Tuesday 23 February 2021

Springtime on the Aran Islands in 1979

 Mary Gillham and her Aran Islands visit of 1979

Scientist and adventurer, © Mary Gillham

Dr Mary Gillham (1921-2013) was a pioneering naturalist and prolific wildlife author who took an active interest in the environment for over 80 years.

In 1959, Mary was a member of the first Antarctic expedition to include women scientists and after a period in New Zealand and multiple African countries, she spent almost thirty years lecturing at Cardiff University, on the natural heritage of South Wales. A tireless campaigner to protect species and habitat, Mary was awarded an MBE in 2008.

Towards the end of her life it became apparent that Mary had accumulated a vast archive of maps, illustrations, travel notes and manuscripts. Also over 30,000 slides and with the help of her family, colleagues and the South East Wales Records Centre,  a successful application was made to the Heritage Lottery fund and the Mary Gillham Archive Project  was born.

Above is the introduction to the Mary Gillham archive from which the manager of the South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre, Adam Rowe, has kindly allowed us to bring you a selection of the photos Mary brought home after a trip to Árainn and Inis Oirr in 1979.

It’s obvious from looking at the archive that Mary was an outstanding teacher, scientist and adventurer but more than anything else, her photos indicate that she had a really great sense of fun.

Kicking football on the West Wales island of Skomer. © Mary Gillham 1921-2013

She seems to have been drawn to horses and asses and both her African and Aran photos feature quite a number of these beasts of burden.

By 1979, the Age of the Ass was coming to an end on the Aran Islands as these wonderful animals were being replaced by tractors, dumpers and car trailers. As a result, many animals had taken to the roads and a large herd had become quite a nuisance.

They kept to the rocks by day but at night would move into the villages and sometimes make their way into vegetable gardens, with dire consequences. 

The morning sight of a garden that had been visited by perhaps twenty asses during the night was a source of furious outrage or sympathetic amusement, depending on whether the garden was your own or your neighbours.

The islands were changing rapidly in 1979 and the introduction of electricity at Christmas 1975 would see many old ways disappear.

Mary Gillham was accompanied by a group of fellow enthusiasts and it seems that Inishbofin at the western end of Co. Galway was also visited.

The group stayed in Árainn with one of Ireland’s most famous Guest House keepers, Stephen Dirrane of Gilbert Cottage. It’s closed now for years but Stephen and his friendly dogs are still going strong.

Not far from Gilbert Cottage is a seal colony and wildlife haven at Port Chorrúch. The area is overlooked by the ruin of a 19th century seaweed factory and the wildlife spotters were spotted by a curious ass, who had a bird’s eye view of the birdwatchers.


Here is a photo of Mary near Gilbert Cottage and outside the home of writer and folklorist Bríd Gillan Dirrane, who lived to the great age of 107. Bríd is famous for publishing her best selling life story 'A Woman of Aran' when over 100 years of age.

Mary took a lot of photos of the plant life and it can be accessed in the archive. 

A keen eye for a humorous shot, here is a great photo of an Aran pony welcoming the group to the islands while a fine bullock looks less impressed.

Along the way, Mary captured a magnificent photo of the late Seosamh Ó Fatharta (Joe Faherty) as he worked on some basket weaving. Joe could turn his hand to almost anything and he and his descendants are responsible for a lot of buildings on the island. 

The tradition of basket weaving continues on the island and many of our readers will have met Vincent McCarron, who has shown both locals and visitors the art of basket weaving. 

Vincent a few years ago.

At Bungabhla, near the western tip of the Island, Mary got a really great photo of the late Máirtín Sheáinín Ó Flaitharta as he got ready for a day's work. Judging by the shadows, it was near midday and perhaps the tide was then suitable for shore work.
 The ass was waiting patiently for its photo to be taken. A task it was well familiar with from years of meeting tourists.

The shore near the pier in Cill Rónáin was a popular spot for the wandering asses to take refuge when a boatload of tourists arrived. Here are some photos showing the village as it looked in 1979.

A fine day at Céibh Chill Rónáin in May 1979.

Some photos of farm life in 1979 and there was great growth that year as the island looks very green.

An industry that no longer exists was the harvesting of sea rods which, after drying, were exported from Cill Rónáin pier every year. This backbreaking work helped supplement incomes but it finished not long after these photos were taken. These are possibly among the last ever taken.


Moving on to Inis Oirr, Mary Gillham once again was attracted to the island asses and her photographs of the island bring back memories of times past. 

Great credit is due to those who have saved Mary Gillham’s work for future generations.

We are grateful to Adam Rowe for allowing us to bring these great photos to you and we would encourage readers to have a look at the vast archive of material that has already been archived. You can view the archive at this link: Mary Gillham Archive
Michael Muldoon Feb 2021

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