Tag Archives: John Millington Synge

Altering States: the curious case of Johanne Mullan’s critique and Jimmy Deenihan’s chocolate teapot.

At the beginning of February, RTE repeated its review of regional development in the arts in Ireland as part of Althering States,  Cliodhna Ní Anluain’s series examining “100 years of the arts in Ireland.”  Johannne Mullan of  the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) highlighted the lack of investment in the visual arts by organisations ‘in the regions.’

Johanne Mullan should know. She manages the National Programme at IMMA, a scheme which provides venues and groups with ‘access’ to the Museum’s collection. The key point that she makes is that the development of the visual arts has been hampered by the failure of regional arts venues to make adequate provision for exhibition spaces or the employment of professional visual arts practitioners. Mullan did not refer to Siamsa Tíre or her role as member of its board of directors for much of the past decade.

Siamsa-Gallery

Students of Tralee Community College installing their exhibition in the Gallery, Siamsa Tíre. Photo: Emily Doran

Siamsa Tíre was, In many respects, an exception in terms of regional arts development.  In 1991 this grassroots company opened a state of the art, newly built theatre that incorporated a dedicated visual arts space. That space may not have been conventional but  a little bit of investment and a lot of handiwork transformed it into one of the best spaces in the Southwest. Artists liked it: it was a good place to exhibit.

The company also employed a Visual Arts Director from the outset. I replaced Marial Hannon in 1995 and left the company when the post was made redundant in 2010. One of the last exhibitions I curated was a show of photography by John Millington Synge. This opened in Inis Meáin in the Aran Islands and went on to Paris, where it was a big hit. It was incorporated into The Moderns (2010)  in IMMA, one of the rare occasions when an exhibition moved from a regional venue to IMMA.

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The end of an era:the Synge exhibition in Le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.

The Synge exhibition epitomised the scale and scope of the visual arts programme 1n 2010. With the agreement of the Arts Council, the gallery operated like no other arts centre gallery in the country. Exhibitions were commissioned, artists’ fees were adequate, international projects (New York, Shanghai, Newfoundland) were developed in collaboration with artists, and there was a comprehensive programme of engagement with educational and community groups.

The Synge exhibition was also the end of an era. It exposed serious weaknesses on the part of senior managers, who were either unwilling or unable to engage with projects of this complexity and quality. That brought all sorts of difficulties to a head and, in June 2010, senior management decided to make the post of Visual Arts Director redundant .

The board of directors agreed,  Johanne Mullan amongst them. True, at the time Siamsa had more managers than it needed or could afford and the visual arts could, in theory, have been absorbed by the existing management team. As it happened the visual arts programme was dismantled.

Now you see … now you don’t!

The first action by Siamsa management was to cancel or revise contracts agreed with artists and partner organizations in Ireland and abroad. A major international exchange with the Don Gallery in Shanghai was cancelled on the slimmest of pretexts. Documents show how fees agreed with artists were significantly cut, amounting to a deliberate withdrawal of financial support from one of the most exposed sectors of the arts in Ireland – in the midst of a financial crisis that had wiped out many artists’ income.

This was merely the beginning of a deliberate policy of not investing in the visual arts. Seven years on there is little or no support for professional visual artists and the gallery is barely functioning as a visual arts space. Schools in the region no longer have supported access to the visual arts. It’s beginning to look like the ‘bad old days’ when contemporary visual arts were barely visible in the regions, as described by contributors to Altering States: 

Johanne Mullan was a member of the board of directors of Siamsa Tíre while all this was going on.  I emailed her and asked her how she squared her criticism of the lack of investment in professional personnel and appropriate spaces in arts centres and theatres in the “regions” with her role in dismantling the visual arts infrastructure in Kerry. Her reply: “I am happy to bring your opinions to the Siamsa Tíre board.” I’m thinking chocolate teapots but Mullan has a point:  investment in the arts doesn’t just happen, it is a consequence of individual and collective decisions taken by management and approved by boards of directors.

