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Saturday, 4 January 2020

A midsummers day out on the Aran Islands in 1926

Archeology expedition to Árainn in June 1926

For well over 150 years, the promise of an excursion to the Aran Islands was a sure way to get a crowd together.

The first and most famous mass visit of tourists/explorers, other than Vikings and plundering soldiers, took place in September 1857 when seventy members of the ethnological section of the British Association spent two days on the island, culminating in a great meeting and lunch inside the walls of Dún Aengus.

The S.S. Caloric, led by the famous Ulster scholar, Seaton Milligan, visited the Aran Islands in 1895 and again in 1897.

In early July 1895, another group of archeologists, historians and antiquarians visited. One group from Belfast came exploring around the N West coast under the guidance of Seaton Milligan, on the Steamship Caloric and met up with a Dublin group which had travelled from Galway on the S.S. Duras, under the guidance of the famous Thomas Westropp.

Robert Praeger’s group coming ashore at Cill Muirbhigh, July 15th 1895 (Photo. Balfour album N.U.I.G.)
A week or so later, on July15th 1895, a party from the Irish Field Club Union under the guidance of the famous naturalist, Ulsterman, Robert Lloyd Praeger, also landed at Cill Muirbhigh from the S.S. Duras and visited the islands many famous sites. A magnificent photo of Praeger’s group coming ashore at Cill Muirbhigh, was captured by the famous photographer, R.J. Welsh and is held by the Hardiman library at U.C.G. as part of the Balfour album.

The S.S. Caloric would return again from Belfast in the summer of 1897, again meeting up with a party on the S.S. Duras from Galway. 
Poet and patriot Alice Milligan 1865-1953 who visited Árainn with her father Seaton

These were some of the many academically minded groups to visit the island down through the decades and we may get back to some of those visits at a later date. Mind you, there seem to have been plenty of less academically minded groups, who enjoyed having a day out on the island as we saw in our recent article about the heroic swimming feat of Owen Begley’s poor dog, in 1859.

For now we will just concentrate on the visit of the archeologists and dignitaries in June 1926.

Leaving Galway on the S.S. Dún Angus, very early on Sunday, June 20th, 1926, the group consisted of about twenty archeology students from University College Cork, led by their professor, Rev Canon Patrick Power, an expert on place names in his native Waterford. Archeology professor in Cork from 1915 to 1932.

The Cork students were predominantly male as one of his female students, who qualified in 1928, recorded how Professor Power would take the three female students in his car when doing field trips. The boys would have to travel behind in a bus.

Árainn in mid summer must have been heaven for a man like Patrick Power, for he also had a lifelong interest and love for flora and fauna. For more information on Professor Power we refer you to a short study of his life and career, by Dr  Elizabeth Shee Twohig, who was once senior lecturer in Archeology at U.C.C.

Also on board the S.S. Dún Angus was a party of about twenty members of the County Galway Archaeology Society.

The distinguished guests list  makes for very interesting reading. Dr.Walther Bremer (1887-1926) was a very famous German archeologist. Appointed in 1925 as Keeper of the Irish Antiquities division in the National museum in Dublin, Walther would die the following November at the age of 39. His death was partly a result of malaria contracted on earlier archeological digs in Crete. He was succeeded by the Austrian Hitler admirer, Dr Adolf Mahr.

Aboard also was the well known West of Ireland archeologist and historian, Dr Thomas Bodkin Costello (1864-1956) of Tuam, a great Irish language scholar and friend and collaborator with Douglas Hyde and Edward Martyn.

 Dr. Costello’s legacy has been severely damaged in recent years after his overseeing as medical officer, of Tuam Mother and Baby home, came under scrutiny. Here

Also aboard was an Englishman, 59 year old Alexander Eraut (1867-1947) of College road. Alexander was editor of the Galway Archeological Journal and headmaster at Galway Grammar School. Tom Kenny’s article on this school, based on Tom Kavanagh’s research for his book, Growing up in Galway, can be read Here

The party included the local Cumann na nGaedheal T.D. Seán Broderick from Athenry and the engineer/surveyor/writer, Mr Michael John Tighe.

Two very interesting members of the group were a very famous Irish diplomat, the Protestant Republican, Lindsay Crawford and the Danish painter, Paula Gruttner MacWhite.
Lindsay Crawford 1865-1945
The strange life of Lindsay Crawford is very interesting as he was one of the many Irish Protestants who had genuine Republican views and abhorred the use of religion to keep Irish people divided. An Orangeman, he clashed with many of his peers and at one stage even joined the group known as the Independent Orange Order. He was later expelled for having progressive views.

He stood as a Liberal against the Unionist candidate in Mid Armagh in 1906 and left Ireland for Canada in 1911. He continued to promote the cause of a United Irish Republic with strict adherence to the separation of Church and State. In 1908 he was fired as editor of the Liberal leaning newspaper, Ulster Guardian, for having Home Rule sympathies.

During the War of Independence he highlighted the abuses in his native country and after the treaty, became the Irish Free-state representative in New York. The tragedy of the Civil War was to make his life difficult but he served in this capacity until 1929.

Irish semi Independence in 1922 saw many former Catholic Unionists, effortlessly wrap the green flag around themselves but for Protestant Republicans, things were never that easy. The long promised Republican goal of the separation of Church and State, was soon forgotten as Northern Ireland was delivered into the hands of the Orange Order and the Free State to the Catholic Hierarchy .

