The Aran Islands, Co. Galway: A Study in Irish Ethnography

Author: Professor A. C. Haddon, M.A.

Introduction: Published in ‘The Irish Naturalist’ VOL. II. DECEMBER,1893, NO.12.

(This article may seem ‘technical’ or detailed for the first paragraph or two, but then becomes more interesting for those who would like to know of life in the Aran Islands at the turn of the century.)

Content: THE IRISH NATURALIST is itself a witness to the increased interest which has of late years become manifest in the study of Natural History in Ireland, and it is encouraging to see notes from new observers in various parts of the country. It would be very undesirable to divert to other channels any of the energy which has now been brought to bear on Natural History, but there must be a large number of persons in Ireland who do not take any special interest in anyone group of animals or- plants, and have no taste or opportunity for making collections, but who, nevertheless, would like to occupy their leisure with something that is both interesting and worth doing. To such I would commend the study of the Irish Man.

It is surprising how little attention we have given, in the British Islands, to a study of our fellow-countrymen, whether from an anthropological or from a sociological point of view. In this respect we are far behind the great continental nations. Nor is it from lack of suggestive facts to be recorded, or of problems to be solved. The mixture of races in these islands certainly renders the problems complex, but this should not paralyse effort. Very interesting results may be expected from a careful study of certain groups of the populace, but to gain them immediate action must be taken. Owing to migration and emigration, the mingling of peoples has become more intimate, and the newspaper and the school-board have been potent in sweeping away local customs and in levelling up the less advanced folk. All we can now do is to record the little that remains of old-time custom and thought. Experience, however, shows that more persists beneath the surface than is generally conceded by those who vaunt themselves on present civilization and religion. The civilization of the British Islands is, after all, comparatively so recent that relics of the previous millenniums of savagery and barbarism are continually cropping up.

For some years past I have been increasingly impressed with the importance of these studies, and I recently determined to make a beginning with the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, being in every way suitable for such researches. It was therefore, with great pleasure that I found my friend Dr. C R. Browne was able to join me in making the first of what I hope will be series of studies in Irish Ethnography, conducted in connection with a Committee appointed by the Royal Irish Academy for that purpose. Our joint investigations have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (3rd series, vol. iii., 1893, pp. 768-830, pls. xxii.-xxiv.

The Aranmen are mostly of a slight but athletic build, the average height is about 5 feet 4 3/4 inches, whereas that of the average Irishman is said to be 5 feet 8 1/2 inches. The span is less than the stature in a quarter of the cases measured, a rather unusual feature in adult males. The hands are rather small, but the forearm is often unusually long. The head is well-shapen, rather long and narrow; there is a slight parietal bulging. Anthropologists classify heads according to the relation between the length and the breadth; the length is taken as 100, and long narrow heads ( dolichocephals ) are those in which the ratio of breadth to length is as 75, or less, is to 100; the short broad heads (brachycephals) have a ratio of 80, or more, to 100, whereas the mesaticephals are intermediate between these two. The mean \” cephalic index;\” as it is termed, of the Aranites is 77.1, but it has been shown that in order to more accurately compare the cephalic index calculated upon measurements made on the living head with that of skulls, it is necessary to deduct two units from the former; this gives 75.1 as the Aran cephalic index. I find that the mean index of seven Aran skulls is 75.2, consequently the average head is to a very slight extent mesaticephalic, although the number measured is nearly evenly divided between mesaticephalic and dolichocephalic, The face is long and oval, with well-marked features, the eyes are rather small and close together, and marked at the outer corners by transverse wrinkles. The irises are in the great majority of cases blue or blue-grey in colour, The nose is sharp, narrow at the base, and slightly sinuous, The cheek bones are not prominent. In many men the length between the nose and the chin has the appearance of being decidedly great. The complexion is clear and ruddy, and but seldom freckled, On the whole the people are decidedly good-looking, The hair is brown in colour; in most cases of a lightish shade for your beard and accompanied by a light and often reddish beard. 

Eighty-nine per cent, of both men and women had blue or light-grey eyes; sixty-three per cent, had light brown hair, and about twenty-six per cent, had dark brown hair. According to the last census (1891) the total area of the three islands is 11,288 acres, with a population of 2,907, 1,542 being males and 1,365 being females, The gross rental is £2,085 10s. 6d, The north island, Aranmore, has 7,635 acres, 397 houses, 1,048 males, 948 females (total 1,996), and a rental, of £1,433 18s, 1d. The middle island, Inishmaan, has 2,252 acres, 84 houses, 240 males, 216 females (total 456), and a rental of £423 18s, 5d, The south island, Inisheer, has 1,400 acres, 81 houses, 254 males, 201 females (total 455), and a rental of £227 14s. From these statistics it will be seen that there is an average acreage of 20a, or. 13 1/2 p, to each house of five persons, and the corresponding rental is £3 14s. 2 1/2 d.

The density of the population is 171 to the square mile, that of Co, Galway is 87, and for the whole of Ireland 146. It should, however, be borne in mind that a large proportion of the land in the Aran Islands is incapable of cultivation.

Irish is spoken by 88.47 per cent, of the people, of whom 77.2 speak Irish only.

The inhabitants of one island do not, as a rule, intermarry with those of another, and but little fresh blood can have been introduced for generations. The people of each locality are more or less inter-related, even though marriages between those of close degrees of relationship may not be usual. This accounts for the general similarity in personal appearance which is observed among them, but no appreciable ill effect results from the in-breeding. The population seems on the whole to be an unusually healthy one.

