Tag Archives: Photography

Knock-Knock-Knocking on Heaven’s Door

The Man With The Magic Lantern

 

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The Man: Fr Bartholomew Cavanagh ( 1821-1897), Parish Priest of Knock and Aughamore in 1879. This is man who may have engineered an apparition using a magic lantern. The site of the apparition is visible in the background. Photo: Knock Shrine

 

The Pope is going to Knock

where the Blessed Virgin appeared to a group of local people139 years ago on this date (August 21, 1879).

Sceptics have always suspected that some form of optical device was used to trick the villagers into believing that they had been visited by the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist. One such sceptic was the Rev Dr Francis Lennon, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Maynooth.

He investigated the possible use of a magic  lantern, an early form of image projector powered by a gas lantern (limelight) or an electric arc light from the 1860s onwards. Lennon was working on behalf of a Commission of Enquiry appointed by the church to collect eyewitness statements and verify that an apparition had occurred.

 

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The Magic Lantern. Photo: Sonya Tyrna

 

The Pope’s endorsement of Knock as a recognised site of Marian apparition is a fairly clear-cut indication of the outcome of that inquiry but, from the very beginning, some people have suspected that (1) the apparition was in fact a photographic slide that was projected unto a wall of the church just as it was getting dark and (2) the event was engineered by the local parish priest.

There is plenty of literature about the so-called “Magic Lantern Theory,” the best texts being an article by Paul Carpenter in the New Hibernia Review (2011) and an academic treatment of the apparition by Eugene Hynes (2009). There is plenty of material online both from a devotional and a hoaxer perspective.

Carpenter is available online and is probably the best place to start. He gives a comprehensive account of arguments for and against the use of a projector.  Hynes, according to Carpenter, is one of the few social historians to critically examine the “Magic Lantern Theory” in an effort to determine what the witnesses actually saw.

 

Apparition Mosaic unveiled at Knock

The Apparition: The Basilica mosaic depicting the apparition of 1879. It was designed by P. J. Lynch and crafted by artisan mosaic makers in Italy. It was unveiled in 2016. Photo: Knock Shrine.

 

This blog deals with two key pieces pieces of evidence that were missed by both Carpenter and Hynes.

The first is an account by James Hack Tuke of a visit to Knock six months or so after the apparition. Tuke is in no doubt that a lantern projector was used.

The second is a story I was told by the grandson of Thomas Mason, the man who rented a projector to the parish priest of Knock at the time of the apparition. Mason couldn’t prove that his projector had been used to create an “apparition.”

Neither account definitively supports or contradicts the “Magic Lantern Theory” but they do add nuance to a story that is bound to surface in response to the current Papal visit to Knock.

 

Tuke Visits The Scene Of The Apparition

Tuke visited Knock in March 1880 in response to reports that ‘an apparition … is stated to have appeared last August, when the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph and a figure dressed as a Bishop (called now St. John) were seen with an altar etc. etc. depicted in the evening upon the east end of the church’ (my emphasis).

Tuke described the visit in great detail in a letter to his daughters at home in England. The Right Hon. Sir Edward Fry, Tuke’s biographer, introduced the letter as ‘a curious bit of narrative’ that would relieve an otherwise unending tale of distress and misery in Ireland.

Tuke had been involved in the distribution of famine relief in Donegal and Connaught during the Great Famine or An Gorta Mór of 1845-9. He was called on again when the agricultural crisis of 1879 tipped the region into famine, the Second Famine or An Gorta Beag as it was called. Tuke arrived in the west of Ireland in February 1880 and spent six weeks organising the delivery of emergency food aid to starving cottiers in Donegal and Connaught.

 

 

relief Tuke

Sketch showing the distribution of relief tickets in the turf market in Westport. From the Illustrated London News, March 6, 1880. The man in the top hat may be Tuke. Photo: Mayo Library

 

The apparition in Knock made the news in January 1880. The first account was published in the Tuam News, a newspaper founded by Canon Ulick Bourke of Claremorris. Bourke’s mother was a cousin of the Archbishop MacHale of Tuam but Bourke is remembered in his own right as an important Gaelic scholar, activist, and writer. The  Knock “story” was written by John McPhilpin, Bourke’s nephew, and can only be read as the archdiocese’s version of what happened in Knock in August 1879.

