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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath: the controversy continues …

cornelius_magrath-portrait-de-longhi

Pietro Longhi, 1757, “True portrait of the Giant Cornelio Magrat the Irishman; he came to Venice in the year 1757; born 1st January 1737, he is 7 feet tall and weighs 420 pounds. Painted on commission from the Noble Gentleman Giovanni Grimani dei Servi, Patrician of Venice.” Museo di Rezzonico, Venice. Photograph: Osvaldo Böhm.

The short life of Cornelius Magrath

Cornelius Magrath was born 5 miles from Silvermines in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1737. During his adolescence, he developed a rare disorder of the pituitary gland that caused some of his bones to grow excessively. Between the ages of 15 and 16 Magrath went from 5 feet to 6 feet 8.75 inches in height. He was later described in the London Magazine for August 1752 as being of gigantic stature, but boyish and clumsily made.

His extraordinary appearance attracted a lot of attention and he was persuaded to exhibit himself. He was put on show in Bristol and London in 1753, before touring extensively in Europe. In 1857 he was in Italy, where his portrait was painted by Longhi (see above). In 1760 he became ill in Flanders and returned to Dublin where he died on May 16th. He was 23 tears of age.

In 7 years Magrath had achieved considerable fame as the ‘Irish Giant’ and his death and dissection quickly became the stuff of legend. In 1833, a report claimed that he died as a result of an injury he sustained while performing as a giant in the Theatre Royal. Numerous other legends grew up around the ‘capture’ of his body by anatomists in Dublin University, Trinity College (TCD).

maag-small-copy

A promotional print engraved by Maag in Germany in 1756 to promote appearances by Magrath. This image has been produced from the negative of a photograph made by Daniel J. Cunningham in 1891. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

In 1890, Daniel J. Cunningham’s set out to establish the truth about Magrath’s stature and dispel some of the myth’s about his short life. Cunningham presented a report to the Royal Irish Academy in 1891, which remains the definitive account of the man and his skeleton. Cunningham confirmed that Magrath suffered from acromegaly and presented evidence that he was “positively deformed” as a result of this condition.

He was not the “well-built, proportioned, straight-limbed man” with pleasing and regular features as represented by Maag in 1756 (above). Swanzy built on Cunningham’s research and published a report in 1893 that confirmed significant deformation of Magrath’s eye sockets.  This is recorded by  in Longhi in his 1757 portrait, along with the disabling condition of “knock-knee” that was described by Cunningham.

In 1902, huge crowds attended a lecture on his skeleton that was given by Cunningham in Belfast. Curiosity in Magrath remains just as strong today judging by the current controversy over the retention by TCD of his skeleton. The controversy kicked off on the History Show on RTE Radio 1 and was picked up by chat show host Joe Duffy who argued that TCD should bury the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath because it had been ‘body snatched’ and his skeleton put on public display without his consent.

The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath

The Skeleton of Cornelius Magrath is no longer on public display but is still held by the School of Anatomy in TCD. It is the most famous item in a historic collection of anatomy specimens, records, and instruments that is held in the ‘Old’ Anatomy Building. The building was decommissioned in 2014 and the collection is being resolved as part of post-grad research programme managed jointly by the School of Medicine TCD, Maynooth University, Kimmage Development Studies Centre, and the Irish Research Council.

Anthropo lab 2016 P1180364 600 dpi

Ciarán Walsh reconstructing the skull measuring device developed by Daniel J. Cunningham in the 1890s. The “Dublin Craniometer” is one of a number of anthropometrical instruments that were discovered when the ‘Old’ Anatomy building in Trinity College Dublin was being decommissioned in 2014. The skull, incidentally, is a plastic model. Photo: Ciarán Walsh.

I am employed as a full-time researcher on the project and resolving ethical issues relating to the retention of human remains is a major part of the work in hand. Indeed, the research proposal had to pass rigorous ethical approval procedures in Maynooth University, the School of Medicine TCD, and the IRC before I could get access to the ‘old’ Anatomy building and the collections held therein, which include the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath.

