THOMAS M. M. HEMY (1852-1937) - PAGE 56


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Boy’s Own Paper Annual #37 re 1914/15 & particularly issue #10 within it re Aug. 1915 had at page 599, an article entitled 'In the Isles of Romance.' It was the first of two articles, the second appearing later in the same volume - in issue #11 re Sep. 1915 at page 690. Both had illustrations by Thomas M. Hemy.

The second 'In the Isles of Romance' site page can be found here: 57.

The articles were an account of his visit to the Aran Islands, located in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

Map section showing the location of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay

Rugged islands indeed in the summer of 1914 when the trip would seem to have taken place. And still rugged today, I suspect, even though now it is a vacation destination & you can fly there in a small aircraft - just 20 minutes from the mainland.
Place names are a confusion to the webmaster. Gaelic is the language of the islands & places have Gaelic names & English translations of those names. Inishmore (Inis Mór) is I presume what Thomas Hemy refers to as Aranmore. Inishmaan (Inis Meáin) still seems to be a recognisable name. Inisheer (Inis Óirr) is presumably what Hemy refers to as 'Inishmeer'.

A good summary description of the Aran Islands can be read here.

On this page I will record the first part of the transcribed total article. The total article comprises 7 3/4 pages & eleven illustrations by Thomas Hemy. This first part has six illustrations.

I do not have the skill set to insert the images within the text exactly as they were placed in the articles in 1915, but will place the images as close as I can to where they appeared in the original. Nor can I include any decorated text that the articles contained.

The numbers in brackets in the text below are the webmaster's notations & indicate the start of a page of that number.


In the Isles of Romance.

An Artist's Visit to Inishmaan and Aranmore.

Written and Illustrated by THOMAS M. HEMY.

  [Readers of the "B.O.P." will remember the beautiful coloured plate, entitled " Riders to the Sea," that was presented with the monthly part for December 1913. In the following article Mr. Hemy, the well-known artist who painted the original of this picture, records his impressions of the Aran Islands, off Galway, where he found the subject for this and several other works.]



Looking out of a hotel window in Galway on a June morning, the writer of these lines was much struck by the appearance of some fine-looking men in strange attire, who threaded their way through the street with an air as if they owned the whole world. With heads erect and swinging stride they made the " slop-clad " townsmen look shapeless and common. They wore flat bonnets, and on their feet were moccasins, made of untanned hide -  hair-side out.

  " Who are these ? " I inquired. The answer was, " they are islanders."

I discovered that " islanders " meant inhabitants of the Aran isles, whither I was journeying for a few months' sketching.

  I felt that I was bound for a land of romance and mystery, and a little later when I perceived some of the women, clad in their rich madder short petticoats and gorgeously patterned shawls - these latter only worn on state occasions such as visits to the mainland, weddings, etc. - over their ordinary bodices, I was more than ever confirmed in my belief.

  They, like the men, were of an Eastern type. Some of them were handsome, and all finely built. My blasé soul flickered up, and I began to feel that there were some interests left in life, and that the discomfort I endured, owing to the rattling and bumping of the railway journey, would be counterbalanced by the romance I should discover in the " Isles of Mystery," as they are termed.

  Next morning found me down at the vessel that sailed for the Aran Isles, some thirty miles from the mainland, and my feelings of wonder were intensified by what I saw. I had arrived in Galway on the closing day of the fair, and the islanders were now returning with their purchases.

  The vessel was crowded fore and aft with plunging steers and squealing " boneens " (pigs), midst human beings, the latter all talking laughing, and joking. A small squireen, a priest, and myself were the only cabin passengers ; but there was on [sic] distinction of class. Islanders sprawled really all over the bridge deck and everywhere else. There was not an inch of space.

  The vessel - now replaced by a fine boat the " Dun Angus" - was in the last state of decay. However, despite various discomforts, the three hours' passage soon passed. On the voyage I made the acquaintance of the commander, Captain Meehan, a fine sailor of the old school. With him I swapped yarns, which spread from one end of the globe to the other, but mostly centred on Callao and San Francisco in the " wicked old days " of the " windjammer.

  The mountains of Clare appeared first, then I perceived the islands. Inishmeer drew near, and its beach and old castle soon were plainly visible.

  At our approach strangely built canoes were hurriedly carried down to the beach and run out. As we came within a hundred yards of the island, there was a race to get alongside.

  Such excitement as I never saw before. It reminded me of the South Sea Islands. Such a shouting and yelling, pushing and hauling, took place that I expected it would end in bloodshed at least. The islanders spoke Gaelic, which I was unable to understand. This hubbub, I afterwards discovered, was quite the usual thing on the arrival of the vessel. Soon the cargo - stores of all kinds - was disembarked ; cattle were slung up and dropped over the vessel's side, then towed away to the shore.