 

Knock apparitions

Four illustrations, captioned “The alleged apparitions at Knock”, depicting Fr. Kavanagh [sic], Pastor of Knock; Fr. Kavanagh’s house; exterior and interior of Knock chapel. From The Graphic,  July 17, 1880. Source / Caption: Mayo Library

Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, who set up the Commission of Enquiry, found that the words of the witnesses were “trustworthy and satisfactory.”  The status of the apparition was settled and Knock was quickly framed as the site of a Marian apparition, one of 12 recognised by the Catholic church between 1531 and 1933.

Tales of miraculous cures abounded and hundreds of pilgrims descended on Knock. Tuke described the village ‘as a dirty, small cluster of houses, with a church on a hill.’ A thriving ‘fair’ was in progress in which books, images etc. were being sold to crowds of pilgrims who were doing the rounds.

 

Sexton-Image

This photograph was taken in 1880. Pilgrims gathered at the gable where the apparition was seen. The wall had to be covered with a wooden screen to prevent pilgrims from removing the plaster.  Photo: Knock Shrine.

 

Tuke thought that the business of the apparition was a strange affair and ‘impossible to account for, unless in the first some trick has been played …’ Tuke suggests that a lantern slide projector was used to ‘depict’ the Blessed Virgin as if she was appearing in a ‘vision.’

‘I confess’ he wrote’ that as I heard it described the day before by another priest, it gave me the feeling that it was like the effect of a dissolving view, especially as he said there were lights running up and down the wall (just like the last scene in a lantern slide).’ Tuke’s account has to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Father Cavanagh was the only cleric in Knock on the evening of the 21 August 1879 but he did not  witness the event. Mary McLoughlin, his housekeeper, did and testified as much when the Commission of Enquiry convened in October 1879.

She described how she was passing the church and noticed what she thought was a group of statues bathed in a strange light. She continued on her way but returned with a friend and realised that there was something extraordinary about the figures. She sent for other neighbours to witness the scene.

She then went to Father Cavanagh to tell him of ‘the beautiful things that were to be seen at the gable of the chapel’ but ‘He appeared to make nothing of what [she] said, and, consequently, he did not go.’  It was a decision he would struggle with as word of the apparition spread but the main point here is that the event–the apparition–was not witnessed by any priest.

 

operating a lantern Slide

The Magic Lantern in action. Source: Martyn Jolly.

 

Tuke’s suggestion that another, unidentified priest had witnessed the event is, at best, misleading. It is possible that Tuke was talking to a priest involved in testing the theory that a magic lantern or some sort of optical device had been used to create the apparition. The Commission of Enquiry asked Francis Lennon, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Maynooth, to investigate the possibility that a magic lantern was used, presumably by Cavanagh although that is not stated anywhere.

Lennon was a sceptic. He did not believe that supernatural agency was at work in Knock. He conducted experiments with a projector at the site of the apparition and concluded that a lantern could not have been used. The layout of the site, Lennon argued, made a projection unrealistic and he proposed the skillful application of a fluorescent substance to the gable wall as an alternative device.

 

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Knock Map

The site of the apparition. The witnesses stood on the road to the west of the school. The windows in the western wall were the most likely place to put a projector.

 

Despite this, the “Magic Lantern Theory” was quickly adopted by sceptics like Tuke and Michael McCarthy,  an anti-clerical nationalist and author. McCarthy and Tuke were alarmed at the take over of of social institutions by a politically aggressive and increasingly powerful Roman Catholic Church.

They were vocal in their opposition to it and it fuelled their subsequent opposition to Home Rule.  McCarthy published Priests and People in Ireland in 1902. It was a stinging critique of the relation between priests and people in Ireland in which McCarthy claimed (1) that witness testimonies had been filtered by the clergy and (2) that the witnesses had seen a composite image disseminated by a projection device hidden in the sacristy.

There is plenty of circumstantial evidence in the witness statements to support the use of a lantern projector. The vision lasted for over an hour, during which time it remained static and, unlike other Marian apparitions, the Blessed Virgin did not speak to the witnesses.  The figures reminded some witnesses of statues. The light surrounding them sparkled in the rain. It sounds very like a description of an outdoor projection of religious imagery.