To bury or not to bury, that is the debate.

The Magrath “case” is interesting because there is no evidence that the body snatching story, however entertaining, is true. The only contemporary account of his death states simply that “Upon death, his body was carried to the Dissecting House,” but that account was probably written by either Robert Robinson, Professor of Anatomy in TCD, or Dr. George Cleghorn, the University anatomist (see Cunningham’s 1891 report to the Royal Irish Academy).

What we can say with some certainty is that Magrath died of a wasting disease (phthisis) and it is clear from the Robinson/Cleghorn account that he was receiving medical attention at the time of his death. It records that Magrath’s “complexion was miserably pale and sallow; his pulses very quick at times for a man of his extraordinary height; and his legs were swollen.” Elsewhere, it states that his pulse beat almost sixty times a minutes “on his arrival here.”  It sounds like Magrath was being cared for in the School of Medicine TCD when he died.

The body snatching legend, best described by Hooper,  has it that Magrath was being waked when medical students, egged on by Robinson, spiked the porter and made off with his body, which was immediately dissected in secret. Such a sensational body snatching could not have escaped notice and, furthermore, the dissection was both public knowledge and uncontroversial. Historians of anatomy in TCD have always believed that the body was paid for by Cleghorn and that the acquisition of the body was legitimate and ethical by the standards of the day. The problem here is that there is no documentary evidence of Magrath having consented to dissection or the permanent display of his skeleton.

Comparative Anatomy / Anthropological Museum, MS10961-1_22

The Anthropological Laboratory in TCD in 1891, from a cyanotype or blueprint of a  photograph taken by Charles R. Browne. The laboratory ceased operations in 1903 and its collections were reorganised in 1948. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

That brings us to the contemporary issue of retention or burial. The report of the Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections (WGHR), published in 2003,  set out public policy in relation to British Museums. The authors of the report acknowledged that human remains in collections “represent a unique and irreplaceable resource for the legitimate pursuance of scientific and other research” (p. 28)  but concluded that collections of human remains in museums should be subject to the sort of regulatory frameworks being developed for health authorities and hospitals in Britain (p. 81).

One of its principal finding was the need to remove legislative barriers to repatriation or burial by British museums, effectively making the ethical disposal of human remains in museum collections its default position (p. 20, para. 58). In 2004 the introduction of the Human Tissue Act allowed nine national museums to return human remains under 1,000 years old, where they consider it appropriate to do so. The British Museum rejected an application for repatriation in 2012  on grounds other than those provided for in the legislation, which illustrates the complexity of the issues involved and the need to consider claims for repatriation or burial on a case by case basis.

In terms of regulation in Ireland, the Human Tissue Bill has been stalled since 2013 and the Inspector of Anatomy, appointed by the Medical Council in the interim, has oversight of the ‘Old’ Anatomy collections in TCD. This leaves the burial of Magrath’s remains at the discretion of the college authorities; which means that any decision will have to deal with public perception as to the “morality” of retaining identifiable human remains in collections of scientific material. That is deeply problematic, and Duffy’s attempt to frame the issue in body snatching folklore is distorting what should be a valuable and timely debate.

References: 

British Museum,2012, Request for Repatriation of Human Remains to the Torres Strait Islands, Australia. Online document: http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/management/human_remains/repatriation_to_torres_strait.aspx

Cunningham, D. (1887). The Skeleton of the Irish Giant, Cornelius MagrathThe Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 29, 553-612. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30078824

Department of the Taoiseach, LEGISLATION PROGRAMME FOR AUTUMN SESSION 2013, Published:  18th September, 2013: http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/irish/Foilseacháin/Foilseacháin_2013/LEGISLATION_PROGRAMME_FOR_AUTUMN_SESSION_2013.html

Hooper, A. (1987). Dublin Anatomy in the 17th and 18th CenturiesDublin Historical Record, 40(4), 122-132. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30100813

