When the playright John Millington Synge visited the island of Inis Meáin his first impression was far from flattering. He described the island which forms one of the three Aran Islands as a “place was hardly fit for habitation” and in a reference to the barren landscape he said “there was no green to be seen”. In spite of this Synge would spend weeks there learning Irish while also cataloguing islanders lives’ in what became a famous book “Connemara and the Aran Islands”. This island life mesmerised Synge in its simpicity and uniqueness. Even in 1898 life on Inis Meáin harked back to a past that had disappeared elsewhere. Remarkably forty years later when my grandfather Eamonn Mac Coisdealbha visited Inis Meáin to practice his Irish he found life there very much the same. He documented Island life through a series of photographs taken in August 1942, recording a society that would vanish in the course of the 20th century.
Inis Meáin in 1898 and indeed in 1942 was seriously underdeveloped. Life was difficult but this at the same time preserved aspects of a life that had long been dissappeared elsewhere.When my grandfather visited Inis Meáin 40 years after Synge with a camera its clear from his photgraphs he found a society that had changed very little. In his photographs he captured island life just as it was about to come to an end – within another 40 years much of what Synge wrote about and my grandfather photographed had disappeared.
Inis Meáin, August 1942.
The Steamer The Dún Aengus. This is not the steamer used by Synge, The Dun Aengus had a longlife none the less ferrying passengers to the Aran Islands between 1921 and 1958.
This picture is presumably taken arriving or departing from the mainland or perhaps Kilronan on Inis Moir (the a largest of the Aran Islands) where there was a pier, there was no pier on Inis Meáin.
On arrival at Inis Meáin the steamer The Dún Aengus could only come within a certain distance of the shore. Supplies and people were ferried ashore in currachs. Currachs are timber framed canoes. While they were once covered with animal hides even by Synge visit in 1898 the islanders were using canvass. In this picture supplies are being loaded onto the Dún Aengus. When my grandfather visited in 1942 the islanders had secured a contract to supply army socks to the Free State Army. The package to the right of the picture is full of these socks.
In the absence of a pier the currachs came ashore on a beach. It appears this was currachs arriving. In the background the islanders are lifting a currach from the water.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this scene is the clothing. The boy in the foreground is wearing a dress in accordance with a custom that saw young boys wear dresses for the first few years. The general absense of “fashion” as defined by individually unique and changing clothes is seen here. When Synge visited he described mens clothes in the following manner “The simplicity and unity of dress……the natural wool, indigo, and grey flannel that is woven of alternate threads of indigo and the natural wool.” As can be seen in this picture little had changed by 1942.Nearly all the islanders wore the same clothes – the trousers are not fitted indicating they are not made specifically for the person wearing them.
Currachs were carried shoulder high. In this picture the men are wearing “pampooties” on their feet. These were sandals made from untanned leather. The hair was left on the leather and used as a grip. They were ideal for walking over rocky surfaces. According to Synge pampooties had to be placed in water each evening to stop the leather hardening. Islanders frequently walked in tide water for the same reason.
The typical island dress of men can be seen in the three men to the left.
Womens clothing seems to have changed little either. Synge described their dress as “Red petticoats and jackets of Island wool stained with madder to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted around their chests and tied at their back”. It is difficult to tell the colour of the clothing in these pictures, but the shawls are still hung in the way Synge described 40 years earlier.
My grandfather is the man on the left. In the centre of the picture children from the island appear to be playing a game. Again the boy in the centre facing the camera is wearing a dress. Interestingly the houses in the background appear to be slated rather than thatched.
When Synge visited Inis Meain he wrote about how people noted the passing of time by the shadow cast by the door frame. In order to do this the door had to be left open as above. (contd below)
Each house had two doors according to Synge roughly facing North and South. Depending on the direction the weather was blowing from the relevant door was closed and the other was opened to allow light in (there was no electricity on the island). On days when the wind blew from the South, the southfacing door had to be closed which then made telling the time impossible (see post above). On one such day Synge recieved his dinner at 3 o clock! Synge was perplexed as to why the islanders did not erect simple sun dials outside. He goes on to answer this conundrum by explaining Island life was lived not by clock hours but more based on tasks. People ate when they were hungry and did work that needed to be done as opposed to a regular 9-5 day which obviously needs a clock. In such a task based economy clock hours are not particularly important. This aspect of island life on Inis Meáin was noted by Edward Palmer Thompson in his ground breaking book “Customs in Common”.
When my grandfather visited Inis Meáin in August 1942 World War II was at its height. Here he is seated beside a naval mine which had washed ashore. These were far from safe. It appears the pins which detonated the mine have been removed however whether the explosives have been removed is another question. 19 people were killed by a sea mine which washed ashore in Donegal in 1943.
Everything that came on or off the island had to be ferried to the steamer the Dún Aengus in currachs. As can be seen above this included livestock. While sheep could fit in the currach, cattle were a different matter entirely – they had to swim being towed behind the currach.
The woman is carrying a wicker basket on her back . On the ground to her right is what seems to be a water barrell carried in a similar fashion. She appears to be wearing a different style of clothing to other women.
The man in the picture is cutting a crop of seagail. Seagail was used to thatch the roofs of the houses on the island. There were no tractors or horse drawn mowers on Inis Meáin in 1942 – he is using a scythe.
This church was one of the most modern buildings on the island when my grandfather visited in 1942. It was constructed in the late 1930’s replacing an earlier medieval building, Although difficult to see, the panel above the door was taken from the original medieval building.
The man on the right visited Inis Meáin with my grandfather. Unfortunately no one knows who he is, but it would be great to identify him. He visited Inis Meain in August 1942 with Eamonn Mac Coisdealbha or perhaps he knew him as Eamonn Costello. He presumably had a strong interest in Irish. He took some of these photo’s and presumably had a collection of these pictures himself. If you recognise him please contact me history @irishhistorypodcast.ie.