Man of Aran – Erse ethnofiction


Man of Aran (1934)

The Aran Islands guard the mouth of Galway Bay, a NW to SE diagonal archipelago made up of three major islands – Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer – plus a couple of tiny uninhabited islets. Whether seen from the Clare or Connemara mainlands, from one of the tiny Aer Arann planes that ply between Inverin and the Islands, or from the deck of a rusty and listing trawler, the archipelago presents an otherworldly vision amidst the exhilarating ozone openness. On fine evenings, they seem to catch the last of the sun before it hisses to death in the Atlantic, gleaming always just out of reach – at other times, they mantle themselves mysteriously in shrieking storms or trailing curtains of soft rain, coming in and out of cognizance like Lyonesse.

When you make landfall at last, there are small settlements of Irish-speakers, and white beaches and pastures on the landwards side, linked by stone-walled boreens and limestone pavements in which subsist a profusion of northern and Alpine flora – gentians, ferns, heathers, saxifrages, sea kale, sea holly, sea pinks, bindweed, bird’s foot trefoil, tormentil, bramble, wild strawberries, stonecrop, bee orchid, honeysuckle and many others – and acclimatized foreigners, like fuschias, which thrive in the Islands’ mild maritime ambience. Being so saline and windswept, and having been overgrazed in prehistoric times, the Islands are almost treeless, except for odd patches of hawthorn and hazel in the most sheltered corners, tolerated despite strong competition for sweet water and useable earth.

These ‘fields’ and townlands all have long names and ancient remains testifying to Neolithic fertility and Dark Ages sanctity, and slope up gradually as you near the seawards side, where cliffs of up to 300 feet present obdurate faces to the force of the waters that roll all the way uninterrupted from America’s eastern coast. At the crests of some of these cliffs are stupendous architectural achievements coeval with Stonehenge – the remains of tombs, clochans (beehive huts used by monks), chapels, crosses, holy wells, and the celebrated ring fort of Dún Aengus, concentric semi-circles of boulders built up with infinite effort.

And west there is nothing in all that waste of water, although it has always been peopled in imagination. Roderick O’Flaherty (1629-1718), a Galway aristocrat and historian, felt the Islands were magical as well as material:

From the Isles of Aran and the west continent, often appears visible that uncharted island called O’Brasil and in Irish, Beg Ara, or the Lesser Aran, set down in charts of navigation, whether it be real and firm land kept hidden by the special ordinance of God or the terrestrial paradise, or else some illusion of airy clouds appearing on the surface of the sea, or the craft of evil spirits, is more than our judgements can sound out. (1)

Small wonder such a locale has long attracted those of a reactionary or Romantic or Celtic nationalist sensibility seeking ‘noble savages’ or unadulterated Irishness – especially after the islands had captured the imaginations of Yeats and Synge, like so many Milesian myth-makers Anglo-Irish Protestants (2). They and others saw the Islands as a kind of redoubt against the modern world, where men’s minds were still their own, and they lived hard, but free, with no master but the sea. Celtic confabulation met the modern age in 1932, when American filmmaker Robert Flaherty turned up on the islands and began the two year process of filming Man of Aran.

Flaherty was born in 1884, the son of an Irish Protestant prospector. He had travelled extensively in the Canadian far north in the company of his father and later in his own right, leading exploratory missions at the behest of the Canadian Northern Railway. He became entranced by the starkly dramatic lives of the Eskimos, and began to film them, using what was to become his trademark style – lavish use of film and a loose narrative structure, recording, as he would later say about Man of Aran, “what the camera wished to photograph”. In 1923, his film Nanook of the North, about the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of the Belcher Islands, was released, to great acclaim. One of those islands was subsequently named in his honour. It is arguably ironic that Nanook was sponsored by a furrier firm – just as Flaherty’s 1948 film Louisiana Story was sponsored by an oil company busily drilling in the bayous he was so lovingly chronicling.

On the strength of Nanook, Paramount commissioned him to travel to the South Seas to make a similar film about Pacific islanders. Moana appeared in 1926, inspiring one of its reviewers to coin the word “documentary” to describe it, but otherwise it was not a success. Two subsequent South Seas-themed films, White Shadows on the South Seas and Tabu (the latter in conjunction with F. W. Murnau of Nosferatu fame), served chiefly to demonstrate that Flaherty’s heart was not really in the Southern hemisphere, and that his leisurely, expensive methods were not popular with studio bosses.

He came to the Aran Islands with his wife in November 1931, intending to stay for just one night, but became bewitched and stayed a further two. The following January, he came back with his family, rented a house, and converted a former fishing shed into a darkroom. With the help of a local intermediary named Pat Mullen, who later published his account of the making of the film (which is also called Man of Aran), he recruited three photogenic locals – Coleman “Tiger” King, Maggie Dirrane and Mickleen Dillane – to star as the ‘family’ at the centre of the film, and others (including Mullen) to appear in long shot in the most dramatic sequences. Other locals were recruited to build a traditional cottage to act as part of the set; again ironically, an old house was demolished to furnish materials for the set, which in the event was scarcely used. The making of what locals called laconically “The Film” however convulsed the whole chain, giving rise to all kinds of legends about Flaherty’s methods and autocratic personality – perhaps suitable for someone whose West Connaught-originating surname is usually translated as “bright prince”.