Human Tissue Act 2004, UK: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/30/contents

Report of The Working Group on Human Remains, November 2003,Dept. for Culture Media and Sport, Great Britain: http://www.museumsbund.de/fileadmin/geschaefts/dokumente/Leitfaeden_und_anderes/DCMS_Working_Group_Report_2003.pdf

Swanzy, H. (1893). Note on Defective Vision and Other Ocular Derangements in Cornelius Magrath, the Irish Giant. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1889-1901), 3, 524-528. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20490478

Trinity College, Dublin, 2016, The Academic and Artistic Collections – a summary: First produced February 2010; contact and website updates March 2016: http://www.tcd.ie/artcollections/assets/pdf/TCD%20Academic%20and%20Artistic%20Collections%20summary.pdf

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.

65 RSAI Haddon 113_001_3

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?

In search of the ‘Starving West’: TV series on social documentary photography

Uploaded by www.curator.ie: a reproduction of a photograph of an impoverish family huddled in cabin in Connemara in 1898. It is entitled

A starving Irish family from Carraroe, County Galway during the Famine . Source: Virginia University.

About 10 years go I came across this photograph. The caption suggests that it was taken during the Famine of 1845-9 in Ireland.  It wasn’t. True, it is very similar to the scenes recorded in cabins throughout the west of Ireland and graphic illustrations of such scenes were published in illustrated newspapers at the time. There is no record, however, of any photograph of people dying of starvation in the 1845-9 famine.  Indeed a photograph like this would have been impossible in the early stages of photography – invented less than a decade before the famine. As a result he photograph has been dismissed by some people as a fake, the harsh pool of light suggesting a studio staging.

STARVING WEST P1100442

I set out to look for the original and test its authenticity. I never found it, but I found the next best thing -the original document in which the photograph was first published.  The photograph is entitled ‘A Sick Family Carraroe’ and is one of 18 photographs that were published in a pamphlet entitled  ‘Relief of Distress in the West and South of Ireland, 1898.’ The photographs were taken in April during an inspection of conditions in Connemara by Thomas L. Esmonde, Inspector of the Manchester Committee. He was reacting to reports of famine in Conamara. He inspected a dozen houses in which he found people lying on the floor, covered with rags and old sacks and barely able to move from a combination of influenza and hunger.

12 The Starving west

The search for the photograph became the basis of an idea for a TV series on social documentary photography or, to put it another way, a social history of documentary photography in Ireland in the 19th century. I pitched the idea to a producer and a broadcaster in 2011 and funding was eventually secured from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in 2014 for a six part series based on my research. TG4 will begin  broadcasting Trid an Lionsa or ‘Through the Lens’ tomorrow Sunday 25 October 2015.

I haven’t been involved in in the production itself, just the research into historical social documentary photography and the people who work in this area. This material has been “translated into television” by Cathal Watters (Oíche na Gaoithe Móire) and follows the TG4 controversial format of presenter driven, on-the-road info-tainment. (http://wp.me/p56Bmf-5g).

I have no idea what to expect. Like a colleague I will be watching from behind the couch … hoping!  It’ll be interesting to see how the balance between a social history of documentary photography and ‘factual’ entertainment works out. I know some key “voices” were excluded but that is the unenviable task of a producer. Either way it promises be an intriguing televisual event and, at the very least, it should create an awareness of the rich resource that exists in photographic archives and collections around the country.

Related posts:

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

Alfred Cort Haddon: Haddon and the Aran Islands

Famine Photography: Photographs were taken: documenting the second famine in Connemara

In memory of Mick ‘The Iron Man’ Murphy

Mick 'The Iron Man' Murphy by Barry McCarthy from the exhibition 'Blood, Sweat and Gears,' 2008

Mick ‘The Iron Man’ Murphy by Barry McCarthy from the exhibition ‘Blood, Sweat and Gears,’ 2008.