Tuke’s statement is, at best, hearsay but there is a bigger problem with it. Tuke was meticulous in terms of the accuracy of his reports of conditions in the west of Ireland. His sources were identified so that their information could be checked. Tuke did not identify the priest he spoke with in Knock and that omission makes his statement far less credible.

 

The Man Who Provided The Priest With A Magic Lantern

The apparition in Knock coincided with the a massive increase in the availability of photographic slides and improved projectors. There was  a corresponding increase in the use of this technology to inform and influence the general public. There was an equally dramatic increase in public demand for photographic slide shows.

The parish priest in Knock might be described as an early adopter of those technologies and the apparition in  Knock may have been the accidental result of an experimental slideshow. The really interesting thing about this is that Thomas Mason, the man who provided the priest with a projector, has left an account of that transaction and its consequences.  This may be the key to understanding the ‘beautiful likenesses’ described by Mrs. Hugh Flatley one of the eyewitnesses.

 

Religious Lantern Slide

A lantern slide depicting a scene from the Bible. A similar slide may have been used in Knock. Mary McLoughlin initially thought that Father Cavanagh had left decorative figures from Dublin standing against the gable. Photo: Pinterest

 

Photographic slides transformed the use of lantern projectors in public as a medium for entertainment, education, and political campaigning. The Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia invented a system for printing positive photographic images on glass in 1848 and, by the 1850s, they were manufacturing and selling “Hyalotypes,” their brand of photographic glass slides.

 

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A Langenheim lantern slide of the Smithsonian Institution Building under construction in 1850. Photo: Smithsonian.

 

In the 1870s and 1880s the lantern trade expanded enormously. By the 1890s over 30 companies were engaged in the production of lanterns and slides in London alone (Magic Lantern). 60 commercial photographic studios opened in Dublin between 1860 and 1870.

The Mason firm traded in scientific and optical equipment, including lantern slide projectors. The firm was established in 1780 and predated the invention of photography but, according to Edward Chandler, the Mason name has long been associated with the development of photography in Ireland.

It was, according to Chandler, one of the few firms in Dublin that provided a slide making service and ‘a religious or university lecturer could take a miscellaneous collection of photographs, prints, maps and other documents and have them made into a set of slides for projection.’

 

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The building on the corner of Parliament St., Dublin that was occupied by the Mason optical business between 1780 and 1894. Photo: Edward Chandler.

 

Thomas Mason, who took over the firm in 1887, told his grandson that he had rented a lantern projector to the Parish Priest of Knock around the time of the apparition but, as he had not been in Knock at the time, he would not speculate as to whether the projector was the source of the apparition.

Given the remote location and the relative newness of the technology involved, it was, according to Mason, impossible to prove. Mason may have been referring to Prof Lennon’s experiments with a lantern projector and his conclusion that a projector could not have been used to create the effect described by the witnesses.

Despite that finding, Tuke’s curious little narrative shows that the idea that a lantern projector was the source of the apparition had become well established within a couple of months of the story breaking in January 1880. It has remained a stubborn if unresolved part of the story of Knock.

David Berman, writing in the aggressively anti-clerical Freethinker magazine, raised the issue in advance of Pope John Paul’s visit to Knock in 1979. Berman alleged that the apparition had been engineered by Fr. Cavanagh to deflect from his disagreement with local Fenians over their role in the campaign against landlords and their agents.

In 1994, Melvin Harris claimed to have revealed the secret behind the apparition of the Virgin Mary on a church wall in … Ireland’. Harris was working on TV series in which Arthur C Clarke investigated modern-day apparitions of the Virgin Mary in three distinct locations, one of which was the site of moving statues in Ballinspittle in 1985. Harris recreated Lennon’s experiments with a lantern projector on a set that replicated the site of the apparition in Knock. Despite some complications Harris managed to recreate the “apparition.”

 

That settles that then! Or does it?

Lennon, Tuke, McCarthy and all the other sceptics were, it seems, right all along: the claim that apparition was a fraud perpetrated by the parish priest is supported by the evidence available. So why is Pope Francis visiting Knock and endorsing it as a site of Marian apparition and pilgrimage?

