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Shireen seals goodbye with a tear

The Times We Lived In: January 27th, 1989. Photograph by Pat Langan

Tears, wrote Voltaire, are the silent language of grief: and this photograph from 1989 is also silently, but intensely, evocative of as it invites the viewer to share the emotion of its young subject.

“Shireen Duff, aged 11, of Skerries,” reads the caption,”sheds a tear on Lambay Island as the four-month-old orphaned seal pup reared by her father, Mr Willie Duff, is released back into the wild”.

Was it cruel of our photographer to capture the girl’s heartache? I don’t think so. A picture of a child crying would be cruel. But the shot captures more than Shireen’s tears; it demonstrates her bravery as she tries to hold them back, and her hopes for the young seal as she gazes out to sea, trying to catch a final glimpse of the animal.

It’s such a personal image that we decided to seek out Shireen and her dad, to talk to them about it. “It was the first ever release in Ireland of a hand-reared seal,” recalls Willie Duff. “We had a couple of ponds in the back garden where we kept the seals until they were ready to go back to the sea.”

This particular seal, Shireen adds, was called Gaga because of the noise she made. “She was my pet, even though she was a wild animal – I could give her hugs and cuddles.”

On the day of the release the boatman saw one of these exchanges and decided to have a word with this friendly seal. Quick as a flash Gaga wheeled around, snarling and snapping. Her relationship with Shireen clearly wasn’t going to be extended to other humans – which boded well for her future in the waters off Lambay.

Willie Duff still lives in Skerries. He still, he jokes, has the same back garden although there aren’t any ponds – or seals – there now. Shireen has three children of her own. As for Ireland’s seal population, both species – grey and common – appear to be doing well. Sad photo, happy ending: we’ll settle for that.

Arminta Wallace

These and other Irish Times images can be purchased from: irishtimes.com/photosales. A book, “The Times We Lived In”, with more than 100 photographs and commentary by Arminta Wallace, published by Irish Times Books, is available from irishtimes.com and from bookshops, priced at €19.99.