The older writers give very pleasing accounts of the psychology of these people – \”brave, hardy, industrious, simple and innocent, but also thoughtful and intelligent, credulous, temperate, with a high sense of decency and propriety, honour and justice, communicative but not too loquacious, hospitable and honest.\” According to these authors there is scarcely a virtue which is lacking to the people; but one writer adds: \”I am afraid things are very much changed since those days.\”

All the men are land-owners to a greater or less extent; the holdings, or cannogarras, as they are termed, vary from about 11 to 14 acres, the supposition being that each cannogarra can feed a cow with her cal£ a horse and her foal, some sheep for their wool, and give sufficient potatoes to support one family. Most of the fields are very small in size, and are surrounded by walls composed of stones piled loosely on one another ;there are no gates or permanent gaps in the walls. A man usually owns a number of isolated fields scattered all over the island.

Only a fraction of the land is naturally fit for anything, and probably a considerable portion of the existing soil has been made by the natives bringing up sea-sand and sea-weed in baskets, on their own or on donkeys\’ backs, and strewing them on the naked rock after they have removed the loose stones. Clay scooped from the interstices of the rock may also be added. Farmyard manure is little used in the fields. Only spade labour is employed in the fields. Potatoes are grown in this artificial soil; after a few crops of these grass is sown, and later rye. The latter is cultivated for the straw, which is used for thatching; the rye-corn is not now employed for eating purposes. Sweet grass grows in the crevices of the rocks, and this forms, in addition to the meadows, the usual pasturage for the sheep.

The farm will usually keep a family in potatoes, milk, and wool. Flour and meal are imported from Galway along with tea and other foreign produce. For fuel the Aranites employ peat and cow dung; all the former is imported from Connemara. Kelp is made in considerable quantities.

The bulk of the men on the north island may be described as small farmers who do a little fishing. There are, besides, two or three weavers, tailors, and curragh builders. The butcher, baker, and other allied tradesmen are mainly related to the small population, which may fairly be termed foreign, such as the representatives of the Government and the spiritual and secular instructors.

A family usually consists of six or seven children. These go to school regularly, and are intelligent and make fair progress. They early help their parents in various ways. The girls marry early, seventeen is quite a common age. There is no courting, nor do the young people ever walk together.

The dress of both sexes is for the most part home-made, being largely composed of homespun, either uncoloured or of a speckled brown or blue grey, or bright red colour. The people appear not only to be warmly clad, but, as a rule, to be over-clothed. Both sexes wear sandals made of raw cowhide, the hair being outside. These \”pampooties,\” as they are called, are admirably adapted for climbing and running over the rocks and loose stones. Some of the men are now taking to wearing leather boots.

The houses of the better class consist of three rooms-a central kitchen, and a bedroom at each end; but many houses have only a single bedroom. The walls are built of irregular stones, and may be placed together with or without mortar. There are always two outside doors opposite one another in the kitchen. Very often there is a small pen by the side of the large fire-place for the pigs, which are very clean both in their bodies and habits. The kitchen floor may be the bare rock or clay, or it is very rarely boarded. The thatch is tied on with straw ropes.

Twenty years ago there was not a wheeled vehicle in the islands. Even now there are no roads worthy of the name in the Middle and South Islands, and till lately there were not many in Aranmore. Carts are still very rare, and the carrying is done by human porterage or by donkeys and horses. All the well-to-do men own a mare. A poor man will have only a donkey.

We were not able to collect much in the way of folk-lore. In common with a large part of Ireland, the Aranites believe in fairies, banshees, ghosts, the evil eye, etc. When a funeral is passing down the road the front door of a house is always closed. The corpse is carried out through the back door. Some days are considered unlucky upon which to begin any work of importance, to get married, or even to bury the dead. If they have occasion to bury a corpse on one of these days, they turn a sod on the grave the previous day, and by this means they think to avoid the misfortune attached to a burial on an unlucky day.

There are numerous sacred spots such as \”saints\’ beds,\” holy wells and rag-bushes at which cures can be effected and miraculous help afforded.

Amongst other survivals may be noted certain details in the costume, and especially the raw hide sandals. The curraghs are similar in general character to those common along the west coast, the single oars are pivoted on thole-pins. Stone anchors are still used, more frequently in the Middle and South Islands. Querns are not now used, but it is not long since they were employed. The spinning-wheel is similar to that used in various places along the West, but it differs from that employed in the North.

The antiquities of the Aran Islands have never been systematically described and published; and yet nowhere in the British Islands are there so many and so varied remains associated within a like limited area. The Islands may not inaptly be described as a unique museum of antiquities.

There are many places in Ireland which are as worthy of a careful study as the Aran Islands, and I hope that some of you readers will pay attention to this subject. I shall be very pleased to enter into correspondence with any that would like to study the ethnography, sociology, or folk-lore of their particular district. Letters addressed to the Royal College of Science, Stephen\’s Green, Dublin, will always find we.

Through the kindness of the Council of the Royal Irish Academy, I am able to reproduce one of the plates of the original paper, which was prepared from a photograph taken by myself.

PLATE 8. The figures referred to here are on a Yahoo Group files page – all named Aran Islands. If you chose to go to this link, then please use the Back icon on your browser to return you to this page.

Fig. I. Colman Flaherty, Thomas, aged about sixty years, Oghil.

Fig.2. Michael O\’Donnell, John, aged fifty-three.

N .B.- When there is more than one man of the same name in the Aran Islands the individuals are distinguished by the addition of their father\’s Christian name, as in the foregoing cases. Flaherty is a thirteenth child, and according to the tradition of the island should be a piper, but he cannot play the bagpipes; he is a very typical Aranite. O\’Donnell\’s ancestor came from Ulster. They are standing in front of St. Sournick\’s thorn.

Fig.3. Michael Mullin, aged 21 years, Kilronan. A typical Aranite.