Winter loneliness on a western island

The Times We Lived In – Taken: November 26th, 1955. Photograph by Eddie Kelly

The Times We Lived In: House on Inis M, Aran Islands. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

The Times We Lived In: House on Inis M, Aran Islands. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

 

Newspaper photographs don’t often have the composed stillness of a landscape painting. So when I found this study, captioned simply “House on Inis M, Aran Islands”, in the Irish Times archive, it was almost like finding a Paul Henry in the attic.

Almost.

There’s nothing romantic about our picture; no billowing clouds or sprigs of sunlight or seductive blues. Instead, it’s a lesson in the masterful use of black and white to tell the tale of a grey November day on our Atlantic coast.

In the background, sky and sea are two parallel bands of the kind you might find in a painting by Mark Rothko, while a darker strip – keep blinking and it’ll come into focus – indicates land somewhere beyond. In the foreground the drystone walls form another set of geometric lines, as do the cultivation ridges in the field just in front of the viewer’s eye.

The gable wall of the house could do with a lick of paint, although at least its roof, unlike those of the two neighbouring buildings, is snugly watertight.

To the left of the image, gentle ripples on the shoreline indicate that the day is relatively calm. To the right, however, a lone piece of washing on the line is caught mid-flutter. It’s the only sign of human activity in the shot, but it makes the whole scene look somehow lonelier.

Life on an Irish island in 1955, the photographer seems to be saying, is not for the faint-hearted. The picture editor must have felt the image too bleak for words, because it was never, so far as I can ascertain, published. While I was searching for it, however, I came across a couple of intriguing news items.

“Tropical fish netted off Aran Islands” reads a headline from the very day this picture was taken. A trawler at work in Gregory Sound took in its net “ a strange-looking fish”, later identified by the Department of Agriculture as a grouper or dusky perch. An early indicator of warming seas to come?

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

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