Lindsay Crawford’s trip to Árainn in 1926 was part of a three month visit to Ireland and Europe to promote trade and tourism, on behalf of a country that was almost penniless, after a decade of strife. Only for the generous emigrant remittances, sent home to their relations in those troubled times, mainly from the U.K and North America, it’s doubtful if the country could have survived at all. 

The debt this country owes to that emigrant generation of Irish men and women, who helped greatly to keep the “Old Country” afloat, is reflected in the welcome still being extended to their descendants, down to the present day.

Also aboard that day but only identified by the report as the wife of diplomat Michael MacWhite (1882-1958), was the Danish painter Paula Gruttner Hillerod MacWhite (1896-1981). Perhaps Paula went on to produce some art work, inspired by her day out on Galway Bay and the rocks and fields of Árainn.

Paula’s husband Michael, was the Free State representative to the League of Nations in Geneva and his life story is like something out of a novel. Leaving his native Glandore in 1900, Michael rose to the highest ranks in the Irish diplomatic service. 

His life’s adventure would see him wandering the world and along the way picking up several languages. It would also see him enlisting and fighting with first, the Bulgarian army in 1913 and later the French Foreign Legion, with whom he was injured during the Great War.

As part of the Sinn Féin delegation, Michael attended the post war  Paris negotiations but they found themselves frozen out by the British, whom the French and the Americans were loath to offend. At a ceremony in Versailles in 1920, to commemorate the French General Hoche, of 1796 Bantry Bay fame, the British once again tried to exclude the Irish. 

Donning his Captains uniform of the French Foreign Legion, the handsome officer went unrecognised, as he led the parade and placed a palm with the entwined tricolours of France and Ireland, at the Hoche memorial. 
The British were not amused and later made a bit of a fuss but it was all too late. Indiana Jones had nothing on Michael MacWhite.

Michael MacWhite’s papers are held in the library at U.C.D and can be accessed at this LINK

                                        THE VISIT
For the first time in over thirty years, the Connacht Tribune reported, a boat as big as the S.S.Dún Angus managed to dock at the pier in Cill Muirbhigh. This must have been at nearly high water as the pier is very tidal with limited access.

Built in 1893, Cill Muirbhigh pier was never greatly loved by the locals and Tim Robinson has a memorable quote in his book “Stones of Aran”. He recalled an old man telling him “ You don’t build a pier on dry land: that’s MY policy anyway”. You can’t really argue with that.

The excursionists first visited  Na Seacht dTeampaill,  (Seven Churches) and it can only be assumed that side cars were laid on. Then again, perhaps they all walked. A jarvey once told us that the ideal tourist for him, was one who loved the fresh air but was not fit enough to walk or cycle.

Of course he was underestimating the worldwide fame of Aran Jarveys, for their ability to tell great stories, which even the fittest of tourists might be drawn to experience.

At the Seven Churches, there was much discussion about the famous grave of the “VII Romani” (Seven Romans), a mystery that, to this day, has divided opinion.

Heading back towards the Dún, the party visited the famous beehive hut, Clochán na Carraige. They appear to have been accompanied by a dog and whether the dog was an excursionist too or a local that had learned to exploit “stráinséirs” for treats, we may never know.

Aran dogs are believed by some, to spend the winter practising forlorn and bemused looks which they then use to their great advantage, during the tourist season.

Next came what was probably the highlight of the visit when the party arrived at the great fort of Dún Aengus. They had earlier been overwhelmed by its imposing dominance, as they approached Cill Muirbhigh from the sea.

Like their predecessors in 1857, the party now settled down inside the Dún, to eat what was described as an “al fresco” lunch. Something that many visitors have continued to do since, although most would nowadays describe it as a “picnic” or a “bite to eat”. 

Whether, like their predecessors in 1857, a generous supply of beer, wine and sherry was on hand, is not recorded. However, it’s doubtful if a group of students from Cork, historians from Galway and a section of the diplomatic corps, failed to drink a toast to their good fortune. It goes without saying, that the journalists present, didn’t go thirsty either.

After inspecting the great fort, the party then moved off along the high road to Cill Rónáin, stopping off to have a look at Teampall an Cheathrair Álainn, known in English as the Church of the Four beautiful Saints.

 We can assume that those with eye problems took the opportunity to get some water from the nearby holy well. This well was credited with Synge in his play, “The Well of the Saints”, with having magical powers.

After inspecting some Leachtaí memorials on the way, the group finally made their way back to Cill Rónáin and at 7 P.M. once again boarded the S.S. Dún Angus, which had steamed back from Cill Muirbhigh to Cill Rónáin.

That they all slept well that short midsummer night can be certain as they would not have reached their beds in Galway, much before midnight. We can assume that the day out was a great success and helped draw many visitors to the islands, in the years since.

It was reported that two extra passengers returned with the group to Galway. They were identified as two members of the Abbey Theatre, secretary John Henry Perrin and well known Abbey actor and producer, Michael J Dolan (1884-1954).
Abbey actor Michael J Dolan, who played the part of the Ghost in the 1951 film “Scrooge” was also on board the S.S. Dún Angus

The local Connacht Tribune sent a special correspondent and photographer to cover the event and most of what we know about the visit is down to this. 

The Connacht Tribune is still going strong and the importance of reliable local papers like the Tribune, Tuam Herald and Advertiser, in documenting our times, is invaluable. 

We knew an old man in the 1960s who used to say with a smile, but with an underlying hint of truth “ If it’s not in the Tribune, it didn’t happen” 

Once again, thanks for staying with us until the end and if we have anything incorrect, please feel free to let us know.
Apologies for going down many side roads with this story but having never been trained in research, we tend to go with the flow as the story uncovers.