The film is simultaneously languid and timeless, a series of mythopoeic or ethnofictional images stressing the vast impersonality of Nature, the spare beauty of the Bay – and both with and against these the perpetual struggle waged by irreducible Irishers, who against all odds persist here, eking out a laborious existence that is yet not without its compensations. Everything is an effort – the soil that has to be created from kelp, the rocks that need to be smashed with sledgehammers, the turf that must be dug and donkeyed home (3), the nets and creels that need to be mended, the crabs that need to be caught as bait for fish that need to be caught by boys perched nonchalantly on the verge of voids, dropping down lines to the feet of cliffs worried by the suck of vast seas “fetched” from far latitudes.

These relatively domestic scenes are compared and contrasted with gladiatorial contests waged by Tam O’Shanter-toting men in insubstantial currachs. The central incident in the film is a traditional Man v. Monster motif – the days-long hunting and hand-harpooning of the harmless but huge and powerful basking shark for its oil, a technique long out of date even in 1932, whose danger and laboriousness will be immediately apparent to anyone who has ever seen one of these magnificent creatures close to (4).

The film closes with its most famous scenes, of a currach riding insanely but inspirationally on thirty and forty foot swells in the sounds between the islands, the crew working as an instinctive unit to preserve their lives and demonstrate superlative sang-froid in the face of such untrammeled violence. Pat Mullen wrote lovingly of his daring compatriots –

A great thrill of wild pride shot through me as I looked at them, for here had been a trial of the old, old stock and the blood still ran true.

Flaherty was similarly stunned by their audacity, noting later

I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pounds apiece.

Filming finally finished in November 1933, after over half a million feet of footage had been taken, and then only because the studio in London had ordered Flaherty to stop. But infuriated and out of pocket as the studio must have been, at least Flaherty had a mountain of material to edit and splice, and the end result is truly epic, a cinematographic masterpiece to which many later filmmakers are obviously indebted.

Yet by emphasizing man’s ingenuity rather than his individualism, and his tininess, the film is arguably in some ways impersonal, presenting avatars rather than humans with distinct personalities. This is perhaps unsurprising for that era of pudding-faced Soviet Heroes and Arno Breker’s aquiline über-men, and it also helps to explain why the film won both the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the 1935 Venice Film Festival, and the American National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Film. Flaherty himself once said that documentary narrative should “come out of the life of a people, not from the actions of individuals”. Accordingly, we learn nothing about the ‘family’ members, except that they all slot neatly into predetermined roles, and get no idea what they do in their admittedly limited spare time – not even an insight into their religion or their politics. It was also criticised for glossing over the locals’ poverty, and Graham Greene dismissed the work as being “bogus and sentimental”.

But 1934’s audiences didn’t seem to mind such informational lacunae, and the three (presumably rather bewildered) stars were whisked off to London and New York on hugely successful promotional tours. Even now, the film is still discussed, it still brings cinéastes to the archipelago (they can even stay in Flaherty’s former house), and it was re-released on DVD as recently as 2009, with a new and rather successful soundtrack by the indie rock band British Sea Power, to replace the by now muffled and distorted original recordings. Whatever the shortcomings of the film may have been or be, it can and should still be relished as a great work of art, and a timeless testament to the resilience of everyone who dares (or is compelled) to live on life’s edges.


  1. Chorographical Description of West Connacht, 1684. The following year, O’Flaherty published Ogygia, a Latin history of Ireland, which was the first history of the island to reach English readers (those who could read Latin, at any rate).
  2. Romance notwithstanding, the Islands may not be all that ‘Celtic’. Two major studies – 1955‘s The Physical Anthropology of Ireland (authors Ernest A. Hooton and C. Wesley Dupertuis) and 1958‘s The ABO and RH Blood Groups of the Aran Islanders (authors Earle Hackett and M. E. Folan) – found definite physiological differences between Aran residents and mainlanders. This can be interpreted two ways – either they are the original ‘Celts’ exiled here by invaders, or they are partly descended from the English soldiery who garrisoned the Islands during the Cromwellian period. It should be noted that English surnames are commonplace on the Islands.
  3. The donkeys that are so essential an ingredient in stereotypical depictions of the West of Ireland only became important in the area during the Napoleonic Wars, when all horses were commandeered for military use.
  4. The 1963 film Pour la Suite du Monde similarly featured the islanders of Île aux Coudres, off the Quebec coast, as they set out anachronistically to hunt whales as their fathers had done.

2 Comments Man of Aran – Erse ethnofiction

  1. Stuart Millson

    An extremely interesting, evocative account of another overlooked British-Irish-European place and culture; and a film that must be almost completely forgotten today. It reminds me very much of Michael Powell’s documentary-like film (although with actors, of the calibre of John Laurie, Niall MacGinnis and Finlay Currie), The Edge of the World – all about the struggle to maintain life on the remote islands of Scotland. I love your use of the word “sanctity” – it is exactly what these lost and faraway, country and sea-places, represent to us: places of reassurance, peace and identity. Another film which readers may like is Dim Little Island, a post-war information film, with beautiful sequences of “a chap [a rambler or birdwatcher] on the edge of Scotland”; and an officer of the RSPB at Minsmere in Suffolk on the lonely shore. Vaughan Williams also appears in the film, narrating, and with his own music playing in the title sequence, a sequence made all the more powerful by the appearance of the name of the small film company which made the piece, Wessex Films – the White Horse of the English downland, their powerful symbol.

    As you would expect from the author of Sea Changes, and countless other stories, articles, travelogues and reviews, a piece of writing that seems to bring sea-air into the room – that summons clear images of ancient stones and clear sunsets, and brings into the mind not just memories and visions, but questions, too – questions about what this all ultimately means, and whether it will all be passed on into the far future.

  2. Derek Turner

    Thanks, Stuart – what a trooper you are, and of course a fellow celebrant of all things redolent and place-specific


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