The Aran Islands … the most remarkable islands I have come across anywhere. Alfred Cort Haddon 24th July 1890.

Michael Faherty, The Aran Islands. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Michael Faherty, The Aran Islands. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

“The Aran Islands are in many respects the most remarkable islands I have as yet come across anywhere.”

Alfred Cort Haddon, 24th July 1890.

The word “many” is a guess. In the original manuscript there is a blot, where the ink spilled out of Haddon’s pen (who remembers fountain pen and ink blots?). He appears to have been ina rush to record his first impressions of the Aran Islands.  Haddon landed in Inishmore – the “big” island – for the first time at 8.30 in the morning on Thursday 24 July, 125 years ago today.

The lead up to Aran had been less than inspiring.  Haddon departed  the “truculent” inhabitants of Inishbofin 6 days before and travelled to North Connemara, which had a distinct impression of sterility, stones & starvation. He arrived in Galway on Monday 21st July and had a thorough look around. He was less than impressed, naming the “city” after Ichabod, a biblical reference alluding to the fact that all glory – except for the salmon – had departed from the “Citie of Tribes.”

Clifton Jon_PIG_QUAY_ST 72

Galway as photographed by American folklorist and travel writer Clifton Johnson, reproduced from ‘The Isle of the Shamrock’ published in 1901.

After 2 days in Galway he arrived in Aran. The impact is clear from a dramatic change in his journal from that point on, ten pages (41 – 51)  that cover a week spent in the islands. The writing is smaller and obviously rushed, the pen constantly runs out of ink, punctuation is often abandoned and there are quick changes in emphasis as he struggles to describe the remarkable place that is the Aran Islands. On page 50 he concludes:

I can’t tell you all the excursions we made in Aran it wd be as tedious for you to read as for me to write suffice it to say that Dixon & I left very little unseen & what with sketches & photographs we have a good deal on paper.

Four of the ten pages are taken up with sketches of antiquities and on page 49 there is a wonderful series of small, cartoon-like sketches of men carrying a currach, a set of oars and, two sketches of currachs under sail – Haddon was on the island when the annual rasáí na gcurrach or currach races were taking place.  Haddon had a strong interest in art and had some formal training in drawing and illustration. Alison Hingston Quiggin, his devoted assistant and biographer, draws attention to “his work as an artist, and his lectures and writings about Art.” She remarks that “Sketching came as easily as note taking.” (Haddon The Head  Hunter page132). However as the ‘Fingal’ journal progresses one can see Haddon’s increased interest in photographically recording the people he encountered. On July 22nd he visited the Claddagh fishing village in Galway and noted in his journal that:

I have seen many groups which could make lovely photographs if they could be taken instantaneously & unknown to the subjects. The old women here affect a close fitting white muslin cap.

The “instantaneously & unknownbit was to prove important a few days later, when Haddon attempted to take photographs of people on the Aran islands:

In the village of Killeany – close by where Mrs. Green’s house is – I endeavoured to make friends with the people by employing my old tactics of noticing the children – but I had not much time to follow it up. I hoped to take photographs of them later on. The day before we left we took our cameras but with the exception of a few men & lads none would stay to be photographed. When we turned a camera on a group the components scattered as if we were firing upon them, girls & woman fled to their houses whipped up the  children & barred their doors. As we could not understand Irish we had to guess the nature of their remarks. At last matters got to such a pitch the we both rapidly retreated in different directions.

This anecdote is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it does not feature in Quiggin’s biography, which relies heavily on similar anecdotes from the ‘Fingal’ journal in order to establish the character of Haddon and describe the time he spent  in the west of Ireland. Haddon’s account of stealing skulls from Inisbofin features as does an account of the wife of the Lord Lieutenant – the Queen’s representative and effective ruler of Ireland – drinking poteen (illegally distilled alcohol) in Connemara.

This suggests that Quiggin did not have access to this part of Haddon’s  journal when she was writing his biography in 1942. I think that these pages became separated from the original manuscript sometime in 1892, when Haddon was preparing a paper on the craniology of the Aran Islands. This was read into the proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy on 12 December 1892. They were rediscovered in 2013 by Aidan Baker, the Haddon Librarian in Cambridge University, when he presented the Irish ‘Headhunter’ exhibition in the Haddon Library. The exhibition comprised photographs from the albums of Charles R. Browne. Browne worked with Haddon on the Irish Ethnographic Survey. He assembled the photographic archive of the survey in a series of six albums in or around the year 1897.

