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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


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