• A text by Per L-B Nilsson
  • 1971-1995
  • Part of An Irish Odyssey
  • The Images

The Aran Islands are situated outside Galway at the west coast of Ireland. This group of islands consists of Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. Some 1400 people inhabit the islands. On Inishmaan there are 250 inhabitants. By its isolated location and the lack of a harbour, western culture never quite took root here. The Celtic language, Gaelic, is living. It is being used in everyday speech, and many elderly do not know of any other. The first time I visited Ireland was in 1967. If I am uncertain of what brought me there, I am the more sure of what makes me return. The incessant modulations of the light, the surprising moments of the rain, and the Irish with their close ties to earth. I have returned to the same place for 20 years. I have made friends among peasants and fishermen, and successively acquired their confidence. To return regularly, and to make the people partake in my work, has been conditional for carrying out the project at all. The suspiciousness towards strangers is great, and at my first visit to Inishmaan it was impossible for me to photograph. Mostly, I have stayed on Inishmaan for two weeks, but in the autumn 1980 I stayed on the island for three months. In a way, I have come to walk in the footprints of J M Synge, the author. Around the turn of the century he lived on Inishmaan periodically. He is above all known for his plays The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea, both of them based on experiences and tales from Inishmaan. He was also photographing and returned with his pictures. I have made the photographs from Inishmaan as simple and straight as possible. They tell about the bare, stony landscape and its inhabitants, about their simple and straitened life and my own emotional anchorage in it. Similarly, there is the perspective of time. This applies to changes on Inishmaan as well as to the changes I have gone through. My years in Chicago (1981-84), when I worked with the American documentary photographer David Plowden, changed my attitudes, in thinking as well as of formation. I started to work with photographs in longer sequences and to use the sequence to create a feeling of a place. Another experience was, that it was possible to elucidate by leading the sight towards terminal points. The images from Inishmaan have been created during a long period of years, 1971-1993; emphasising, however, the late 1980´s and early 90´s. Lately, I have tried to stabilize the material and to strengthen the emotional dimension – the physical in meeting people and places concretely: how they actually look; and, by using the sequencing to create a feeling of exactly that place; to sort out people to make visible those I chose to keep; as well as the linearity in surface structure of the story. On the other hand, there is a fictive dimension with obvious existential elements. Which of the stories that is prevailing, I don’t know; that both are present and correspond to each other I believe strengthens the personal imprint.

Islanders with a Celtic cultural inheritance

During the Middle Ages, when chaos was reigning in Europe, much of the western culture was preserved, owing to the monasteries on the islands outside Ireland and England. Those were the most outstanding educational centres of the time, and the Christian faith was passed on by hand-painted books, illuminations. The illustrations were made by amateurs, monks and nuns working in the monasteries. A nice example of such books is the Book of Kells, which can be seen in Trinity College Library in Dublin. Most of these hand-scripts were written in the 600-700 centuries. Still today, the islands outside the coast of Ireland play a determining role in preserving the Celtic culture. Handicraft methods have been inherited. The most famous is the Aran sweaters, which are being knitted in almost every home. Shoes of cow-skin are being manufactured, daily worn by the men in the fields. Artfully decorated belts, hand-woven trousers and vests of traditional design together with all sorts of basket-making also deserve to be mentioned. The most important thing, however, is that the pattern of life on the islands hasn’t changed but insignificantly. Inishmaan got electricity as late as in 1975, and not until now the water supply seems to be set right. Still today, the farming is carried out as it was done by the turn of the century. The small patches, surrounded by innumerable mounds of stones, are being cultivated by hand. Threshing is being made by means of a sickle, and the sowing is mowed. The grains are collected, and the straw is used for roofing. The farming is as primitive and meagre as formerly. Generations of Aranians have created their thin layers of soil by mixing seaweed and sand. Beside farming, life is based on sheep breeding, cattle and fishing. The latter is carried out from small boats, manufactured on the islands, Currachs. The construction is a wooden span, covered with animal’s skin or canvas. The lack of a harbour also implies, that visitors have to be rowed in from any of the combined freight and passenger ships, which once a week uphold the communications with the surrounding world. It is a most time-consuming and long-winded procedure, especially as also goods must be transported this way. At the same time, it is the Saturday entertainment and a given topic at the pub later on. The houses are mainly traditional cottages. They have thatched roofs, earth floors and an open fire and withstand rain, cold weather and wind. Equally to other farming societies, the production capacity of soil forms a measure of the size of the population. During the late summer the seed is harvested, in October the potatoes and in the spring the cattle auctions take place. Buyers from the mainland then frequent the islands lively. Stormy winters and autumns make Inishmaan isolated, sometimes for weeks. October and November is the time, when the thatched roofs are relaid. The neighbours assist, and they get paid in form of some ”pints of Guinness” at the pub. On these occasions, clothes and furniture are dirtied by straw A cold wind from prehistoric time is whistling over the Aran Islands. The eternal wind and the sobbing waves could easily be interpreted as the outcry of the spirits. For a thousand years, the Celtic mysticism was prospering out here, and pilgrimages to Aran were regarded as a considerable merit.