 

ApparitionGable

Photo: Knock Shrine.

 

The first reports of the apparition in Knock sparked a popular religious movement that the church sought to exploit in its bid for power in Ireland. Archbishop McHale and Canon Bourke sought to align the pilgrimage with clerical support for a popular uprising against the landlord class and consolidate its leadership – social and political– of rural Ireland at a local level.

Tuke and McCarthy recognised this and dismissed the apparition as a fraud out of opposition to the increasing power of the Roman Catholic Church in areas like health, education, and public administration in general. The religious/political ambition of the church was manifest in attempts to develop a national Marian shrine on the site of the apparition, replicating the shrine in Lourdes.

John White argues that this caused a public split between  John McEvilly, the Archbishop of Tuam from 1881 to 1902, and the devotional writer Sister Mary Francis Clare Cusack or the Nun of Kenmare as she was known. The resulting scandal set the project back by half a century. The pilgrimage was revived in the 1930s and Knock developed into a major site of pilgrimage for true believers; the ordinary folk who put faith before scepticism no matter how much evidence is produced to support the “Magic Lantern Theory.”

 

And this is the thing: Knock is not about blind faith so much as a popular religious movement. Pope Francis, like Canon Bourke and McHale, before him, is using Knock to visibly align the institutional church with grassroots Catholicism.

The identification of St Joseph as one of the figures in the apparition is interesting in this context. St Joseph was proclaimed  a patron of the Universal Church in 1870 and has served as a model of the ordinary, pious believer; a suitable role model for the pilgrims who have done the rounds in Knock for 139 years.

It looks like the Pope is playing with smoke and mirrors – just as Prof Lennon of Maynooth suspected the creator of the original apparition of doing.

 

Works Cited :

David Berman, 1979, Papal Visit Resurrects Ireland’s Knock Legend, The Freethinker, 99, (October, 1979). 

Paul Carpenter, 2011, Mimesis, Memory, and the Magic Lantern: What Did the Knock Witnesses See? New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, 15(2), 102-120. JSTOR

Edward Chandler, 2001, Photography in Ireland: The Nineteenth Century. Dublin: Edmund Burke.

Fintan Cullen, 2002, Marketing National Sentiment: Lantern Slides of Evictions in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland. History Workshop Journal, no. 54 (2002): 162-79. JSTOR

Eugene Hynes, 2009, The Virgin in Nineteenth century Ireland. Cork University Press.

Edward Fry, 1899, James Hack Tuke: A Memoir compiled by The Right Hon. Sir Edward Fry. London and New York: MacMillan.

Michael McCarthy, 1902, Priests and People in Ireland.  London & Dublin: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent / Hodges & Figgis. (archive.org)

John McPhilpin, 1880, Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Chapel of Knock, near Claremorris, Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, January 14.

John White, 1996, The Cusack Papers; new evidence on the Knock apparition, History Ireland, Issue 4 (Winter 1996), Volume 4. (online)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What happened on Inishbofin in July 1890? Three days that changed the history of Anthropology in Ireland and Britain.

Teampall Cholmain by Marie Coyne, The Inishbofin Heritage Museum

Teampall Cholmain by Marie Coyne, The Inishbofin Heritage Museum

St. Colman’s Abbey is a small ruin on a remote island off the West coast of Ireland. It is situated on the site of a seventh century monastery established by Colman of Lisdisfarne around 668AD. Archaeologically speaking this is a modest site  but it is the  setting for a remarkable sequence of events that were to have profound consequences for the development of anthropology in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

On Wednesday 16 July  1890 – 125 years ago to the day – the steamer  Fingal anchored in Inishbofin. The Fingal had been chartered by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS)  for survey work on the fisheries of the western seaboard. One of the scientists on board was Alfred Cort Haddon, a marine zoologist who had developed an interest in ethnology—the comparative study of races—whilst on a similar survey the year before in the Torres Strait,located between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Haddon had  joined the remarkable and Reverend William Spottiswood Green, Inspector of Fisheries, in Killybegs in County Donegal  on 26 June and headed south three days later. Haddon  assumed responsibility for keeping a “narrative ” journal of the survey. Green’s narrative has been publish by the RDS  but Haddon’s account has never been published in full and the manuscript is held in Cambridge University.