I have just learned of the death of Mick Murphy of Cahersiveen in Co. Kerry. Mick was known fondly as ‘The Iron Man’ because of his exploits in a celebrated bicycle race in 1958. Aidan O’Connor, writing in The Kerryman newspaper described Mick’s extraordinary Life:

Mick made a living as a spalpeen and a circus performer. After winning the 1958 Rás, Mick returned to Kerry to work in local quarry, breaking stones with a crowbar and sledge hammer. All the while, the Iron Man was completing daily training routines of 100-mile cycles.

Aged just 27 years, Mick Murphy retired and took the boat to England where he worked as a builder, road maker, a carnival act, boxer and a wrestler.

Mick’s training was as unconventional as his lifestyle. Having read about the important of a high protein diet, Mick drank cow’s blood and ate raw meat, well aware that this was regarded with “horror” by the people of Cahersiveen. The legend that was the ‘Iron Man’ was the starting point for an exhibition that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his victory in the Rás in 1958. The exhibition consisted of still photography by Barry McCarthy interviews recorded by film maker Chris Hurley. The impact of that exhibition is captured in Sean Mac an tSithig’s report (above) which was recorded for the main evening news.

Mick Murphy was one of the most remarkable people I worked with in Siamsa, a true folk hero. Following the broadcast of Seán’s film a lot of men who had gone through similar experiences came to the gallery and spoke movingly of their lives as emigrants and their love of cycling.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Never Mind The ‘Bollix,’ this is TG4!

Fionn Foley on the set of Eipic. From Magamedia.Fionn Foley on the set of Eipic. From Magamedia.

“TG4 find that dialogue-heavy material is hard to get an audience for.”

Olaf Tyaransen, Irish Independent, 15.08.2015

Two things made the news recently that suggest that the Irish language – as a cultural institution – is in real trouble.  First, Olaf Tyaransen reports that TG4 – the state supported Irish language television station – finds “that dialogue-heavy material is hard to get an audience for.  Music and sport works for them because it’s not that language dependent.” The second piece of bad news came from the ESRI. It concluded that “while attitudes towards the Irish language are broadly positive, this does not translate into significant use of the language.”

To be fair, its not clear who Olaf Tyaransen  was paraphrasing, if he was paraphrasing any one. But the reference to sport and music are not new. A few years ago I did a workshop for new directors with Gréasán na Meán and it was based on more or less the same audience analysis. Essentially, we were being asked to come up with new ideas for Irish language obs-doc (observational documentary) TV that would get around the “dialogue-heavy” issue. These ideas were to be shoe-horned into a formula devised for a slot on Sunday evenings and a Gaeltacht audience.

There was a distinct impression that TG4 was desperately in search of an audience or, to put it another way, a formula for an audience that was not necessarily interested in Irish language “dependent” television.  That takes us back to Olaf Tyaransen. He describes how Magamedia are using  music and ‘bad’ language as a strategy to attract a young audience to a ‘drama’ based on the rebellion of 1916: “So, with Eipic (Epic) the music is almost like a trojan horse. You get them in through that and they’ll stay [and] We got a good few ‘f**ks,’ a ‘bollix,’ and there’s a ‘pr**k’ or two thrownin.” The latter half of the quote comes from Mike O’Leary whose original script in English has been translated into Irish, minus the ‘c**ts.’

Péig it ain’t – but will it work? Maybe. The company behind Eipic also produced the “critically acclaimed” Corp + Anam, and they have a budget of 1 million Euro of public broadcast funding to boot. It can’t be any worse than some of the other strategies adopted by TG4: the history of the cup of tea, or the place of the donkey in Irish culture for instance. Or the current trend in presenter led “road-trip” documentaries like Cé a chonaigh i mo theachsa? or An Lá a Rugadh Mé? To be fair – again – this is not confined to TG4. Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way on RTE is typical of that ‘genre’ and has gotten a fair amount of drubbing, mainly because of the constraints of the format (John Boland). This kind of formula driven ‘documentary’ making can result in some real horrors. Have a look at this clip form An La a Rugadh Mé:

Is this the world television programme ever?