Michael Muldoon  Jan 2020

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

A shaggy dog tale

The swimming feat of a Galway dog in August 1859

In September 1859, newspapers around the world carried a report from The Galway Vindicator, of how Owen Begley’s dog managed to swim twenty miles, to get home.

SWIMMING FEAT OF A DOG,- Among the excursionists to Arran last Thursday, was a dog, the property of Mr Owen Begley, of Prospect Hill. On the return of the Vesper, the poor animal- either through the unfeeling act of some person, or by accident - was precipitated overboard at twenty miles from land. Mr Begley thought the dog was lost, when, to his surprise, next evening, the noble creature reached his masters house, having made a swim of twenty miles in some hours. (Galway Vindicator )

While this is undoubtedly a great story, those familiar with Galway Bay will have some doubts as to its accuracy. 
We can take it from the report that if the journalist from the Vindicator had been unfortunate enough to either fall or be thrown overboard at Ceann Bóirne (Black Head), he would have started swimming the twenty miles to Galway, hoping to climb ashore around Nimmo’s pier. 

We did a piece some years ago about the bravery and intelligence of a lighthouse keepers dog “Rover” on Oileáin na Tuí (Straw Island) who aided in the rescue of some fishermen from a Welsh Steam Trawler, in 1911. “Rover” had plunged into the surf and dragged an unconscious fisherman ashore.

We have no reason to doubt that the dogs of Galway town were any less brave or intelligent and on finding itself in the water near Black Head, it looked to the shores, a few miles away on either side, at the foot of the Burren or at South Connemara before making up its mind, which way to swim.
The story of “Rover”, a heroic Dog of Aran, who  helped save the day in 1911.

Of course another likely possibility is that the dog was picked up by one of the many little sailing boats that worked the bay in those days. Still, the twenty mile swim would get most attention.

A view of Ceann Boirne and Galway Bay with Inish Meáin in the distance. A long way to have to swim.
This little story led us to research the 148 ft Paddle Steamer Vesper which worked the bay in those days. This in turn brought us to the story of the Galway Trans Atlantic Line which flourished for a while in the late 1850s before eventually going out of business. 

For more details on this ill fated venture and the involvement of the great Fr Peter Daly and the lines owner, Mr John Orwell Lever, readers can find a well researched and easy to read account by the Galway historian Timothy Collins in two essays he contributed to the Galway Archaelogical and Historical Society  The Galway Line in Context: A Contribution to Galway Maritime History (Part I) Author(s): Timothy Collins
Source: Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 46 (1994), 

This society is a mine of information and details can be found online at this link.Here

The Paddle Steamer that brought the visitors to Arran that Sunday in August 1859 was P.S. Vesper which had been built in the James Henderson yard in Renfrew, Scotland in 1848. 

The popularity of Arran had been massively boosted in the summer of 1857 when about seventy members the Ethnological Section of the British Association, held a great meeting and banquet inside the walls of DúnAengus.

Led by Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar, this marked the start of a great interest and determination to highlight and preserve, not only the archeology of the Aran Islands, but of all Ireland. 
The great fort of Dun Aengus. which hosted a great banquet in 1857. It has been drawing visitors ever since.

An indication of just how successful the banquet was, is that it finished with the French ambassador dancing a jig. Testimony to the enjoyment of the guests and the quality and volume of the wine on offer.
We hope to cover that banquet at a later date.

The Paddle Steamer Vesper had been brought to Galway to assist in ferrying passengers and luggage to the ships that, for a few years, operated from Galway to North America. The occasional trip to Arran was a summer addition and this boat also operated on occasion to the south shore ports of Ballyvaughan, New Quay and Kinvara.

We are unsure if the paddle steamer pictured below was the “Vesper” in question but the low rails may explain how a poor dog might easily end up in the water.
Paddle Steamer Vesper near Gravesend on the river Thames.

The possibility that some drunken latchico did indeed throw the poor dog overboard is strengthened by a report in the local paper about the very same trip to Arran. No mention of the dog though.

Sound like everybody except Owen and his dog, had a great day out.
The “Vesper” left the quay on Thursday on an excursion trip and having called at Salthill, steamed out of the bay with more than 200 excursionists. Refreshments were provided on board and all “ went merry as a marriage bell”
Set after set stood up, and the pleasures of the dance were not discontinued, till the vessel reached Arran when the fun was renewed with increased vigour. After spending four agreeable hours in Arran, the lighthearted party returned to the Vesper, and after a pleasant run, they were again in the prosy soberness of Galway life.(Galway Vindicator)
Catering on the Vesper was often provided by Mr Black of Black's Hotel. (Photo N.L.I. from the 1890s)

At one stage there was a suggestion that the Vester be put to work on the river Corrib as this was not long after the magnificent Eglinton canal was opened, linking the lake with Galway bay. Not sure if this ever came to pass.
Looks like original plan was to use the Vesper on the Corrib

The vesper moved on from Galway in 1860 and on her way south stopped off in Cork, Ireland’s greatest natural harbour, and made a few pounds doing some ferry work on the river Lee.
The Vesper in Cork in July 1860

We came across a number of incidents involving the Vesper and her short time in Galway was quite eventful. One evening in September 1858, coming back from servicing the liner “Pacific”, she was in collision with a hooker which quickly sank. Nobody was lost it seems and Mr Lever offered the fisherman £10 to get a new boat.