This is Haddon’s  account of  what happened on Inishbofin in July 1890:

Page 29

Wednesday – July 16 . Dixon and I got up at 6 o’clock & photographed Cromwell’s Fort and had a bathe. The 2  Mrs Allies (who reside on the island) & Father McHugh came to breakfast at 8 o’clock & after breakfast we tried a new fishing ground for longline fishing. We had just over 400 hooks out on a line measuring about —- feet – the result was poor for we only got 1 Halibut / 5 foot long and weighing 95lbs.) 1 Turbot, 1 Cod, 13 Ling, 17 Conger, 2 Torsk, 1 Cuckoo-Gurnard, 6 Pickard dog fish, 1 Tope, 7 Nurse-Hounds (Dogfish), 1 Skate, 1 Ray. – Then Dixon and I had to measure, weigh & examine a selection of them. I will explain our particular work on another occasion.

The 2 Mr Allies are Englishmen – some time ago, 8 or 9 years I believe, their father foreclosed on a mortgage on this island & so it & several others some 7 in all – including rocks – became his property & he sent a son to look after it & he has lived here ever since. For about the last 18 mths. another brother joined this one & so these 2 middle aged men are living bachelor’s lives on this out of the way island – fishing, farming, & so forth. They have both spent several years in Australia, mainly in Queensland, sheep farming etc.

Page 30

The latter brother is more or less () an engineer. The former is the recognised landlord. I got more intimate with Edward, the engineer, & I hope I have interested him in Folklore & he has promised to collect information for the Royl. Irish Academy. He told me of an old ruined church where there were some skulls & we arranged with Dixon a plan of action. We all went ashore together that night & he provided us with a sack & later in the dark, took us close to the church. The coast being clear Dixon & I climbed over the gate & went down the enclosure which is practically a large graveyard, on our way we disturbed several cattle. We stumbled along & entered the church tumbling over the stones which are placed over the graves, in the corner we saw in the dim light the skulls in a recess in the wall. There must have been 40 or more, all broken, most useless but on (overhanding) them we found a dozen which were worth carrying away & only one however had the face bones. Whilst we were thus engaged we heard 2 men slowly walking & talking in the road & like Brer Fox – we ‘lay low’ & like the Tar Baby “kept on saying nothing.” When the coast was clear we put our  spoils in the sack & cautiously made our way back to the road, then it did not matter who saw us. We returned to the Allies’ house. Dixon kept the bag & then Poole went off to the gig with us. The 2 sailors  wanted to take the bag for Dixon but he wouldn’t let them & when asked what was in it replied “poteen.” So without any further trouble we got our skulls aboard & there we packed them in Dixon’s portmanteau & locked it, no one on the steamer, except our two selves, having any idea that there were 12 human skulls in the steamer & they shan’t know either.

Teampall Chomain by Dixon. The niche where  the skulls were kept is visible in the lower right hand corner. The sketch  referred to by Haddon is an exact illustration of this scene suggesting that the sketch and the photograph are contemporaneous. This copy of photograph is from the photograph albums of Charles R. Browne. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Teampall Chomain by Dixon. The niche where the skulls were kept is visible in the lower right hand corner. The sketc h referred to by Haddon below is an exact illustration of this scene, suggesting that the sketch and the photograph are contemporaneous. This copy of the photograph is from the photograph albums of Charles R. Browne. With permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Page 31

Next afternoon we landed  & went to have a look at the place by daylight & then I made this sketch [a drawing illustrating the site of the niche and the skulls]. The whole place is a mass of graves covered with loose stones. There are no inscriptions & there is no carving anywhere. This particular building was the chapel of a monastery which was founded by St. Coleman in about 667. It is referred to by the “Venerable Bide”; but soon passed into oblivion. On the succeeding page I give a sketch of the church from a neighbouring hill, showing Inishlyon in the middle distance and the mountains of Connemara in the far distance, the group of mountains to the right is “The Twelve Pins.”  In the right hand neat corner of the churchyard is St. Colman’s will of which the accompanying is a sketch, the well itself is inside.

Teampall Cholmain, Inishbofin by Marie Coyne, Inishbofin Heritage Museum.