  Passengers laden with all kinds of goods and chattels, and little pigs in pokes, - known as " boneens " - were handed down to the canoes. One of the pigs had got into a tarry bag and came out a beautiful shiny black. Midst the deafening noise we finally got under way again and drew near to my future abode - the middle island , " Inishmaan."

  After the white, sandy beach and picturesque castle and tower of Inishmeer it looked hard, dreary, and forbidding : grey and stony barrenness. In the distance I noticed a few thatched roofs, but no pier or landing-stage of any kind. Presently, I espied another fleet of canoes drawing towards us, and I perceived the friend who suggested my trip to this island in one of them, escorting two lady visitors who were just leaving.

  My first feeling at the sight of (600) Inishmaan was one of deep disappointment. " Had I come all this journey for a pile of barren stones ? " There was no vestige of a tree, and very little grass, and I prepared to leave the steamer with regret.

  We drew near to a brilliant yellow and grey slipway - the landing stage - and to my astonishment I witnessed among the rocks on either side of it two vivid masses of red which, at first sight, I took to be soldiers ; behind them were endless rocks. A hill lay to the left, on which was perched one of the ancient forts of the islands ; and beyond this a very old wall, on the other side of which, in the distance, were a few cottages.

  "What is the meaning of this ? Have you a garrison ? " I asked, pointing to the red masses.

  My friend laughed. " Those," said he, " are women, dressed in their ordinary costumes. To-day they have on their spare petticoats, which they wear, on occasions, over their heads, clothing them completely, as you see, in red. They have come down to see off the young fellow you noticed in my curragh. He has started, via Galway, for America."

  I looked at him and then at the scene before me, and involuntarily commenced to whistle " I'm off to Philadelphia in the morning."

  By now the sun was shining brilliantly, and stretched before me was a perfect blaze of colour - rocks, seaweed, and people. Some eight or nine miles away on the mainland I could see the beautiful hills of Connemara - indeed, I was in a new world amongst a strange and interesting people.

  Another busy scene took place when we landed. Nearly the whole population came down to meet the homecomers from Galway with their purchases. The cattle were landed elsewhere. On the way from the slipway I saw sights which took me back not only to the days of my childhood, but to the pictorial records of years before then. There was the old pack-horse with its cumbersome straw-padded saddle with the wooden horns on which to sling the baskets and barrels. Weird-looking sheep and goats were scattered about, hobbled together in couples. These creatures are usually very thin, but are wonderful leapers. In spite of their hobbles they will clear the highest walls in safety.

  The few roads - made by my friend at the expense of much toil, suffering, expense, and dynamite - had gone to the bad through neglect. There is no one to look after them - in fact, no one on the island to tell anyone else to do anything, and so everybody's business is nobody's business !

  Not a vehicle was to be seen - not even a wheel-barrow existed. Stones - always stones ; walls of stone, and even fields, many of which were three-parts stone, and containing very deep and dangerous cracks in every direction. In fact, the whole island is cracked like an old enamel dish. There are no gates on the island. The fields are surrounded by walls made of loose stones, a few of which are removed as occasion requires to allow the cattle to pass in and out. The people's land is scattered in every direction, and the women who go milking often have a dozen or more loose stone walls to climb before reaching their own cows.

  " What an extraordinarily dressed girl ! " I exclaimed, as a little figure with a large tam-o'-shanter, a pink petticoat waist, and blue loose jacket with a red petticoat reaching well down towards the ankles, came into sight.

  " Girl ! " replied my friend, " why, that is a boy ; they are used to dress like that until they are quite seventeen or eighteen ! "

  I now reached my lodgings, which were situated in the post-office. My room had a wooden floor and roof and boasted a private entrance. The house was patronised by " his Reverence " when he visited the island - which he did every Sunday that the weather permitted.

  The village straggled along for a couple of miles or so. I believe there are three villages altogether, but I could (601) never remember, or rather master their names. The island itself is a peculiar shape. It rises from a sandy beach, on the north - east, in a series of terraces, which finally develop into precipitous cliffs on the west, varying from thirty to one hundred and fifty feet in height.

  The sea, with the forces of several thousand miles' driving power behind it, hits these cliffs with terrific violence as they rise straight out of the deep water. The pounding noise can be heard at nights on the lee-side of the island. The spray is carried - incredibly as it may seem -  a couple of miles inland, and the mist from the sea often envelopes the whole village.

  There is a magnificent and ever-changing view from the village, but a better one still can be obtained from the great fort Dun O'Conor. This fort is supposed to have been built two or three thousand years ago, but it is not known by whom. There are the remains of several smaller ones on the island.

  There are about four hundred people in the island, and none are miserably poor. They have no regular laws, but many unwritten ones of their won. There are no resident clergymen, no squireen, or resident strangers, neither have they any shops. All provisions saving potatoes, flesh, and bacon are brought over every week by boat from the mainland.