Pages from Report on Dixon NEGS_Page_2

One section of the Ethnographic Survey of Ireland’s representation of The Aran Islands. 2 pages from the photograph albums of Charles R. Browne. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

On the occasion of the opening Aidan and I thought it would be a nice gesture to read from Haddon’s copy of the seminal Ethnography of the Aran Islands published by Haddon and Browne in 1893. There wasn’t a copy in the library but a search of “the locked room” turned up an envelope containing Haddon’s own copy of Studies in Irish Craniology: The Aran Islands by Professor A. C. Haddon.

Aidan Baker, Haddon Librarian, Margaret Risbeth, Granddaughter of Alfred Cort Haddon, and Ciarán Walsh, www.curator.ie, at the opening of the Irish 'Headhunter' in Cambridge in 2014.

Aidan Baker, Haddon Librarian, Margaret Risbeth, granddaughter of Alfred Cort Haddon, and Ciarán Walsh, http://www.curator.ie, at the opening of the Irish ‘Headhunter’ in Cambridge in 2013.

The envelope contained the missing pages from Haddon’s journal along with all sorts of other fascinating material – a transcript of folklore  about the “evil eye” and, what appears to be a first draft of notes to accompany a slide show based on the photographs taken by Dixon. In the latter document Haddon remarks that:

The islands are not so much frequented by tourists as they deserve to be. To a naturalist they are most interesting … The people too are a fine handsome race, upright men of good physique, ruddy complexion, fair hair and blue gray eyes, there is a large proportion of nice looking and often pretty girls. The men wear a whitish clothes made from the locally made flannel, the costume may be entirely white or the trousers  & waistcoat may be blue, coats are not often worn. The women mostly affect shirts dyed of a beautiful russet – red colour. In  the west of Ireland the men wear boots & the women go bare footed, here both sexes wear native made sandals , ‘pompooties’, which they make for themselves out of cow-skins. In almost any cottage wool carding and spinning may he seen in operation, the spinning wheel being turned by the hand. The ancient British coracle also here survives as the canvas covered canoe or “curragh.”

dixon.TC1 copy

With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Our illustrations, which are from photographs taken by Mr. A. F. Dixon of Dublin, illustrate (1) a class from national school held in the open air, (2) a group of two men and a boy on the top of  the ancient stone fort at Inishmaan [Inis Meáin] the men are wearing pompooties and the boy the characteristic petticoat which the small boys wear as well as girls.

The illustrations continue with a series of antiquities, the whole show roughly corresponding to the sequence of photographs collected by Browne in the album dealing with the Aran Islands. It is an extraordinary document. It is no exaggeration, I believe, to claim that this is the moment that Haddon first conceived of “scientific” or modern visual ethnography which was central to his conception of fieldwork as defined during the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898 – where the young photographer Anthony Wilkin slotted into Dixon’s role.

It becomes clear that writing and sketching were not up to the task of conveying the impression that the Aran Islands and their inhabitants made on Haddon. He wrote in his journal (p. 42) that When I return to Dublin I hope to have some photographs to show you which will illustrate the physical features better than I can describe them.” Haddon quickly converted Dixon’s photographs into lantern slides and the illustrated lectures that followed made the Aran Islands visible as never before. Haddon’s reach extended far beyond  his network of contacts in the RDS, the Royal society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy however.  He was strapped for cash and undertook a lot of public speaking engagements. Most of these were illustrated with lantern slides, meeting the demand for magic lantern shows and satisfying public curiosity about life in the ‘primitive districts’ of the west of Ireland.

All of this activity  was taking place at a key point in the consolidation of the Gaelic revival as a movement. It is possible that Haddon’s magic lantern shows represent a visual turn in what had been a largely language based cultural movement. Most people think of Synge in this respect but Synge’s photography dates from 1898, 8 years after Haddon visited Aran for the first time. At that time Synge would have been reading for his “Little Go” or final freshman examinations in TCD – “poor Johnnie  got a third” his mother lamented. Synge can be ruled out at this stage. The key figure in this context – the increasing ‘visibility’ of the west of Ireland as a component of a visual turn in cultural nationalism – is a remarkable woman and photographer called Jane W. Shackleton. Her career as a photographer had been completely overlooked in the history of photography in Ireland until Christiaan Corlett published a collection of her photographs in 2012.

