Saturday 7 December 2019

Books: A glorious record of half a century of lives lived off the west coast

Ireland’s Western Islands, John Carlos Collins Press, pbk, £19.99, 256 pages

Paddy Joe Heanue and his dog from 'Ireland's Western Islands'
Paddy Joe Heanue and his dog from 'Ireland's Western Islands'
Fishermen from 'Ireland's Western Islands'
Bridget Dirrane from 'Ireland's Western Islands'
Child at school from 'Ireland's Western Islands'
Lazing by the sea from 'Ireland's Western Islands'
Ireland's Western Islands

John Spain

Former Sunday Tribune photographer John Carlos has had a lifelong love affair with the islands off our western coastline. It started when he visited Inis Mór in 1963 when he was 12, a trip that made him want to take pictures.

He joined the Connacht Tribune seven years later and became staff photographer with the Sunday Tribune in 1983, winning many awards including Photographer of the Year, before moving on to the Sunday Times.

Now back living and working in the west again, the quality of his work shows in this beautiful large format book, a tribute to the islands he knows so well.

Spanning almost 50 years, the collection of stunning black-and-white photographs is not an attempt to define the islands or the people but rather to preserve a memory of their spirit and way of life even as the old traditions and values disappear in the face of materialism and pop culture.

Some photographs document the end of an era – the Naomh Éanna features in several photos but is now set for the scrapheap unless funds can be raised to salvage her. Other photos in the collection, meanwhile, took 20 years of waiting for the perfect light before they could be shot. The book shows the islanders loading turf, digging potatoes, transporting seaweed, waiting for ferries and Gaelgoirí arriving and departing.

It shows islanders in currachs, ferries and trawlers, using ponies and traps, helicopters and Aer Arann planes. It shows them at Mass, funerals, confirmation, communion. Above all, the vivacity, spirit, perseverance and humour is visible in the faces.

The islander who fought British and campaigned for Kennedy

The book by John Carlos contains this striking image of Bridget Dirrane, a member of the republican Cumann na mBan group early in the last century who went on hunger strike in Mountjoy Gaol.

She became a nurse in the 1900s, and after her arrest while on duty in the Dublin home of a nationalist sympathiser she infuriated police at the Bridewell station by dancing and singing in Irish.

She married an Aran Islander, Ned Dirrane, in Boston, where she joined the Democratic Party and campaigned for future president John F Kennedy.

Bridget drove a Chevrolet Bel Air to cover her nationwide nursing assignments in the US.

After Ned died, she returned to Aran and married his brother, Patrick. When he in turn died, she had her two wedding rings bonded together.

Bridget died on New Year's Eve 2003 at the age of 109.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709 350

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