  There is indeed, a monthly visit paid by the constabulary from the principal isle of Aranmore, but only with a view to collecting the dog-taxes. It is a noteworthy fact that as soon as their curragh is espied making for the island, there is a general disappearance of curs of all kinds. I was told that they disappear into the large and numerous cracks on the islands, and, stranger still, each has his own particular crack where he lies " mum " until the "constabulary duty " is done. The only dogs to be seen during those visits are those for whom the tax has been paid. These sit up and face the police as bold as brass with a " touch-me-if-you-dare " expression on their faces.

  I like the way things are managed on the island. Every man does what he is best fitted for ; and I wish the British workman could see them sit down to their every-day meal of dried fish and potatoes, varied on Sundays by a little reasty bacon and cabbage ; he would be astonished at the splendid type of strong, hard-working and capable people it produces.

  Wherever we went we met smiling faces and a kindly salutation in Gaelic. One could scarcely expect to be greeted in any other tongue, though. It is a language of ancient origin, and many ardent students of it come from all parts of the world to sit at the feet of the descendants of those ancient inhabitants of Ireland. I did not learn to speak a word during my stay, and found it a most difficult language to pick up. Coming from the lips of a pretty colleen it sounded the prettiest tongue in the world, though, sometimes, when I heard it spoken by the men, it struck me as being rather like the whinnying of a horse.

  I had a compliment (?) paid to me one day. Walking back from my work I met a couple of farmer fishermen. One of them thought he would like to have the picture I had just been painting and was anxious to know its price. I told him i should be glad to let him have a photograph of it later on ; but he did not consider this as treating an intending purchaser with sufficient respect, so he replied by asking me if I was getting the old age pension ? This was rough on me, as I am a long way off seventy yet, and, (602) I think, young-looking for my age. However I replied humbly - it is always advisable to be humble in a place where people are so handy with stones and where there are so many loose ones lying about - that I was not yet of an age to receive the pension. " Be jabers, thin, ye look it ! " was the curt reply. They think that everybody from fifty to seventy years old is in receipt of the pension, in the British Isles.

  There are no really very poor people in the island as their relatives support them. Of course, with the arrival of old-age pensions things have been much better for the old folk.

  As I have said before, there are many unwritten laws which are understood and strictly observed by the people. Should any one break one of them a stigmas is attached to the breaker and his innocent family, which may last for generations. I cannot imagine a more terrible punishment ; but to go into detail would take too much valuable apace. I may mention that these laws deal effectually with objectionable visitors to the island. They have a manner, quiet and effective, of convincing the offender that his presence in the island is no longer wished for. They mostly take the hint and quit.


  I have already mentioned a good many things which do not exist on the island, and to this list I should add music. Except for the assistant-postmistress, a " foreigner " from Aranmore, who plays a melodeon, there is neither music nor singing. They have a weird way of chanting what they call traditional songs ; but in the chapels they have no hymns or music of any kind. It sometimes happens that a visitor may bring some kind of instrument with him. During my stay, a man arrived with a set of Irish pipes, and for the time he was there he was the most popular visitor on the island.

  For several nights we had heard the sound of these pipes coming from where we knew there was no cottage ; so out of curiosity, one evening, we strolled in the direction from which the music came. Taking with us a storm-lantern, for the night was pitch black, we made our way with difficulty amongst the yawning cracks and boulders and stone walls - a journey fraught with great dangers at night save for a cat or an islander.

  Soon the mystery was cleared up, as, after much stumbling, we came to what are called " flats " on the island, i.e. bare rock extending a few yards in every direction without cracks in them, and which are generally smooth and level. There stood the piper, playing away in the dark as if his life depended on it ; and near him were all the younger men and colleens of the village in lines, dancing and jigging away as happy as children.

  We stood and looked on in amazement ; how they managed to do such intricate figures and find their partners in the darkness was a mystery. They were dancing a reel called, I think, " The Waves of Troy," and the swaying, graceful movements of the young figures would not have disgraced any ballroom. They were delighted when we proposed leaving our lantern with them, but they first had to see us safely back to our cottage with it first!

(To be concluded.)

* The native boat - a high-prowed, narrow craft made of canvas and laths, in which the " Riders to the Sea " jockey the great Atlantic rollers.

I have tried to locate for this page some good and large images of a curragh or curraghs. There are a number of images of them available through a Google image search but, forgive me, none I have seen are of sufficient visual interest for inclusion & almost all of them are so very small. So instead, I direct you to the next page which does have in Thomas Hemy's artwork some good depictions of what a curragh looks like. On site page 57.

If you can provide more information related to the content of this page, your contribution would be most welcome.

Thomas M. M. Hemy datapages 01, 02 & 03 are now on site. Plus all of the other image pages, accessible though the index on page 05.

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