Some time previously, in March 1859, word came through to Galway that a deserted ship had been seen drifting past Árainn and through the North Sound, into Galway Bay. The Vesper had a head of steam up and immediately headed off to try and salvage the ship and cargo. They were too late as already a Claddagh fishing boat had spotted her and with the help of another boat was towing her to Galway. These boats, the Falcon and the Siren were said to be owned by Peter Sweeney.
A map showing Galway Bay and the North Sound. Dog went overboard somewhere between Black Head and Connemara.

Being a steamer, the Vesper was much better suited to towing the crippled ship but her offer of help was refused for obvious reasons. 
It seems the Vesper crew may have been too forward in their offer of "help", as the Claddagh men armed themselves with hatchets in order to reinforce their refusal of assistance. The ghost ship was eventually beached near Mutton island and the cargo of timber, salvaged.

Deserted ship salvaged in Galway Bay in 1859. Had drifted through the N. Sound

A postscript to the deserted ship is that she was believed to be the brig Triumph of Limerick. This ship had been making a passage from St Johns with a cargo of timber when she foundered in mid Atlantic. Sadly, a report reached Galway a few days later of the bodies of six men being washed up on the Aran Islands and many thought these men must have been from the deserted ship. The number was later reported as three.

Just how many were lost at sea in those times is impossible to know but it seems the crew of the Triumph had been rescued some weeks earlier, on Christmas day 1858, in an exhausted state, by the American ship Cordelia.

The crew were near to death and had spent more than a week in the rigging as their boat became waterlogged. Who the dead men washed up on the Aran islands were, God only knows. 

So a heartwarming story of a brave dog can lead one down so many other avenues and we had better stop now before we wander any further.  We did come across however, the fact that Owen was in his early twenties at the time and although he would later be charged with having a wandering dog in Bohermore, the charge was dismissed.

And then there was the story of a disgruntled passenger writing a letter of complaint to the newspapers about the arrogant behaviour of the captain of the Vesper, on an excursion to Arran. The captain had been pushed into service to cover for the regular master. The following week a letter appeared refuting the allegations and signed by a vast amount of the great and good, who had been aboard that day. Better not go into that as we have been advised that some of our articles are a bit on the long side.

In what is known in Ireland as a "backhanded compliment" our reader said they enjoyed the article but it was a bit too long.

Michael Muldoon.

Monday, 30 September 2019

A weaving and spinning family on Árainn in 1946

Spinners and weavers on the Aran Islands.

Old newspaper article from 1946 by Malachy Hynes

When Malachy Hynes visited the islands in 1946, he was greatly impressed with the weaving and spinning skills of the Gillan family.

Here is the article he wrote and we have added photos from different sources of the brothers Seán, Seoirse and Josie Gillan, working at their looms.


Probably nowhere in Ireland do homespuns more personify the character of the spinners, as in Aran. They’re hardy, those Aran homespuns- they have to be. Ask weaver Seoirse Gillan of Oatquarter, Inishmore or his brother Seosamh over in Kilronan.
Weaver Seoirse Gillan, working at his loom

Yes, stony Aran's homespuns are tough. But so is the life there, yet you will find spots of rich colour alleviating the background everywhere, just as you will in the warp and weft of Aran life itself.

The apparel proclaims the Man of Aran. His clothing is chiefly functional; an able farmer, he has to keep warm somehow.

One day, over in Inishmaan I weighed a complete Man of Aran rig- no one is so sissified there as to wear such a thing as an overcoat- and the scales said, eleven pounds two ounces, the underpants alone weighed well over two pounds.

With the exception, of 1919, when he was employed by the Gaelic League in Dublin, Seoirse wove out all his destiny in Aran as did all the weaving Ó Giolláins since the ancestral exodus from Leitrim. His other brother Seán, also of Oatquarter, used to be a weaver too, though he no longer practices the art, his wife Mairead, is a spinning wheel expert, and all her nine children, have a hand at the trade.

Máire cards the wool and the rest help uncle Seoirse, even little Peadar, whose four year old smile would help out the most complicated situation. And complicated is any weaver's situation;

Every part of his human mechanism- hands, eyes, feet especially- are simultaneously involved in the most intricate procedure once that shuttle flies. 

For a weaver is a composite of a mathematician, a tap dancer and a handball champion and he must have a pair of eyes like a black market detective to keep track of what he is trying to do with all those criss-crossing threads on his loom.

Aran weaver, Seán Gillan

All the Ó Giolláins were hard at it on the day that myself and my extra eye called to shoot the homespun works, for an Aran marriage was about to be celebrated.
Josie Gillan of Cill Rónáin in a photo taken by the great Fr Browne.

From the sheep's back to the human's back, via the carding comb to the spinning wheel, to the bobbin wheel, to the warping frame, and finally, to the loom itself, is a long story---too long for this.

But it is a story that has two happy endings. One for the weaver in Aran, Connemara, Kerry or Donegal. The other for the weaver in Old London, England or New London, Connecticut; Paris,France, or Paris, Texas;

Anywhere and everywhere on the globe, where a bigger and better market for Irish homespuns is already looming.
                                                       (Malachy Hynes 1946)

Many readers will be familiar with the Aran writer, Bríd Gillan Dirrane who was a sister to the three weavers mentioned. 
Her 1998 autobiography, "Woman of Aran" brought her to fame when she was over a hundred years old. Bríd died at the great age of 109 on the last day of 2003.
Their sister, Bríd Gillan Dirrane, who lived to the age of 109

One of the Gillan brothers working at his loom.


