Intimacy of long lens on island life
THERE are few words in the story of this black-and-white love affair that spans over 50 years and involves several generations of people who have lived remote lives off the windswept edge of the west coast. This pictorial narrative is filled with images of kneeling and bent-over men praying in an overgrown graveyard in Cill Éinne on Inis Mór, teenage Gaelgóirí departing Inis Oírr, an upturned currach in a desolate field, a bodhrán, box and fiddle player absorbed in a seisiún, schoolchildren on Inishturk, a ceremony at the harbour in Inishbofin for the blessing of the bay, loading turf into the creels of a laden donkey.
In an opening photograph, a sky and seascape overlooking the East End village of Inishbofin evokes the memory of recent storms as ominous, dark clouds fill the sky and overshadow the panoramic vista. The portraiture of young and old islanders from the 1960s right up to the present day chronicles a voyage into contemporary island life where the deep fissures of ocean-burnt faces have faded but the long legacy of separateness, cultural distinctiveness continues.
AMONG the many colourful characters portrayed is the late Bridget Dirrane, who died, aged 109, in 2003. A member of Cumann na mBan, she went on hunger strike while in Mountjoy Jail after her arrest in the Dublin home of a nationalist sympathiser.
During her imprisonment, she managed to infuriate the police at the Bridewell station by dancing and singing in Irish for her fellow inmates. Bridget qualified as a nurse in the early 1900s and married Aran Islander, Ned Dirrane, in Boston, where she joined the Democratic Party and campaigned for John F Kennedy in the early 1960s.
After Ned died, she returned to Inis Mór where she ultimately married his brother, Patrick. When he, in turn, died, she had her two wedding rings bonded together.
PHOTOGRAPHER John Carlos’s empathy and unique artistry fills every perfectly framed picture in his newly published book, ‘Ireland’s Western Islands: Inishbofin, The Aran Islands, Inishturk, Inishshark, Clare & Turbot Islands’.
His long association with the western islands started as a teenager when, in the 1960s, he spent all his summer holidays with his mother and sisters in Kilmurvey on the Aran island of Inis Mór. It was then that he was infused with a passion for photography that would lead to an award-winning professional career which included positions at The Connacht Tribune, The Sunday Tribune and The Sunday Times, before returning to live on the western seaboard.
Carlos explains that this collection is a celebration of islanders; not an attempt to define the islands but rather to preserve a memory of the islanders and their home places.
He observes in the book’s introduction that this work is a reflection on a disappearing traditional way of life and culture in a society ‘increasingly consumed by materialism, information and celebrity culture’.
“The sequences, which suggest a form of narration, draw on many elements to create a unity of opposite: people, wild flowers, youth, landscapes, home, religious icons, work, seascapes, animals, fish, rocks, love and loss. People and nature are intricately woven to portray their relationship with the islands and the complexity of their lives therin,” he explains.
“What I wanted to do with these photographs is to celebrate the islanders in their environment, while reflecting on disappearing traditions and values in the face of materialism and pop culture. Some photographs document the end of an era, like the Naomh Éanna boat, while others took 20 years of waiting for perfect conditions such as the signal light tower at the mouth of Inishbofin harbour.”
In chronicling the customs and practices of these communities from Inis Meáin to Inishturk, Clare to Inis Oírr, as well as the now depopulated Turbot and Inishark, his keenly observed portraiture – even when the ocean is not part of the backdrop – always encapsulates a pulsing sense of place: Pristine places where the squawk of a guillemot or a gull, the bleating of a lamb, the roaring of the ocean and the silent suspension of a red dawn are ever-present.
‘Ireland’s Western Islands: Inishbofin, The Aran Islands, Inishturk, Inishark, Clare & Turbot Islands’, by John Carlos, Collins Press, €19.99.