When Thomas H Mason stepped onto the pier at Kilronan, Inishmór, in the summer of 1932, he described his feelings of surprise and sense of confusion. Writing in his masterly The Islands of Ireland * he realised that he was plunged into an Ireland he did not recognise. As an Irishman coming from the east coast, and geographically still in Ireland - he believed that he could have been 1,000 miles from Dublin.
At that time he had never seen a currach, nor men and women dressed in home-made clothes, woven and knitted from the wool of their own sheep. Their features, he observed, were somewhat different from people on the mainland. They all spoke in Irish. ‘I felt a sense of wonder and interest which is common to travellers in strange places.’ As time passed by, of course, and Thomas found comfortable lodgings with Mrs McDonagh in Kilmurvey, he began to explore the Aran islands at his leisure. He became charmed by its spectacular landscape, the people and their stories.
His first visit coincided with the making of the powerful, fictional, documentary Man of Aran** by Robert J Flaherty, who pioneered films showing primitive life struggling against spectacular landscapes and the sea. Although Flaherty’s film, in stylish black and white, and largely silent, amazed the cinematic world, he was criticised for using actors instead of real islanders, and fake scenes such as shark fishing which was unknown to Aran. Yet Flaherty was an artist and he used fiction to convey the reality of island life, and the courage of its inhabitants who survived on food from the ocean, and from a land largely covered by rock.
In between the mainly fictional world of Flaherty, and his own observations of the minutiae of island life, Mason spent his time happily recording what he saw and heard, if sometimes through a romantic film of his own. As a man, at the end of his stay, Mason learned that the real wants of humanity were few, compared to the feverish pursuit of wealth, of fame or amusement which absorbed the energies and minds of ‘so many misguided people’.
Suspicious about film
Mason became friendly with Robert Flaherty and his crew, especially Pat Mullen, an islander, who was Flaherty’s chief of staff for local affairs, and an actor in the film. Pat had spent some time in America, and was familiar with movies to a certain extent. Few of the islanders had ever been to the cinema, and those who had were very suspicious about it.
One man told Mason that he would not believe anything he saw on the screen because he once saw a man fall out of a fifth-story window, and bounce back again, and remarked ‘that wasn’t possible.’ Another, speaking of Flaherty, wondered where he got all the money he was spending on the movie. ‘Ye’d think he was digging it out of the sand.’
One day everyone involved with the film, including Mason, was invited to a wedding. It was both a wild and a practical occasion. he procession from the church, was preceded by several ponies and traps (two men per car ), which raced along the narrow road to the groom’s house at ‘a furious pace and everybody loudly cheering and wildly waving handkerchiefs or scarves’. Strong tea, ‘another more potent liquid’, cake and current bread was served, while music and dancing continued into the small hours.
The bride, who was a small woman, had been to America, and having saved some money had come home for a holiday only to be introduced by a matchmaker to her future husband, ‘a magnificent specimen of a man,’ who possessed a cottage and some land. She had money to equal his, so it was considered an eminently suitable match. She was dressed in a blue costume, thin stockings and light shoes. She wore a necklace, and her appearance was in strong contrast to the other women.
Matchmaking was commonplace, and hard bargains were driven before consent was given. Mason was intrigued to hear one story where a young woman had inherited a cottage and some good land from a relative. The girl was well endowed, and the matchmaker was trying hard to get one particular ‘boy’s’ parents (all men were called ‘boys’ until they are married ) to come up with what was considered to be an appropriate amount of money. The haggling went on for some time.
A well-to-do neighbour, listening to the on-going dispute, quietly sent word to his son in America to come home immediately and avail of the opportunity. The son was home in less that three weeks, his father paid the requisite amount, and the young people were married shortly afterwards.
Mason observes that one would imagine that marriages arranged in this fashion would not turn out well, ‘but the fact is that one seldom hears of unhappy unions.’
Next week: More scenes of life on Aran in the 1930s
NOTES: Thomas Mason (1877-1958 ) was the fifth generation of his family to head the successful Mason Technology business (dealing with microscopes, laboratory and analytical equipment ), founded in 1780, now easily the oldest family-owned business in the State. Thomas enjoyed other interests such as cycling through Ireland, and with his wife Margaret Evelyn, recording and photographing its wildlife, antiquities, and its people. The family business is now in its seventh generation.
The Islands of Ireland by Thomas H Mason, published by Batsford Ltd, London 1936. If you come across a copy buy it. It will give you great pleasure. If you come across a copy still with its paper cover, depicting a painting by Brian Cook of men launching a boat at Clare Island, buy it and treasure it.