In the pictiúir


INTERVIEW:Decades after a Hollywood photographer showed up in their cistin, an Inis Mór family is reunited with a precious image, writes LORNA SIGGINS

Ine Uí Fhlaithearta never thought, as a 13-year-old Aran islander, she would have much in common with Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe. Yet almost 38 years ago she was profiled by the international photographer who is known for her intimate images of the Hollywood grand dames.

It was 1974, and a “grey day” on Inis Mór. Her mother, Mary “Tim” Uí Iarnáin, had gone shopping in Cill Rónáin. Áine was at home in Bun Gabhla, the most western village before America, with her father, “Dadó”, and her youngest brother Mairtín, then just four.

“I can’t remember where the others were,” she says, laughing, for she was 10th child in a family of 15. “I just remember that Michael Hernon, who ran the bus company, arrived with this photographer who had come in with the ferry, and she stayed with us for about an hour.”

Her father, fisherman and farmer Micheilín Phatch Bheachlín Ó hIarnáin, often made the bread, but Áine agreed to take her turn with the flour. As Eve Arnold focused her lens, Uí Fhlaithearta stood working the dough, with her back to the kitchen’s Stanley stove, where her father’s rosary beads hung. Dadó, wearing his cap, and a young wide-eyed gasúr, Mairtín, looked on.

The image went halfway around the world for Magnum Photos, the agency to which Arnold was then attached.

“We didn’t know much about her as we were so used to people wanting to take pictures of our red hair,” Uí Fhlaithearta says. The Aran islands have long been a canvas for film-makers, writers, artists, photographers – be it Jack B Yeats or George Petrie or latterly, Tim Robinson – or Inis Mór’s own Seán Ó Flaithearta. The woman with the American accent was just one more on that list.

“She gave us £5, and my father often talked about that note right up until shortly before he died,” Uí Fhlaithearta remembers. “However, we never got a copy of the photo for him, in spite of many attempts.” There were several near misses. Arnold, an award-winning photographer who was among the first women to be hired by Magnum in 1951, and who chronicled everyone from Monroe and Malcolm X to Mongolian horsemen and Moscow psychiatric patients, exhibited in Dublin in 1997/98. More recently, Uí Fhlaithearta’s older sister, Theresa (Treasa) Kearney put several appeals out on the internet and also contacted the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar.

“I am looking for a photo that was taken in the Aran islands in Galway of my dad and my sister about 40 years ago,” Kearney wrote in one appeal. “My sister is making bread [and] I would love to know where I could buy it, as my sister is 50 next month and was very close to my Dad . . .”

When the photograph appeared in The Irish Timeswith an obituary of Arnold on January 7th this year, Uí Fhlaithearta contacted the newspaper’s pictures editor, Frank Miller. This time she was fortunate, receiving copies courtesy of Magnum and Eve Arnold’s estate, hand-delivered by Irish Timesphotographer Dara Mac Dónaill.

Coincidentally, it is a similar “grey day”, with the rain streaming down from the west and a light blanket of cloud over the entire island. And it is a busy house also in Bun Gabhla, where Uí Fhlaithearta’s brother Bartley lives. Siblings Theresa and Mairtín, and his wife Kathleen, have come on the ferry from Ros an Mhíl for their mother’s anniversary Mass.

“My mother was very outgoing, full of life, and died suddenly in 2006. Dadó died in 2008, and he was a fit man right up to the end,” Uí Fhlaithearta says. “He was in his early 60s when the photo was taken, and he didn’t age much more after that, but you can see the sadness in his eyes that day all the same . . . Just two years before, the second eldest, Pete, drowned when fishing, and just seven months later, in June 1973, my younger sister, Nóirín, died of a brain tumour. She was just nine-and a half.”

Arnold couldn’t have known any of this as she made the most of limited light that day in Bun Gabhla, for the family had limited English then, although Dadó had a “few words”.

In a BBC3 radio interview with John Tusa, Arnold spoke of how she disliked having interpreters with her. “It’s like the litmus paper turning blue when there’s a third person. It’s bad enough when there are two. So I would be there alone with the person, and with their work,” she said in 2009.

In Bun Gabhla today, as the siblings speak of how 15 children – also including Padraic, Máire, Bríd, Maggie, Michael, Bairbre, Joe, Tim and John – lived under one small roof, Mairtín and Kathleen’s elder children, Grace and Eoin, listen intently, while their younger siblings, Eleanor and Seán, race around the house.

Six Hernon siblings live on Inis Mór still, while others are in Galway, Dublin and abroad. Áine Uí Fhlaithearta, mother of three adult children, Niamh, Mairtín Óg and Aedín, is married to a fisherman, Mairtín Ronán Ó Flaithearta, and collects island folklore with Bailiúchán Béaloideas Árann.

On the mantelpiece is a tribute to her father by brother-in-law Michael Seoighe: “Taréis aistir fhada, crua/ Tá cladadh chiúin sroichte agat” (after a long hard journey/you’ve reached a quiet harbour). A thought strikes Uí Fhlaithearta as she reads the verse: “You know my father was almost the same age as Eve Arnold – in his 99th year – when he died.”

See Dara Mac Dónaill’s photographs of the Ó hIarnáin family here :