On the face of it the idea of programme based on Harry McGee (media savvy Political Correspondent) and Alan Dukes (former govt. minister and chairman of the most toxic bank in Ireland) going through newspaper archives in the National Library of Ireland would have been a must-see, but this is really terrible. The hyped Pathé-style commentary, the relentlessly perky tone, and busy-never-mind-the-remote-control chopping of content makes its treatment of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp utterly perverse: no more so than the transition from a chorus line to the site of the Sachsenhausen museum and camp. How did TG4 ever release this? What were Harry McGee and Alan Dukes thinking? Whatever it was, it has been totally lost in the translation of a potentially intriguing story about history, journalism,and politics into format-driven “infotainment” of the most surreal kind.

Never mind the content, this is television – Irish language style.

A couple of weeks ago research published by the Gaeltacht Authority suggested that the majority of people living in 134 out of the 155 areas currently defined as Gaeltacht (primarily Irish Speaking) districts have given up on Irish (Welcome to the Galltacht). Now it seems that the television station tasked with keeping the language alive and relevant has a preference for  content that is “not that language dependent.” Is it any surprise that Dr Marike Darmody of the ESRI has concluded “it is hard to see how the Irish language can flourish in future”.

 

Photographs were taken: documenting the second famine in Connemara.

Conomara cottage 600 IMG_0816

The origins of social documentary photography in Ireland: Part 2.

This photo was taken a couple of years ago. I was travelling between Rossaveel and Maam Cross, on my way to Leenane. The road travels through an upland wilderness of bogs and small lakes, a landscape that is typical of Southern Connemara. It reminded me of a shot taken by Marguierite Mespoulet in 1913, probably to the west on the coast road to the village of Carraroe.

Mespoulet Carraroe

Maison isolée, Sud du Connemara, Irlande, 31 mai 1913. Autochrome de Marguerite Mespoulet (inv.A 3 664).© Musée Albert-Kahn – Département des Hauts-de-Seine

Mespoulet had been commissioned by Albert Kahn to document ‘peasant’ life in the remote west of Ireland. She was using the newly developed autochrome process to shoot what are probably the first colour photographs taken in the west of Ireland. Mespoulet left Galway and headed for Connemara on 31 May, travelling along a well established tourist route. She never got there. She was stopped in her tracks by reports of an outbreak of typhoid that was sweeping the islands of southern Connemara. She took this shot of a thatched cottage. “A little to the north  of the place where this small house was taken” she wrote “the people are dying like flies from typhoid fever.”

Typhoid in Connemara was nothing new but in 1913 the cause of recurring outbreaks of fever was the subject of a row between the Irish Independent (nationalist) and the Irish Times (unionist) newspapers. An article published in the Irish Independent on May 26, 1913 accuses the Irish Times of publishing an editorial that was intended to minimise reports of a “plague” in Connemara. It included this quote from the editorial:

“[Typhoid] has made its appearance upon a few islands off Southern Connemara , miles removed from the tourist routes, in Gorumna, Lettermore , and Lettermullen, which have been described as ‘plague spots,’ the peasants are huddled in hovels that pass for houses, and they draw water from stagnant pools.”

The correspondent for the Irish Times claimed that poor housing and lack of clean water were to blame for renewed outbreaks of fever, but argued that talk of an “epidemic’ was not justified by the figures. In a dispensary area of almost 10,000 persons there were five fatal fever cases and 40 more cases notified. He (presumably) drew comparisons with other parts of Connemara  “where things are more favourable, or at least not quite so unpleasant,”  highlighting the fact that in the “plague centre” people shared their hovels with pigs “who were practically members of  the household.”  The peasants, it appears, were the agents of their own misfortune.