Jane W. Shackleton followed Haddon to Aran in 1891 and, in total, visited the islands on 12 occasions, four of those as part of field trips organised by the Royal Society of Antiquaries. She visited Inishmore/ Inis Mór for the last time in 1906. Shackleton had developed an interest in photography in the 1880s as the industrialisation of the medium brought it within the reach of middle class ‘amateurs.’ Between 1885 and 1906 – mainly – she amassed one of the largest collections of early photographs by a female photographer in Ireland (the collection is intact and curated by the Shackleton family).  Regardless of gender, Shackleton was one of the most prolific photographers at a crucial point in the imagination and representation of the Irish nation.

The people of the west of Ireland – the Aran Islands in particular – featured prominently in Shackleton’s photographs and the many illustrated lectures that she gave as a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Apart from having a strong social documentary feel to it, Shackleton’s photography had to have had an influence on the Gaelic revival and must have contributed to the visual turn stimulated by Haddon in 1890. This is speculative at this stage but my research into this has only just begun.

Men Carrying a curraghDSCF1748

‘Mode of carrying curragh’ from the photograph albums of Charles R. Browne. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

One photograph is of particular interest. It shows two men carrying a currach, an image that functions as an instantly recognisable trope of the islands. Corlett reproduces it on page 149 as Curragh being Carried by Aran Men Inis Mór, County Galway C. 1899. The same image is to be found among the first generation of prints and lantern slides in the Haddon collection and, the photograph albums of Charles R. Browne (see above). The provenance of the photograph has to be determined – how it came to be in the Haddon collection. Haddon was an avid collector and built his collection from a wide range of sources. That points to the mobility of photographic  images at this time, demonstrating that photographs and lantern slides were highly mobile meaning making technologies – to paraphrase Donna Haraway.

Jane W. Shackleton  died in 1909, the same year as John Millington Synge. Synge had taken about 50 photographs in the west of Ireland but these quickly became detached from his narrative of life in the Aran Islands – they were replaced by illustrations by Jack B. Yeats. Around 30 of those photographs were collected and published by Lilo Stevens in 1971 but the full impact of Synge’s photography was not realised until I exhibited them in association with the Library in TCD in 2009, marking  the centenary of his death.

The big question is why Shackleton’s career as a photographer and, in particular, her role in making the west of Ireland visible has been so overshadowed by Synge – whose own photography was neglected so thoroughly for almost a century. Add Dixon’s photography to the equation and the exception begins to look like a pattern. The Ethnography of the Aran Islands and the other surveys carried out by the Irish Ethnographic Survey have been regarded for too long as a narrow, racially inflected colonial enterprise. Dublin was, and is, a small place and the extent to which Haddon, Dixon, Shackleton and Synge were all part of the same class that engaged with the idea of Irishness  at the end of the 19th century is all too often overlooked.

And that, as they say is another story.


Sources and Credits

Corlett, Chris, 2012, Jane W. Shackleton’s Ireland, Cork: Collins Press.

De Mórdha, Dáithí and Ciarán Walsh, 2012, The Irish Headhunter, The Photograph Albums of Charles R. Browne. Dublin: Stationery Office & http://www.curator.ie.

Green, David H and Edward M. Stephens, 1959, J. M. Synge 1871-1909, New York: MacMillan.

Haraway, Donna, 1988,  Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No.3. (Autumn, 1988)

Herle, Anita and Sandra  Rouse (eds.), 2009, Cambridge and the Torres Strait, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnston, Clifton, 1901, The Isle of the Shamrock, New York, London: The MacMillan Company.

Quiggins, A. Hingston, 1942/2010, Haddon the Head Hunter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stephens, Lilo, 1971, My Wallet of Photographs, Dublin: Dolmen Editions.

Walsh, C., 2013, Charles R. Browne, The Irish Headhunter, Irish Journal of Anthropology Vol 16. Anthropological Association of Ireland.

Walsh, C., 2012, John Millington Synge, Grianghrafadóir in: De Mórdha, M. (Ed.). Ceiliúradh an Bhlascaoid 14. Dublin: Coiscéim.

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