Teampall Cholmain, Inishbofin by Marie Coyne, Inishbofin Heritage Museum.

Haddon left Inishbofin on Friday 18 July 1890.

In November 1893 he presented a more formal report on Studies in Irish Craniology II, Inishbofin, Co. Galway to the Royal Irish Academy.

TCD 1891

Cyanotype of the Anthropometry Laboratory and Comparative Anatomy Museum in TCD in 1891. With the permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

Haddon had earned the nickname “Haddon the Headhunter” as a boy because of a prank he played on his sisters. The visit to Inishbofin set in train a series of events that converted a boyish fascination with skulls into a scientific orthodoxy that was the signature of an influential player in the establishment of anthropology as a scientific discipline in Britain.

Haddon’s involvement in the Fingal fishing survey coincided with a developing interest in anthropology as a result of his experiences in the Torres Strait. He was particularly interested in folklore as a form of history used by primitive peoples. He regarded the link between folklore and anthropology as similar to the link between palaeontology and archaeology. He had heard of a tradition of proxy weddings on Inishbofin and was eager to learn more. This seemed to matter more than ‘Headhunting’ in July 1890. He had collected skulls in Torres Straits but referred to them as “curios.” Following his escapade with Dixon however he developed a more “scientific” interest in skulls or “crania.”

Dixon had been working in comparative anatomy under Professor Daniel J. Cunningham of TCD. At the time Cunningham was mapping the topography of the human brain and comparing this to the brains of anthropoid apes. Dixon was also a keen photographer. This meeting of interests was to have a major influence on Haddon’s future direction as a scientist. He became obsessed with craniology – the categorisation of skull types through the measurement of particular features  and developed a theory of racial migration based on tracking the distribution of different skull types.

On his return to Dublin Haddon and Cunningham established an Anthropometry Laboratory in TCD and in 1891 they launched the Ethnographic Survey of Ireland. This was an attempt to use laboratory methods “in the field” in an attempt to trace the origins of the Irish race; this was the origin of the term “fieldwork” which, in this case, consisted of  measuring and photographing the physical characteristics of people in the remotest districts in Ireland, starting in the Aran islands in 1892.

Charles R. Browne

Charles R. Browne “in the field” in Inishbofin in 1893. From the photograph albums of Charles R. Browne. With Permission of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

The following year his colleague Charles R. Browne returned to St. Colman’s Abbey but the islanders prevented him form stealing more skulls. Browne, a medical doctor, was more interested in social conditions in the West and, with Cunningham, began to emphasise sociology over physical anthropology and, ethnography over measurement: a split that anticipated a major philosophical divide in the natural and social sciences in the 20th century.

That is a story that has yet to be told.

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Credits / Further Information:

Photography by Marie Coyne, The Inishbofin Heritage Museum.

This blog is based on a presentation made by Ciarán Walsh at the Anthropology and Photography Conference organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in the British Museum in May 2014, in association with Dr Jocelyne Dudding (Cambridge) and Dr Mark Maguire (Maynooth). This research continues as a postgraduate research project with the Anthropology Department of Maynooth University in association with the Irish Research Council. Ciarán Walsh was elected a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 2015.

The photographic archive of the  Irish Ethnographic Survey was published by Ciarán Walsh and Dáithí de Mórdha in 2012 in association with TCD, the OPW and the Heritage Council of Ireland. See De Mórdha, Dáithí and Ciarán Walsh, 2012, The Irish Headhunter, The Photograph Albums of Charles R. Browne. Dublin: Stationery Office & http://www.curator.ie.

This material was updated in 2013 in an article by Ciarán Walsh for the Irish Journal of Anthropology:  Walsh, C., 2013, Charles R. Browne, The Irish Headhunter, Irish Journal of Anthropology Vol 16. Anthropological Association of Ireland.

The War of Independents, The Legacy of Jackie Healy Rae.

Don Mac Monagles classic photograph of Jackie Healy Rae's torch lit procession during the Irish parliamentary election of 2007. Featured by Ciarán Walsh in a review of 100 years of photography by the MacMonagle family.

The War of the Independents, Jackie Healy Rae marches on parliament. Picture by Don MacMonagle, 2007.