Saturday, 4 May 2019

Coleman "Tiger " King and Robert Joseph Flaherty. Giants of their worlds.


    Coleman "Tiger " King and Robert Joseph Flaherty. 
                       Giants of their worlds.

A German publicity poster for the film Man of Aran (1934)

Most people who view Robert Flaherty's film, Man of Aran, come away greatly impressed but with a few unanswered questions.
The first question is whether the incredibly dangerous scenes were staged or exaggerated.
The answer to that query is that while they were for the most part staged, they were not exaggerated.

This brings us to the inevitable question as to how Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) could have been so reckless in risking the lives of his cast, no matter what the artistic demands were. We have often heard it said that Flaherty didn't really care if some of his cast were lost as this would have made his selling of the film much easier.

This is probably unfair to Flaherty but is a persistent view, often heard when those who were alive at the time of filming, were still around.
There can be no doubt that Flaherty himself had shown great courage and a touch of recklessness with his own life, when he spent many years mining in Canada and later as a film maker.
Harpoon shot from Nanook of the North. Flaherty's 1922 film

In Nanook, Flaherty also featured natives in flimsy boats, fighting for survival.

 Robert Flaherty is usually described as an American film maker, as he was born and spent his early years around the beautifully named, Iron Mountain in Michigan. However, from his early teenage years he was shaped by the great vastness of northern Canada. His explorations as a miner would lead to his crossing into the field of film making. 

There can be no doubt of Flaherty's willingness, in earlier years, to put his own life on the line in pursuit of his goals but it's a completely different matter to do the same with the lives of others. He appears to have had a reckless disregard for the risks he had his actors take.
                  The fearless Michaelín  Dillane, having hauled up a ballach to the top of a 300ft cliff. Near to Dún Aengus.

We had always though that while making the film, Flaherty, unlike his cast, had been spared having ever to wonder if his last moment on earth, was at hand. However, when rereading Pat Mullen's book on the making of the film, we realised that Robert Flaherty did indeed have at least one very scary moment. This would happen on a boat trip from Inishbofin to Cill Rónáin, with a stop off at Clifden. More about that later.

Robert Flaherty arrived in Cill Rónáin in late Autumn of 1931 and was lucky enough to meet up with Pat Mullen, who would go on to play an important role in the making of the film. From his writings, it's obvious that Pat had a great amount of respect and affection for Robert's wife Frances Hubbard and also their three daughters, Barbara, Frances and Monica. It's hard not to think that Pat was less enamored with Robert but deemed it best not to expand on this in his book.

Robert Flaherty always had an eye for publicity and a good yarn and his reasons for coming to Aran may be exaggerated a bit. He later claimed that he had first heard about it while on board a liner from America, from an engineer of the Ford motor company in Cork. Others claim that he first heard about the islands from Michael Balcom of British Gaumont.

 The most likely reason he came is that he was persuaded to do so by the the great Irish film maker, J.N.G (Norris) Davidson. It's said, the original idea was to film Liam O'Flaherty's (no relation) short story "Spring sowing. This never happened and perhaps was a factor in Liam having little respect for Robert and his film.

Flaherty claimed that he first heard of the Aran islands, while crossing the Atlantic on the S.S. Berengaria.
Robert had a reputation for being difficult and John Taylor recalled that a carpenter was a regular visitor to Flaherty's house in order to repair doors that had been banged in temper.
On more than one occasion, it was revealed to us that Coleman "Tiger" King had neither respect nor affection for Robert and it's hard not to be reminded of his famous aside to the late Brendán Ó hEithir, during the making of a short interview.

The late Brendán Ó hEithir (1930-1990) who interviewed Coleman Tiger King in 1976, not long before he died.

Speaking about the attention and publicity, the film got at its premier in London, Tiger remarked
“Bhí a fhios agam go maith gur bullshit a bhí ann,” (I knew well it was all Bullshit). Tiger may well have been thinking on an even wider scale.
Brendán's interview with Coleman Tiger King 
He defended his people in 1934 when he felt that British newspapers had defamed them by describing them as savages
To his eternal credit, Coley "Tiger " King savaged some journalists who had overstepped the mark
Tiger would have been well aware of the publicity features from the film producers, which portrayed the cast as being noble savages with very little or no experience of the outside world. This of course was more Bullshit as Tiger had served in the Irish army and Pat Mullen had spent many years in America. Maggie had worked as a childminder in Dublin during the Great War  and Michalín Dillane would have been very used to tourists visiting Cill Éinne . The locals were used to having their photos taken and had developed a small industry in supplying visitors with plants and flowers as well as acting as guides to among other places, St Enda's famous "stone boat".

The idea that the cast had to be brought to Galway to see what a cinema was like is laughable and Tiger and the others would have known that it was all a publicity stunt.

A great photo of the three stars, that Flaherty would certainly have approved of.  (Árainn 1933)
A great photo of the stars, that Flaherty might not have approved of.
Heading for New York from Southamption, on board the  Cunard Liner, S.S. Berengaria. Sep 1934

The basis of Tiger's dislike for Robert is a matter of debate but it's likely that Robert misunderstood the exalted position a blacksmith held in every Irish village of those times. The Kings took great pride in their work and Robert may have failed to acknowledge the important role they played in island life.
Tiger's brother Michael, seeing to a local horse's footwear, sometime in the 40s or 50s. Shoes he would have made himself.