Jimmy’s Chocolate Teapot

There is a wider context that needs to be considered here. Siamsa received €332,000 in public funding in 2016. It is part of regional infrastructure of publicly funded organisations that the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has placed at the center of its plan to “build a legacy of 2016” by making a policy objective of personal and collective creativity. “The best way to nurture the creative imagination“ the Department’s website states “is through active engagement with arts and culture.”

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Heather Humphreys T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, launching the Creative Ireland Programme. Photo:  Departmental website.

The Government has also launched Realising Our Rural Potential, a plan to mobilise economic, social and cultural resources in the regions with the aim of “improving the lives of those living and working in rural Ireland.” The plans come together around the key objective of increasing access to the arts and enhancing cultural facilities in rural communities.

And that is a problem that exercised all the contributors to Altering States:  how is active engagement with arts achieved at a local and regional level? Who calls the shots? Who is accountable? Who pays the Piper? Siamsa Tíre is a really interesting case. The Department of Arts etc. replaced the Arts Council as the primary funder of Siamsa Tíre in 2015, a move brokered by Jimmy Deenihan, then Minister for Arts and the local Fine Gael TD. It was a brazen act of clientilist patronage that politicised arts funding in an unprecedented way.

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Siamsa in 1991: the good ole days.

As part of the deal agreed between Deenihan, the Department, and the Board of Siamsa Tíre, the organisation ceased trading as an Arts Council supported arts centre and became a venue that “provides theatre and exhibition facilities to third parties” (see Directors’ Report and Financial Statements for 2015). What does that mean in practice?  The current visual arts programme comprises a one person exhibition and a touring show produced by “a third party,” pretty much the same level of activity as the year before.

Lack of money is not the issue here. Deenihan sweetened the transfer deal with an increase of 33% in funding, from €225,000 under the Arts Council to €300,ooo from the Department of Arts etc. A further €32,000 per annum is provided by Kerry County Council.

The real issue is the level of investment that is decided by management and approved by the board of directors. It begs the question: what percentage of €332,000 in public funding did Siamsa allocate directly to the support of artists and opportunities for public engagement in 2016? At a guess, I would say around 1%.

That raises all sort of questions about the viability of the Department’s plan to use the ‘regional’ resources like Siamsa Tíre to “nurture the creative imagination” in rural Ireland. Once again, sadly, a chocolate teapot comes to mind. I can’t help thinking that Jimmy Deenihan was thinking along the same lines at the end of the last election count.

Next up: The National Folk Theatre of Ireland: you can’t be serious?

Jane W. Shackleton: Pioneering Photographer and Unsung Hero of the Gaelic Revival

 Bridget Mullins, Inis Mór, The Aran Islands, 1895.

Bridget Mullins stands proud and visibly pregnant beside an impressive example of a west of Ireland spinning wheel. Crude stone cottages, drystone walls and bare limestone flags provide a barren backdrop to an image that combines industry and motherhood. Her dress proclaims her ethnicity. This is the Aran Islands. Dun Aonghusa, the ancient fort of the Fir Bolg, is just about visible on the horizon. The year is 1895.

Jane W. Shackleton asked Mullins to pose with the spinning wheel outdoors, in front of a cottage. Apart from any technical requirements – stand cameras with slow lenses and negatives that required long exposures in bright daylight – this was an increasingly conventional way of photographing women in the west of Ireland. The encounter between these two women was, however, a rather unconventional and almost auto-ethnographic moment that produced a complex set of subjectivities: the bourgeois wife of a miller and the peasant wife of a tenant farmer, one Anglo-Irish and one Gaelic-Irish; the naturalised colonist and the colonised native, one Quaker and the other Roman Catholic.

It was also a practical and interested transaction. Mullins traded her ethnicity for access to a technology of representation that was way beyond her reach, economically speaking. She paid Shackleton for a copy of the photograph with a pair of hand-knit socks. Why? The cachet of having a photographic portrait is one reason but there is another reason why photographs were highly valued in place like Aran. Many islanders had emigrated to the United States and a photographic portrait, however framed, would have been an extraordinarily valuable and tangible token of affiliation for separated families (Daithí de Mórdha’s work on the family photographs of the Blasket Islanders is worth looking at in this context). Shackleton, for her part, was trading in antiquarian photography and needed the authentic, documentary ethnicity embodied in Bridget Mullins.