Don Mac Monagles’ classic photo of ‘The Healy-Raes On The Move’ was taken during the election campaign of 2007. Jackie Healy-Rae flanked by his sons Danny and Michael (who ‘inherited’ the seat from his father) march through the streets of Killarney with ‘pikemen’ brandishing flaming torches. It was one of 10 photographs that Don Selected for a feature I did in the Irish Independent (27 July 2013 WEEKEND Magazine)  on 100 years of photojournalism by the MacMonagle family.

Don has documented the Healy-Raes since the 1970s. “I would consider myself non-political but I am fascinated by the Healy-Raes,” says Don. He got a tip that ‘Jackie’ was planning an old style rally to make an impact in the final week of the election. The picture went viral and a pundit reckoned that it would get Healy-Rae re-elected. It did.

Jackie Healy Rae Poster

Like Healy Rae, Fox and Blaney were of the Fianna Fáil gene pool. Gildea was a single-issue candidate and didn’t last long in national politics. As for Fox, her father whose seat she ‘inherited’ was a member of Fianna Fáil before he went independent. Harry Blaney got his brother’s seat (briefly occupied by Cecilia Keaveny) who had in turn gotten it from his father. In fact the Blaney ‘dynasty’ ran from 1927 to 2002. It started with Neal Blaney whose son Neil was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1972. His other son Harry took Neil’s seat after his death in 1995. Confused? Well, there’s more. Niall Blaney, Harry’s son (I think) took the seat in 2002, rejoined Fianna Fáil in 2006 and resigned the seat in 2011. The seat was then taken by Sinn Féin.

The Healy Rae phenomenon may be more recent but it is as complex and dynastic as the ‘Donegal Mafia’ (as the Blaney’s political organisation was called). That’s only part of the point. The really interesting point is the battle between the margins and the centre in Irish politics. The increasing centralisation of the mainstream parties forced the likes of Healy Rae to go independent. When the independents were lucky enough to hold the balance of power they screwed the parties for all they could get in order to consolidate their positions in their constituencies, and lucrative positions they are too. In 2011 journalist Ken Foxe (Irish Daily Mail) calculated that the Healy Raes had earned €8m over 14 years ‘in salaries, expenses and contracts from the public purse.’ That is a side issue and, as Jackie Healy Rae pointed out, it was the system.

What is more interesting is the way the Healy Raes turned the institutionalised clientilism of the big parties into a very localised power base – and turned the entire system on its head in the process. As a young civil servant I was fascinated by the fact that government ministers were provided with elaborate constituency offices within government departments at taxpayers expense, a massive advantage at election time. I learned very quickly that getting around fines, housing lists, planning, education grants and jobs in state agencies mattered more to politicians than policies. As a civil servant I worked under the best/worst of the clientilist politicians of the time – Gerard Collins (FF) Jim Mitchell (FG) and Sean Doherty (FF) – although I did refuse a transfer to Doherty’s constituency office on ethical grounds. It was an interesting encounter and as well that I decided to attend NCAD on a full time basis shortly afterwards.

The nature of clientism was summed up by anthropologist Lee Komito in 1984 (The Economic and Social Review, April, 1984). ‘The political broker who intervenes on behalf of constituents to help them obtain government benefits and the client who rewards the politician with his vote has become an acceptable, and even fashionable, model of Irish political life.’ Healy Rae’s election in 1997 showed just how well that model could work for constituents in a tight Dáil and, very soon, every constituency wanted the same! The assault by independents on the mainstream parties had begun.

Jackie Healy Rae outside Dáil Éireann

from Journal.ie

 

30 years on it seems like the independents and others (32%) now stand in the way of any viable coalition. Fine Gael (19%) has become the incredible shrinking party and Labour (6%) has compromised itself out of existence. It even looks like Fianna Fáil (21%) and Sinn Féin (22%) couldn’t form a government (even if they wanted to) without the support of independents. It’s not all Jackie Healy Rae’s fault. He got lucky but the real lesson of his role in Irish parliamentary politics is that clientilist politics have wrecked a system and the rise of the independent has been driven as much by the mainstream political parties inability to take reform seriously. Political parties how are you, it’s every man for himself and Jackie Healy Rae wrote the manual.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.