Robert Flaherty gave great importance to how he cultivated the influence of the priest, Patrick Egan, and got him to convince Michaelín Dillane's mother to let him act in the film. Flaherty made much of the islanders being worried about  the dangers of consorting with Protestants but in truth, Pat Mullen and his socialist, secular views might have been deemed a more serious threat to many.

Just for the record, it was only a couple of years ago we were speaking to an old man from the West and we asked him what he had heard about Fr Egan. To our surprise he said he remembered him well and that Fr Egan heard his first confession and that he was a very kindly man.

Robert Flaherty may well have exaggerated the power of the priest, while greatly underestimating the power of the blacksmith. The islanders would have been familiar with the powers of both but when it came to transformation, the priest's powers were a matter of faith, while the blacksmith's were a matter of fact.
A more recent photo of an Island Blacksmith, continuing on the same tradition.

Pat Mullen must take some of the blame for the reckless risks but in fairness, unlike Robert Flaherty, Pat was prepared to put his own life on the line when he crewed in both the shark hunting timber boat and in some of the currach scenes.
Robert and Frances later made reputation saving protestations about how awful the risks were but this sort of retrospective regret, would have been poor consolation, if some family had been left without a father or mother.

Maggie Dirrane and Pat Mullen. Photo taken as part of the promotion of Pat's 1936 novel "Hero Breed"

Pat Mullen appears to have become obsessed with showing the world the courage and skill of the islanders. He was proud of all who participated but he reserved a special admiration for the courage, determination and stamina of Maggie Dirrane. Maggie was injured during a number of scenes and also came very close to being drowned.

Some of the most dangerous scenes never made it to the finished film as Flaherty was unhappy with the light etc. One involved an upturned currach where Tiger was trapped underneath and was sure his two companions had been drowned. Maggie had waded into the surf and bravely gone to Tiger's aid, that day.

Flaherty returned to Aran in 1949. Some old film was found in the attic. Looks like Robert was getting rid of the evidence.
It was estimated that Flaherty shot over ten miles of film. This was deemed extremely extravagant, by the film company. 

Pat describes how Michaelín Dillane warned him not to jump too hard on to a ledge he was fishing from as he had felt it move. Pat was shocked and abandoned the ledge, only to see it had disappeared into the ocean, a few days later. One slip and Michaelín would have had no chance. However, he was used to the cliffs and, like most Island children, had developed great climbing skills from when he was a small boy.

Fearless Michaelín Dillane as he fished from a 300ft high cliff.

It goes without saying that the shark hunting scenes were very dangerous as one slap of the giant Basking shark's tail would have sent them to the bottom, as had happened a number of times in the 19th century.

The shark hunting crew with Tiger in the bow and Pat Mullen at the stern. Also included Stephen O'Rourke, Patcheen Faherty and Patch Rua Mullen. A timber boat but still very vulnerable.

There were a number of different storm scenes, at different shores, involving canvas currachs and much of this very dangerous work was deemed unsuitable by Flaherty. Light not right etc. Pat mentions Flaherty calling for very dangerous scenes to be repeated again and again and then never used in the final film.

One  of the very dangerous storm scenes, shot in Bun Gabhla in January 1933

The most iconic storm scene was shot near the very end at the shore near Bun Gabhla. The seas between the shore and Brannock island are truly terrifying on a rough day and how Pat got three men to go out in seas they would never normally go near, is a mystery.

 Only for that currach crew's knowledge of the waters they were on and their years of experience of pulling together as one, they would surely have been lost.

Seáinín Tom Ó Direáin wearing a cap on the left of kettle. Berated Pat Mullen for sending men to their deaths. This is a still from Flaherty's recently found Irish language film,  Oidhche Sheanchais (1934) 

Oíche Sheanchais (1934)

The locals had raced to the shore as they were convinced that no boat could live in those conditions and were amazed that any boat had even gone to sea. Pat tells of how they all cheered when the three men managed to crest wave after dangerous wave but, watching from the shore,  Seánín Tom Dirrane, who worked as an extra in the film, was convinced there was no way they could make it to shore and no way to escape to the open sea. Both Seánín Tom and Patcheen Conneely had lost a brother to the sea when their currach overturned in 1908.
Three men lost off Oghaill on August 8th, 1908. Both Seánín Tom and Patcheen Conneely, lost a brother that day.

Seanchaí, Seánín Tom Ó Direáin, who felt that Pat Mullen and Bob Flaherty, had sent the three currach men to their deaths, during the famous final storm scenes. Seánín would himself be drowned when, with a companion, also over 70 years old and a schoolteacher in his 40s, they attempted to cross from Connemara to Árainn, after climbing Croach Patrick in July 1939.

 Seáín Tom Ó Direáin had lost his brother Pat to the sea in August 1908, and would himself be lost a few years later, on the last day of July 1939, when returning by currach from Connemara. Also drowned that day were the local schoolteacher Seosamh Ó Flanagain (Flanagan) from Ballyvaughan and his neighbour Jaimsie Ó Flaithearta (Flaherty) from Eoghanacht. They were never found.
Three more men lost in July 1939. Among them, Seánín Tom Ó Direáin.(Dirrane)

One of the earlier currach scenes where Maggie was almost drowned and where Tiger had to rescue her by holding her hair..