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Source: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Victorians in the Field

The trade between Shackleton and Mullins was much more than some sort of “bead exchange” between a tourist and a native in an exotic location. Shackleton was not a tourist. The photograph was taken during a field trip by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and the Society’s documentation of the excursion – from the metropolis to the ‘wild’ west – shows the extent to which photography had become integrated into fieldwork and social documentary practices of representation. This was the height of the ‘survey’ movement, an attempt by photographic and historical societies to record the traditional aspects of society throughout the UK before they were swept aside by rapid modernisation. Special attention was paid to the ‘Celtic Fringe’ and the spectacular nature of the Aran Islands had been highlighted by Alfred Cort Haddon following his first visit to the islands in 1890. The rapid expansion of industrialised and commodified photography into the middle classes in the 1880s and 1890s was a key element in this movement. The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland accumulated 20,000 photographic images in its search the for traces of past civilisation in Ireland, a collection that has only recently been recovered and restored (see RSAI). One of the photographs taken featured Alfred Cort Haddon lounging against the a wall in the complex of ruins known as the Seven Churches. Haddon and Shackleton were connected.

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Source: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Shackleton and Haddon

Shackleton visited Aran for the first time in 1891, just as Haddon was getting the Irish Ethnographic Survey off the ground. They knew one another and both were members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, a key part of Haddons network. Haddon promoted the involvement of women in field clubs and it a proficient photographer and antiquarian like Shackleton would hardly have escaped his attention. It raises the question, was her trip to Aran prompted by Haddon? There is an early photograph of men carrying a curragh that feature in the collections assembled by both Haddon and Shackleton. The authorship is unclear but this suggests that, at the very least, they were exchanging copies / slides of photographs taken in Aran.

Haddon was very different to Shackleton as far as motivation goes. Haddon was a ‘Headhunter,’ an ethnologist using craniometry to map the ancient migrations “of man” and their traces in contemporary populations. Shackleton was a humanist and her photography brought the people of Aran and their society into sharp focus against a background of political turbulence and contested identities.

Erin with Harp

Éire by Jerome Connor (1874 -1943) , Merrion Square, Dublin, erected 1976. Source: Greatacre

Mullins as Mother Ireland

The portrait of Bridget Mullins is a carefully composed and complex study of womanhood in the pre-literate and pre-capitalist society of white “savages” that lived in the most primitive part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1895. The fact that Mullins is visibly pregnant is one of the most remarkable features of this photograph and, indeed photography from tis period. I don’t know of any other Victorian photograph that represents pregnancy so explicitly. It has to be deliberate: this is Mother Ireland in the flesh. Replace the spinning wheel with a harp and you have Erin, the most enduring image produced by the Young Irelander movement of cultural nationalists that emerged after 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe. Shackleton has reified and radicalised the idea of being Irish by transforming the way women like Mullins were made visible in the metropolis.

The photograph of Bridget Mullins was copied as a slide – the heavy black border shows that this a reproduction of a glass lantern (gas powered projector) slide – and presented with supporting commentary in “magic lantern” shows in Dublin. These slideshows were hugely popular but they were more than an elitist living room entertainment for the Anglo-Irish bourgeois. This ‘technology of representation’ was transforming social, cultural and political campaigns It is hard to ignore the impact that these images of Aran must have had on the Gaelic Revival, the start of which is generally associated with Douglas Hyde’s call for the de-Anglicisation of Irish society in 1892. Shackleton’s empathy with and concern for the islanders is evident in her lecture notes. Her representation of Bridget Mullins in the performance of those slideshows must have really challenged attitudes to the recalcitrant ‘primitivism’ of the ‘native’ Irish, bringing the validity of the colonial administration of Ireland into question into the bargain. The connection between this enhanced visibility – and the visualities it created – and the increased focus on the “real’ Ireland to the West that was such a feature of the Gaelic Revival has to be more than co-incidence. It could be Shackletons legacy as a social documentary photographer.

Original glass plate negatives of photographs around Ireland by J.M. Synge. Previous reproductions were published in a book titled My Wallet, in 1971.

