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CULTURE The French woman and the island

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Houses on Inishkea North, looking south along the former village street
Houses on Inishkea North, looking south along the former village street. Pic: Rick Hill

The French woman and the island

Ciara Moynihan

Imagine a sophisticated, urbane Parisian woman in her mid thirties. Worldly, but with a bookish bent. Educated in the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne, passionate about history, archaeology and art. She has fluent English, but retains a distinctly French accent. She steps into a currach for the first time and heads out to sea, storm clouds gathering behind.
It’s 1937, and art historian Françoise Henry has her sights firmly trained on the Inishkeas. She travels to the wave-washed, windswept islands, lying low off the coast of the Mullet peninsula, to take photographs. She wants to gather enough evidence of early medieval settlements to warrant an archaeological dig on Inishkea North. The island duly yields its bounty of stone and bone, allowing her to return the following year and again in 1946 and 1950.
While staying at this far-flung west-of-Ireland outpost, Henry kept technical notes on the archaeological proceedings. However, she also wrote personal journals recording her observations on the natural world, the time she spent living among the people of Blacksod Bay and the trials and joys of working on a remote island. These journals have now been lovingly translated and edited by Janet Marquardt, and the singular voice of this compelling woman – lyrical, astute – gushes from the page, unplugged at last. 
The journals brim with evocative, colourful descriptions of the natural environment, as well as descriptions of her interactions with the former islanders she employed – sometimes awkward, sometimes downright difficult, often heart-warming. Henry had learned Irish, and so was able to hold conversations possibly less stilted than if forced to communicate through English.
The generous selection of Henry’s photographs  add an enchanting visual dimension to the diaries. Many contain the people, the animals and the scenery she talks about in her journals.
The French woman and the islandWe also gain an insight into her relationships with locals – with her cook and housekeeper Ann Cawley (pictured), in particular, as well as with Stephen and Mary Keane, who she stayed with in Fallmore on the Mullet peninsula, and with the different men she hired. We see the bond between Ann Cawley and Henry – two women amongst men – grow. We see Henry’s stature grow in the eyes of some of the men once she has proven she can row a small currach alone. We learn about the house she stayed in on the island, which had been abandoned just a few years earlier, when the islanders were moved to the mainland by the Government. 
Most of all, we learn about life as it was on the Mullet peninsula in the 1930s and 40s, how the former islanders fared and, occasionally, how they felt about being moved. There are stories of religious statues with powers over the sea, of wakes with keening women and clay-pipe-smoking men, of gull and duck chicks tamed and kept as pets, of emigration to Glasgow, of wild storms, of hardship.
‘Françoise Henry in Co Mayo – The Inishkea Journals’ came about after a serendipitous discovery in the Royal Irish Academy library in 2010. Janet Marquardt had come to Ireland to deliver a presentation at an academic conference in Maynooth, but the conference was cancelled when flights were grounded due to ash clouds from the erupted Icelandic volcano. At a loose end, Marquardt did what academics are wont to do: She went to the library. There, hidden inside a manila envelope, she found four small notebooks – hand-written windows onto a bygone world. Peer through them, and be transported.

The currach is lifted up, makes its way like a beetle and sits very carefully in the water. The three P[ádraigs] row like devils. It is raining over there behind Sleivemore and something tells me the wind will pick up, but they pay no heed to it. They strike the water with sharp strokes of their narrow little oars, and the several peaks at the end of Achill spread out one after the other, in a hard, massive russet-blue. The foamless sea swells and sinks and the three P[ádraigs] row, row and announce that they are headed for America, and joke with Annie and ask her to sing. The rain hides the jagged heights of Croghaun, but we are going towards clear sky and the sea is all spangled with silver like grey shadows on milk.
—Françoise Henry, April 11, 1937

‘Françoise Henry in Co Mayo – The Inishkea Journals’, edited by Janet T Marquardt, is published by Four Courts Press. The book will be launched in Dublin by former President of Ireland Mary Robinson on September 4 at 6.30pm in Alliance Francaise, Kildare Street, and by Professor Seamus Caulfield in Áras Inis Gluaire, Belmullet, on September 6 at 7pm.

Island life
Men gathering seaweed onto donkeys on the beach at Fallmore, with Slievemore, Achill