem: the story of Spring time in the Holy Land
Image caption Arriving in Jerusalem: the story of spring time in the Holy Land

The mystery of a treasure trove of old lantern slides unearthed in a deanery in the Republic of Ireland has been traced to a Presbyterian minister from Northern Ireland.

The heavy glass plate slides lay for years in dusty cardboard boxes in the old Church of Ireland deanery of Killaloe in Limerick.

They nursed secrets of adventures dating back more than a century - a journey to the Holy Land in the days before aeroplanes and motorcars, when such treks were truly a pilgrimage.

Now, it is believed that they are linked to Rev Willie Wilson - born in Belfast in 1869 - who loved to travel and who was renowned as a brilliant scholar and a gifted speaker.

When the current dean of Killaloe brought the pictures to Church of Ireland archivist Dr Susan Hood in Dublin, she opened the lid on a wealth of history.

Ghostly faces from 100 years ago stared out at the camera.

Here were Bedouin tribesmen eating a meal with fingers from one shared bowl; two women balancing impossibly huge water pots on their heads; a money changer counting out his coins, a family huddled beneath the tent they called home.

The unknown photographer needed a strong set of biceps to lug the iron brute of a camera with its awkward tripod. He would have carried with him a fine piece of velvet that made the photographer a magician: he disappears beneath the cloth, he holds up a hand for hush, he pauses to click the button and, hey presto, he casts a spell with a puff of smoke.

The ghosts captured behind the thick glass of the lantern slides have now been fast forwarded to the 21st century. They are now digitised and can be viewed without the need for a chunky metal projector.

Dr Susan Hood, the archivist for the Church of Ireland Representative Church Body library, knew she had fallen upon treasure when the Very Rev Stephen White gave her the slides.

But it was only when she looked at the quality of the pictures that she realised what a find this was.

"I looked at the first slide and the quality was excellent," she said.

"There were slides of a mission in India and slides from Palestine, giving us an early picture of Jerusalem."

The images were held within two pieces of heavy glass - they showed pictures taken by an unknown photographer of a tour in Palestine over 100 years ago.

Dr Hood knows the area well.

"My first thoughts were how little it has changed," she said.

"There is a picture of the Jaffa Gate which is the focal point for horses and carriages waiting to take visitors for a day trip to Bethlehem or an overnight stay at the Dead Sea. It is still the focal point, only now the carriages have been replaced by taxis and tour guides."

Dr Hood said the photographer's identity was a mystery, but there were a few clues.

"We may get a glimpse of what he looked like in the picture of the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where in the cramped space within it a European-looking man is seen posing looking towards the altar in the recess at the top of the former cave attended by Greek Orthodox priests," she said.

"It is possible that he set up the camera on its stand, just behind a little boy who is kneeling in the foreground and had time to hop into the photograph

"It would have been quite something for a man to arrive with a camera and stand under the velvet to take the photograph. You can imagine that from the local perspective, it would have been a real novelty for the little boy."

The pictures tell the story of these early pilgrims' journey - the arrival, the sweeping road to the Jaffa Gate and a view from the rooftops to illustrate the route taken.

"The photographer is an intelligent, thoughtful person who was clearly thinking about how he was going to tell the story back home," said Dr Hood.

Jaffa, 50km to the west of Jerusalem, is considered the entry point to the Holy Land.

Image caption At work: a money lender counts out the coins

Dr Hood said: "At Jaffa, he clambered with his camera to the top of the town to a famous landmark - Simon the Tanner's House (where Peter is said to have been staying when he had his visionary dream of heaven, and where he revived Tabitha) to take an aerial shot of the harbour, with the docked packets beyond the rocks in the background, and the lighthouse in the foreground."

On to Jerusalem and he provides a single image of the then very cramped area referred to as the 'Jewish Wailing Place' at the Western Wall, and two of the Dome of the Rock or Mosque of Omar.

The slides have been linked to Rev Wilson who was a minister in Coleraine in the 19th century and who gave a lecture on 8 December 1897 on "A Springtime in the Holy Land" about his journey through Palestine earlier that year.

According to a report in the Coleraine Chronicle, the lecture occupied a full two hours and "no-one wished it any shorter, not even the man who was nearest the stove".

The lecture was illustrated with slides taken by a companion ... could these be the slides that turned up a century later in the deanery at Killaloe?

Dr Hood said the photographs included slides from India too.

"It is a very strong lead. What is interesting is that the Wilson family were involved in missionary work. They were very adventurous people. A brother was a missionary in India and they had the photographic gear," she said.

Evidence of the link is provided in a book, New Row by Julia E Mullin which traces the history of Coleraine First Presbyterian Church.

That evening when Rev Wilson held the crowd spellbound and the cylinder of gas that pumped the projector ran out before all the pictures could be shown, lives on.

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