Nóra and Máire Nic Donnchadha, Inis Meáin, by John Millington Synge (c1899). Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Conclusion: And What About Synge?

Whether or not Shackleton’s slideshows came to the attention of an amateur photographer called John Millington Synge is not clear. Dublin always was a small place and it is hard to imagine that John Millington Synge – whose uncle had been a pastor (and a controversial one at that) on Aran – was not aware of the interest in Aran in “learned” societies like the Antiquaries. Synge arrived in he Aran Islands from Paris in the summer of 1898 and immediately bought a second hand ‘falling plate’ camera that he used to record / document life on the islands. They were meant to illustrate his account of life on the island. His account of the time he spent living amongst the peasants was to eclipse Shackleton, Haddon and many other accounts of life in the islands. Ironically, the significance of Synge’s photographs was overlooked until the centenary of his death in 2009, when they were belatedly recognised as a turning point in the imagination of Irishness, a cultural turn on the eve of revolution. (www.curator.ie / IMMA)

Likewise Shackleton’s singular contribution to the Gaelic Revival has been seriously undervalued. According to Christiaan Corlett  Jane W. Shackleton was responsible for the most comprehensive photographic documentation of the Aran Islands at the end of the 19th century but her career as a photographer was virtually unknown until Corlett published a collection of her photographs in 2012. Why? Does the answer lie in a gendered history of photography or in the victory of the romantic primitivism of Synge over antiquarianism and all other perspectives?

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Synge and Sander, and the Significance of the Suit

Young Farmers 1914, printed 1996 by August Sander 1876-1964

 

I came across this photo on Tumblr recently and it reminded me of an old acquaintance that I had with John Berger – in print of course. I was an undergraduate student trying to come to terms with the ‘significance’ of the ‘suit’ in this photo.

Young Farmers was taken by August Sander in 1914 using a large format, glass plate camera with a long exposure time, a legacy of earlier formalised studio portraiture and all that that implied. It was the sixth plate in Sander’s portrait photobook Face of Our Time, published in 1929. It also appears in the first volume of Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, a photographic index of the German population based on distinct social ‘types’.

John Berger ‘the Marxist art critic’ wrote an essay about the photo in which he stated: ‘The date is 1914. The three young men belong, at the very most, to the second generation who ever wore such suits in the European countryside. Twenty or 30 years earlier, such clothes did not exist at a price which peasants could afford.’ (Berger, The Suit and the Photograph, 1980, p.30.).

Berger suggests that the tree lads are deliberately playing with the viewers expectations of the peasant ‘type’ by adopting the stance and manner of urban ‘types’, the cigarette being especially significant in this regard (adapted from text on the Tate website).

 

My wallet of photographs ; the collected photographs of J.M. Synge

 

Berger may have overstated it a little, in an Irish context anyhow. John Millington Synge took this photograph of Mairtín Mac Donnchadha in 1898, a mere 16 years before Young Farmers. Mac Donnchadha features prominently in ‘The Aran Islands’ (1907),  Synges account of life on the islands. In the book Mac Donnchadha is called  ‘Michael’ and is portrayed as a model of the primitive peasant ‘type’ found in Aran.

Justin Carville (Photography and Ireland), in a reprise of Berger’s earlier article, wrote in the(Irish Journal of Anthropology (reference below) about Synge’s account of taking the photograph.  Mairtín / Michael wanted to wear his suit, his Sunday clothes from Galway rather than the homespuns that he was photographed in. He wanted to distance himself from the ‘primitive life of the islands.’ This was evidence, according to Carville, that the islanders were ‘becoming increasingly aware of the production of their identity through the photographic image.’ In other words they understood the significance of the suit.

It seems they weren’t alone, judging by the studio portraits used by Synge (right) and Sander. At the time Synge was living in Paris on an annual allowance of £40 plus a new suit, courtesy of his landowning family. Synge, and others like, him were known to the islanders as ‘lucht na cultacha deasa,’  the people with the nice suits.

 

August Sander 1906, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964

 

 

 

Ref: “My Wallet of Photographs”: Photography, Ethnography and Visual Culture in J.M. Synge’s Aran Islands” Irish Journal of Anthropology Vol. 10 no. 1. (2007): 5-11.