An Irishman's Diary
EVERYONE knows about Ernest Shackleton, the Kildare-born polar explorer. Less famous by far is his cousin Jane Wigham Shackleton, who was something of pioneer in her own right. Instead of a sled, her means of exploration was a camera. And rather than the Antarctic, her journeys took her only to such wildernesses as the Aran Islands and Co Kerry.
But for an Anglo-Irish Dubliner in the 1880s and 1890s, that could be a voyage of discovery too. And it was; all the more so since, bringing a woman’s sensibility to the work, she seems to have been more interested in people as a subject than was the norm among the photographers of her era.
Many of the results feature in a handsome new book called Jane W Shackleton’s Ireland, published by Collins Press. Reflecting her development as a photographer, it starts with family portraits in Lucan, where she was born Jane Wigham in 1843, and then gradually branches out to the Ireland beyond, apparently via the river Liffey and other waterways.
An interest in rivers was an occupational hazard of the family into which she married, since the Shackletons owned several mills. In fact, she used to develop her negatives in a Liffey-side mill owned by her husband, and once had to apologise during a lecture to camera enthusiasts for the flour on her exhibits.
But leaving Dublin and mills behind, the culmination of her work, at least as presented in the book, was in trips she made to the west of Ireland around the turn of the century. And among some bigger questions raised by her pictures, there are fascinating incidental details.
Three local women pose at the walls of Dún Aengus in 1899, for example: one standing apart from the others, half-way up the wall, in a recess. She has her best dress on and looks a bit haughty. Until you notice, as Shackleton did in her notes, that the subject “is doing her best to conceal her feet”.
Presumably the feet are bare or, maybe worse for a proud woman, covered in the rough cow-skinned shoes that were the island’s standard footwear. Hence her appearance as a wall-flower.
Such observations apart, however, the book also has a very political epilogue, even if it doesn’t come from the photographer herself. Rather it was the product of a trip to west Kerry made by her son, William Shackleton, and some of his friends in the summer of 1890.
Kerry was a troubled place then: a “proclaimed district” in which the visitors at first feared for their safety and might have welcomed the attentions of the policemen who seemed to be everywhere. Instead they found the locals nothing but friendly and generous. It was the ubiquitous policemen, who shadowed even them, that the visitors came to fear.