Pat Mullen and Flaherty had exploited the currachmen's  pride and there can be no doubt but that they came withing inches of being lost, when missing a jagged rock. The crew that day was Patcheen Conneely in the bow, Stephen Dirrane in the middle and Patch McDonagh at the stern. The final words from the currach crew to Pat Mullen, as they headed out that day were "Ná bioch faitíos orainn, Mullen". (Don't worry about us, Mullen)

Patcheen Conneely had a firm belief that the sea would never take him as he was the last of his family. His brother Labhrás and two others had been drowned from a currach years before in 1908, and he believed that as his brother was a better man in a boat than himself, the sea had already taken the best and would spare him.

Map showing the path the currach took, during the iconic storm scenes which the film ended on.

 It's still hard to look at that final scene, as the men scrambled for their lives, as the currach was wrecked on the shore and not wonder at the miracle of their survival. Pat stopped Seánín Tom from running to the boat to help them as they came ashore. The film came first and saving lives came later.

The currach being sucked back out to sea and wrecked, just seconds after the crew had managed to scramble ashore.

Flaherty had used a double for Tiger in most of the  currach scenes, as losing the leading actor would mean disaster. In one scene where Maggie was nearly drowned, this involved a quick switch with Patch McDonagh, once the currach had come ashore

But back to the story of how Robert Flaherty had at least one frightening experience. 

In his determination to film the great sharks, Flaherty had hired a Brixham trawler, the inappropriately named "The Successful" and taken the film crew to Inishbofin, where it was reported many sharks had been spotted. While treating the locals in the local public house, Flaherty had enquired about shark sightings. Not surprisingly, a man buying rounds of drink was not to be disappointed and great and dramatic accounts came from all sides, of massive sharks that had been seen.
Inishbofin, where Robert Flaherty hoped to film some basking sharks.

Eventually they had to head home without any sharks being filmed and on their way they stopped off at Clifden. Pat had come across a lovely piece of rock on Inishboffin and had lugged it down to the boat, as he knew a lady artist on Árainn who might use it for a sculpture.

John Grierson, seen here filming his famous documentary "Drifters" (1929) which was about the great herring fleets of North East England and Scotland. Grierson joined the Man of Aran crew on the  Brixton trawler "The Successful", that Flaherty had hired to hunt sharks around Inishbofin. No sharks were found.

It would appear that the great documentary film maker and supporter of Flaherty, the Scotsman, John Grierson (1898-1972) was also on this trip. Also aboard was Grierson's teenage brother in law, John Taylor (1914-1992) who would go on to marry Pat Mullen's daughter, Barbara.
Barbara Mullen Taylor. Born in Boston and an Irish speaker, she joined her father in Ireland at age 21. Well known to older readers for the role of the Scottish housekeeper, Janet, in the 1960s TV series "Dr Finlays Casebook". When asked once how an Irish actress came to be playing a Scot, Barbara famously replied "Well, if Charlton Heston can play Moses, I can play Janet"

When they got to Clifden, Flaherty, Grierson and Taylor retired to a local hotel while Pat and Tiger had a great evening in King's public house. As is not unusual in Ireland, it wasn't long before Tiger and the landlord came to the conclusion that they were related and indeed descended from the same Mac an Rí (King) and this only added to the occasion.
King's public house in Clifden. Still going strong, more than eighty five years later. April 2019

The rest of the crew went on the town and Pat warned shark hunter, Tommy O'Rourke, not to cut his hair as Flaherty would be annoyed. Tommy, a son of Stephen, was a fine looking lad, aged about twenty five and, wanting to impress the lovely girls around Clifden, had his hair cut and to hell with Robert Flaherty and film continuity.

By the time Pat and Tiger finished in King's pub, there wasn't a room to be found in Clifden and they ended up spending the night on chairs in the kitchen of Gerald Bartley's hotel.

Scottish filmmaker John Grierson, who joined Flaherty on an expedition to Inishbofin and Clifden. He was an extraordinary film maker himself and went on to play a huge part in developing the National Film Board of Canada.

John Grearson's famous 1929 film about the herring fishermen. Drifters.
Deemed to be a more realistic documentary film maker, than Robert Flaherty.

In the morning, Pat and Tiger decided to visit King's pub to say goodbye and just to have "one for the road", or in this case, "the sea". The very same "one" that kept many an Irishman for longer than he intended. Eventually, Landlord King offered to drive them to the waiting boat but they drank on.

When Tommy O'Rourke arrived he informed them that Flaherty was raging at them and that he was also in a rage about Tommy cutting his hair. They started for the boat which was anchored off the shore. At the pier, the three sober sharkhunters were ordered to row Tiger and Pat out to the boat and return to bring Flaherty, Grierson and Taylor on the next trip.
Clifden harbour where the boat was anchored during the trip from Inishbofin to Cill Rónáin

Clifden harbour today. Photo taken from the opposite shore and showing all the recent development.

When they got to the boat, Tiger and Pat ordered the three sober men out and returned to pick up the other three. Pat says that they rowed a "somewhat  erratic course, back to the "Successful" It seems that some harsh words were exchanged between Tiger and either or both, Flaherty and Grierson. 

Pat Mullen was careful not to identify exactly who was involved but he mentions that somebody drank a bottle of whiskey and that he was awakened later from a nap he was taking, to be told "Pat, Pat get up and try and stop ???? from killing someone in the cabin"

Map showing the Aran Islands and the Islands of Shark and Boffin. North Sound lies between Aran and Connemara.

Pat doesn't say which man was involved but most have suggested it was Tiger. He found him standing on deck, with a five foot razor sharp harpoon. He had no coat, cap, shoes or socks on and was roaring at the locked cabin door.