Indo Master 620

The Irish Independent took issue with this. A correspondent had stated in an earlier article (May 15)  that “If corroboration of the case [that there was a fever plague in Connemara] and the graphic photographs reproduced in our  columns were required, it would be found abundantly in the immediate response to, and commendation of our appeal by those who know the distress and the appalling  conditions of the stricken locality.” The Irish Independent criticised the callous bureaucracy of government and sanitary authorities, accusing them of placing the islanders in imminent danger of absolute extermination through shameful neglect.

The Irish Independent  also published an eyewitness account of conditions in Connemara. It was written by a special correspondent of the Connacht “Tribune.” He had motored with the local M.P. (Wm. O’Malley) to Carraroe, where he met the parish priest (Healy). They went on  Bealdangan and picked up the local doctor (O’Kelly). They then went to the “little hut” of John Lee where they met the Chief Secretary (Birrell), who was on a tour of inspection.

A halftone reproduction of this hut was featured on The Irish Independent  Magazine Page on May 14, 1913. It was printed under the headline

A halftone reproduction of John Lee’s “hut” was featured on The Irish Independent  Magazine Page on May 14, 1913. It was printed under the headline “Peasants Appalling Plight, Fever Stricken Connemara.”

Lee’s family was one of 800 hundred families trying to subsist on patches of potato scattered across  “the wilderness of rock and bog.” His 17 year old son had died in April and another child was in the fever hospital in Oughterard:

“The house stood about seven feet high, and was without an aperture of any kind, save the small door …We entered this 11 feet by 8 apartment that constituted the entire interior, and growing accustomed to the darkness, we recognised that it was practically devoid of furniture … It was, declared Mr. Birrell, the worst dwelling he had ever seen.

Where had he been? People like John Lee and his family had been dying in a famine that had started during the “crisis of 1879” and had continued more or less for over 30 years. On December 13, 1879 The Illustrated London News published the following illustration of the “Bog-Trotters of Ballintober:”

Bogtrotters

IRISH SKETCHES: BOG-TROTTER’S CABIN, BALLINTOBER BOG, ROSCOMMON. – SEE PAGE 558, Supplement to The Illustrated London News, Dec. 13, 1879, p. 557. Collection of Ciarán Walsh.

The accompanying article stated that:

The agricultural  disadvantages of Connaught are not to be denied, and we hear without surprise of the distressed condition of small farmers in that part of the island … Here [Ballintober] are still to be found some of the genuine “bog-trotters,” a class of peasants living in squalid poverty by the scanty produce of small plots of ground and wages by field labour, where no farmer has capital to give them employment. Our artist’s sketch of one of their wretched cabins, with the poor man and his children waiting for their dinner of potatoes to be boiled over a turf fire, outside the dwelling, by the comfortless care of the wife and mother, is a sorry picture of Irish rural life. There are probably a hundred thousand people in Ireland whose condition is not much better.

Some 20 years later the same conditions were documented in Connemara, and again in 1913. The tone of The Illustrated London News commentary is not all that different from the Irish Times editorial of 1913. Complacency  and official inaction was the order of the day. In an effort to shock people out of their complacency photographs were taken inside the “hovels” of the starving peasants in Gorumna in 1898. The intention was to prove that reports of a famine in Connemara were not exaggerated, that people were indeed starving to death in the west and southwest of Ireland. These photographs were published by the Mansion House Committee established by Lord Mayor Tallon. It was a remarkable event that signalled that social documentary photography had arrived in Ireland.

Next: In search of the “The Starving West.”

Information / References

Marguerite Mespoulet: http://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.fr/archives-de-la-planete/mappemonde/europe/irlande/

Ballintober / Cluain Bhríde in Roscommon is on the R367, a minor road heading northeast from the N60 Roscommon to Castlerea road, just before the village of Ballymoe. The river Suck meanders through extensive boglands on the Galway / Roscommon Border. The railway line runs through bogland in Cleaboy, just under two kilometres southwest of Ballintober, crossing the R367 at 53.7031629,-8.4184402

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