"Come up, I dare you come up. We came on this trip to harpoon basking sharks, but as we can't find any, a man will do just as well. Come up, you that passed the remarks about me. Just one sight of ye 'till I drive this harpoon through you"
Coleman Tiger King in full harpooning mode, during the making of the film, Man of Aran.

The captain was pretending to notice nothing and continued steering the boat while his crew quickly found a rope that needed coiling. Then a wave hit the boat and the harpoonist stumbled and stubbed his toe on the huge block of granite rock, Pat had found on Inishbofin.

Picking it up in a rage, the would be harpoonist fired it into the North Sound, where it rests to this day.

It has always been speculated that the man involved was Tiger. It may well have been Flaherty himself and not Grierson, who had insulted him and caused the outburst and Flaherty, the man he wished to harpoon.

Not wishing to be run through by a harpoon, the men in the cabin declined the invitation to show themselves on deck and things eventually settled down. It's likely that Pat enjoyed the discomfort of Grierson and Flaherty and he knew that nobody would harm the very popular teenage film processor, John Taylor. As long as they kept the cabin door bolted, they'd be fine.

It seems the harpoonist later showed great remorse and Flaherty, to his credit, never made any further reference to the incident. If it was Tiger, then there wasn't much Flaherty could do as by this stage, the important role of leading man, had been cast and he couldn't very well fire Tiger.

The thought of Flaherty waiting for a locked cabin door to be smashed open and wondering what a harpoon might feel like as it went through him, gives us a small amount of sinful satisfaction, after all the dangers Flaherty put his cast through.

Robert and Frances stop to chat with Stephen Dirrane of Bun Gabhla, during their last trip to Aran in 1949. Stephen, along with Patcheen Conneely and Patch McDonagh, was part of the currach crew, during one of the most dangerous scenes in the film.They came very close to disaster and Stephen's many descendants, might never have been born.

Frances and Robert inspect some old film they discovered in the Man of Aran cottage, during their 1949 trip.

The great director, Robert J. Flaherty, pulling on an oar during his last trip to Aran in 1949. He died in July 1951. Also featured are  what looks like Peter Phatch Faherty in the middle and Patcheen Faherty in the bow.

Flaherty returned to Árainn for a visit in 1949 and met up with some of those involved in the film. Tiger and Michaelín had left the island, never to return. Pat Mullen would retire to Bull Bay, Anglesey in Wales, where he died in 1972. He had settled there in 1952, with his second wife, Florence Hall but they both returned to spend many summers on the island he was born on and where his ashes were laid to rest.
Pat Mullen meeting a young lad from Magherafelt, Co Derry in the summer of 1958.

Tiger lived out his life in London where he died in 1976. He now rests with his own people, alongside Naomh Éinne and his holy monks, in the little graveyard by the sea, in Cill Éinne. 

The King family grave in Cill Éinne graveyard. His memory will live on for as long as people watch Man of Aran.
Maggie Dirrane went back to rearing her family and lived out her life on the island. She was forever known locally as "Maggie Filmstar" and she enjoyed meeting the many visitors, who had been inspired by her film, to visit the island.  She died in 1995 at the age of 96, after a long and very productive life.
A photo from the Irish Capuchin Archives of Maggie Conneely Dirrane. (1899-1995)
Michael Dillane lived out his life far away from the island that he was born and raised on. We have had different reports of his life with some suggesting that he was part of the British expeditionary force, evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940.

 Michael is recorded by journalists in London, as having a wild, confident spirit. He enjoyed winding some of them up and one film critic who became friendly with him, described how Michaelín asked him when he was going to give up being a critic and do some real work. Michaelín was probably speaking for a lot of actors.

He will be forever remembered as the fearless little boy with the big smile, who contributed much to the success of the film.

Michael Dillane in a scene from the 1934 film about storytelling, "Oíche Sheanchais". Long believed lost in a Dublin fire, a copy was discovered in Harvard library in 2012 and has since been restored.

 Anybody who has read an account of Robert Flaherty's life can't but be impressed with the courage and determination he displayed when as a very young man, he braved the harsh conditions of Northern Canada.

In the 1970s the American film maker George Stoney arrived on Árainn and made a wonderfully insightful documentary about the making of the film. It's called, How the Myth Was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1978)

Georges father had been born on the island and his grandfather had made heroic efforts to help the locals, when he served as Island medical officer. He had sided with his patients, against the powers that be, both on and off the island. George's film can be previewed Here
George Stoney (1916-2012) who came back to the island his father was born on, in order to make a film about Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran. It's called "How the Myth was Made"


This article, while acknowledging Flaherty's own undoubted courage, reflects on how reckless he was in Aran and how things could so easily have gone disastrously wrong. Just a few years later in 1951, four members of a film crew of six, were lost when making a feature film about shark hunting on Achill Island in Mayo. The well known actor Claire Mullen fortuitously missed the boat that day and was one of only two who made it home.Doc on one report

Robert Flaherty has left a huge mark on the Aran Islands and even today, people recall incidents from those days. We welcome all contributions as there must be many stories that have yet to be told.
Grafton Cinema in Dublin, where Flaherty's film was premiered, in May 1934.

In any case, his film Man of Aran, will continue to entertain and inspire, just as it has done since it was premiered in Dublin on May 5th, 1934, eighty five years ago.
You can watch a much shortened version of the film, showing some of the highlights, at this link. (16 minutes)
Man of Aran 

You can view a lower quality Youtube video of the entire film Here 

DVDs and Blu-ray versions can be bought over the internet and in any good record store.

Michael Muldoon (May 2019)